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    Saturday, June 30, 2007

    Meeting interesting people

    Imagine if you spent your whole life being followed round by a mini-me, that insisted on doing whatever you were doing, back to you.

    It would drive me nuts, and thus I really pity this guy.

    His brother, meanwhile, doesn't have that issue. Interesting chap. We sat and had coffee for a while, and chatted about his homeland, where somewhat unusually, everyone except him is purple.

    Horse in Shibuya

    I've seen this horse a few times in Shibuya. It tends to frequent the mobile phone shops for some reason. I can't think why though - have you ever seen a horse using a mobile phone? I mean, how would they hold them? I guess they could stand up on their hind legs and clutch them between two hoofs. Or, they could have bluetooth headsets I spose, with voice dialing.

    Hmmm. Something to think about.

    Revision vs. Procrastination

    It's interesting how Mac culture is really starting to become mainstream, something which I would say has only really started to happen in the last couple of months. Take You Tube's new interface for example - the selection of videos offered at the end of any av story of a dog miming along to a Romanian folk song whilst slipping over on a banana skin is remarkably similar to the Mac OSX Dock. I see the BBC has no fear of embracing this copycat culture either - check out their DJ page - now what does that flash movie remind you of?! Did someone say the word 'coverflow'...?

    The unfortunate thing is, is that as Macs become more popular, so threats to their security will increase. It seems that Macs aren't necessarily safer, it's just that until now they haven't been targeted. This was demonstrated by the release of Safari for Windows earlier this month, which within hours was revealed as having numerous security holes. Was it simply that it became less secure when ported to Windows, that these flaws were Windows flaws? It would seem not. Rather, the consensus is that the tools to discover and exploit security loopholes on Macs are yet to be developed to the extent of those that exist for Windows systems. But who would want to hurt a Mac anyway? (strokey strokey)

    I'm a bit peed off with myself for being so excited by the iPhone, especially considering it's not even available on this continent and I won't be picking mine up until late 2008. And the fact that I dislike mobile phones.


    Oooohhh, but look, I can pinch my photos!!

    Let's hope that by the time it makes it to Japan it has at least a 3.2Mega pixel camera, and an expandable memory slot.

    I could do with one of them myself.

    Incidentally, have you seen the spoof of the Microsoft Surface computer thing? They've used the original Microsoft video, but dubbed over it. Rather amusing.

    And did you know, that in Japanese, "Dubbing" means "to copy a DVD". This really confused me when I was lent a DVD last week and told that I wouldn't be able to dub it. "Why would I want to do that?" I wondered. It was only when I copied it with Mac the Ripper that I realised that it had copy protection on it (thus dubbing must mean 'copy'). Of course I would never do that with commercial DVDs...

    Then there's the Bourne Ultimatum Trailer 2 which went live earlier today. I am far too excited about that film.

    And why all this excitement? Because I have exams next week, and a ridiculous amount of revision to do for them. It's at times like this that anything and everything not related to my studies becomes wildly exciting. And I attempt to make bread again (it's looking good this time, having risen into a beautiful plump monster).

    This is the kind of revision I'm doing. It's not all that hard, but does require that one actually looks at it in order to do it. Rather than websites etc.

    Crikey. I've just eaten a whole pack of American Double Choc Chip cookies. This is bad.

    Does anyone have a scanner to sell, or do they want to buy a Canon printer?

    Ok, ok, enough. Just do it.

    Friday, June 29, 2007

    Book recommendation

    I actually have a tonne of books I'd like to recommend - reading has truly set me free this year - but tonight I just want to pick one in particular, for the benefit of those studying Japanese.

    Boys and girls, Hoshi Shinichi (the kanji are 'star' 'new' 'one') is our hero. I'm surprised I'd not heard of him before today. He wrote a tonne of short stories, many only 5 or 6 pages long, which most Japanese should have read (and therefore his books should be in virtually all 2nd hand book stores). Although his stories are read by high school students, they are not necessarily children's books. The language is pretty simple (i.e. it follows the grammatical patterns we have learned), and the length of the tales means that one can get through a whole story when making the 15 minute train ride home.

    Today I bought "Mirai no Isoppu" (Aesop's fables of the future). In this book, he has rewritten all of those classic stories we know and love and given them a modern twist.

    For example, in The Hare and the Tortoise, the hare is stopped by a police patrol car for speeding, because the tortoise bribed the policeman the night before (I think it was bribe, I'm yet to check the kanji).

    Another one I recommend is "Uchu no aisatsu" (Space meeting / or A meeting in Space), another collection of short stories. The short story that the book takes its title from is a real page-turner!

    Oh, and someone commented on the previous post that they thought I was drunk...? Nope, not one bit. Just retold as it happened this evening in Ikebukuro.

    "What country are you from?"

    When I answered, the old man behind the counter of the second-hand book store sprang into life, whipping out his gun and shooting me at point-blank range. I laughed, and told him that I loved James Bond too. I love him even more now that I know that he has succesfully taken Beckham out of the picture, and has assumed the role of Stereotypical British Male.

    The joy of iPhone

    Thursday, June 28, 2007

    A Year in Japan Podcast - (mini) Episode 10.5 out now!

    In the mini-episode 10.5 of the podcast that is for Japan-lovers what the iPhone is for MacAddicts, A Year in Japan, Joseph is inviting you to submit ideas and requests for the final episode of the current series of A Year in Japan, to be broadcast in a few weeks.

    Please send you ideas and requests to: joseph[at-mark]
    or leave a comment below.

    In the meantime, I'll try and survive my exams.

    Download Episode 10.5 now (a whole 6 minutes of requesting)

    Advanced Version (suitable for most computers and iPods etc.

    Basic MP3 version (suitable for wind-up gramaphones and other devices that refuse to play the advanced version).

    More listening options here

    Feedback welcome: joseph[at-mark] (mp3 messages / videos also ok)
    Skype: josephtame

    Fear of seperation

    Subconcious fear of seperation growing. The tell-tale sign is the dream of living in the relative isolation of Kleine Scheidegg, Switzerland. This morning's was the most vivid yet. This time though they had a Chinese zoo on the 4th floor of the Scheidegg hotel, which i don't recall from my two years there!

    Tuesday, June 26, 2007


    Er, thanks LH, i meant July 10th!

    On Hold

    Life is on hold until exams are dealt with, around 10th June.

    Sunday, June 24, 2007

    Language Learners: What's you benchmark?

    When learning a language, I think it's really important that now and then, you look back on your language ability of say, 1 or 2 years beforehand, and compare it to the present. This gives you the opportunity to say "OH MY GOD! I'M AMAZING!", and give you a moral boost during those times when you feel you know nothing.

    In order to do this, I think it's a good idea to have a movie, a certain book, a song or something along those lines to use as a benchmark.

    In my case, it's a 6 minute story, as told by the actor / film producer / personality Ozawa Shoichi (I always get him mixed up with Ozawa Ichiro).

    It was about 3 years ago that I recorded this story about a cat that decides to change his life: fed up with the dried cat food that he gets at home he finds the nearby Yamada household, where they feed him Miso soup - as was the case in ancienty Japan. However, after 4 days of this diet, Blacky starts to think that maybe he's made a mistake...

    Click here to listen to the audio.

    I distinctly remember the first time I heard this story. I understood very little. Ok, so there was a cat (one could gather that from Ozawa's excellent cat impersonations alone), and it was a clearly a cat that was not happy with life. There was miso soup involved, and the Yamadas. But other than that, I was clueless.

    I recall playing it to my Japanese teacher in Sheffield last year, to see what she made of his accent - was it easy-to-understand Japanese? I think she said it wasn't all that easy, but as he was using proper, grammatically correct Japanese it wasn't all that bad. I still didn't understand it all, although I had gathered the main jist of the tale, that being that Blacky was unhappy with his diet and went in search of another place to eat, and then finally returned home again.

    Last night I attended an event hosted by a chap whose Japanese I do find a bit tricky to understand. He speaks pretty fast, and often covers his mouth with his hand as he rests his chin. The first time I heard him speak was last October; at that time I couldn't catch much at all.

    Last night however I sat there in glee as he raced through a blurble of Japanese. Whenever a sentence came to an end I'd smile at having understood it. It was interesting to see how my brain was working to get the meaning out of the sounds. It seemed to be a case of putting aside careful analysis of each word, and instead letting it all wash over me, and leaving it to my subconscious to feel the meaning (would that be my subconscious mind, or my conscious mind not really thinking?!). For example, I'd ignore the fact that a verb was in causative-passive form, and simply grab hold of the core meaning of the verb and wait for any twists to emerge through context.

    Anyway, thinking about this this morning, I remembered my Cat track, and decided to give it another spin.

    Wow. What a difference a year or two makes! There's very little I don't understand now. OK, so of course there's words in there I don't know, but context fills me in where necessary.

    I'd encourage anyone learning a language to find a benchmark text/audio extract/film. (I was wondering though whether films are all that effective. The thing is, if one has seen a film, looking back one wouldn't really be able to clearly distinguish between that knowledge gained through images and that gained through you knowledge of the language. Also, one wouldn't be able to use any film that one has seen with subtitles, as then one doesn't really have to figure much out for oneself when watching it a second time.

    The tomatoes are really coming on now. We have countless flowers, oh, and the peas are looking very groovy too. Then there's the aubergines - the flowers have cast off their petals, and the bulbous buds of promise are slowly emerging.

    It's been baking hot here lately, with little rain, despite it being the rainy season. Yesterday I took a couple of shots down the railway line, as you do - looking at them now I found it fascinating how the heat has turned the background into a watercolour - no Photoshop filter required!

    I just got an email from an old classmate from Sheffield - I've not seen him since 2005 when he made the decision to pursue his Japanese studies outside of the university system. Turns out he's in Tokyo today, I'd love to see him! Now, if only he'd get out of that subway tunnel then I'd be able to get in touch with him!


    Little Pink Hat: An afternoon in Shibuya

    Shibuya, Central Tokyo. The Hachiko Crossing. A Saturday afternoon.

    Little Pink Hat instantly caught my eye, outshining all the fake tan and bleached mops. She was riding high. Way above the southbound crowd that was taken up with negotiating a path through the onslaught of fresh arrivals.

    What would it be like to be that child I wondered. Given the chance, would I go back?

    I don't think so. I'm happy with all that has gone before, all that is now, and all that is to come.

    But who's this? So calm and peaceful, sitting there with one ear flopped, the other cocked, listening out for his master's call?

    Take a step back and you see the whole picture - it's Hachiko, one of the most photographed landmarks in all of Japan.

    As kindly demonstrated here for us.

    Amongst the hoards of plastic-nailed girls with their skirts that only came down as far as their shoulders I spotted a few characters. Here's one of them. Mr. Stoop, the Stooped Old Man.

    Meet the camera crew; permanent residents

    And the crowds waiting to cross (as with all images, click for a close-up).

    It was both scary and fun walking round Shibuya with my camera. I tend to feel like I'm trespassing when I go there, especially on a Saturday. I feel out of place amongst the dark-skinned beauties, lacking the lashings of bright blue mascara and dyed hair, and troubled by the idea that maybe the meaning of life really is SHOPPING.

    I've now realised that the issue with the quality of my uploaded jpegs is actually connected with Preview, which I use (via Automator) to resize images for upload. Looks like I'll have to use Photoshop instead from now on. I've also noticed that my pictures lose a significant dose of colour when viewed in Firefox. The little Pink Hat was actually far pinker, as seen in my original viewed in Preview. If I view that same local copy in Firefox however, it comes out as seen above. Has anyone else come across this issue, and if they have, do they have any suggestions?

    It's been a fun day, and I got a lot of study done before my trip out as well.


    Oyasumi xxx

    Friday, June 22, 2007

    Exam in Progress

    I don't normally go in for republishing stuff I get by email, but I found these so funny I thought I'd make an exception...

    In the news

    Anyone is Herefordshire: I hear I'm in the Hereford Times this week. Anyone got a copy I can have a look at?

    Oh, hang on, there's that internet thing isn't there...

    ah, yes, here we are.

    I see the chose the photo in which I look the most idiotic.



    Thanks for the pic, Jo!

    Another reason to buy a Mac

    Night food

    Last night, on my way home from the Oxfam meeting, I decided to see how the D40x would deal with low-light conditions. All of my DSCs up until now have made a lousy job of trying to capture anything outside after dark. It's either been a case of blur, overexposure of the foreground due to the flash (only natural), or, in the case of the Sony T30, splotches appearing all over the photo. I never figured that one out.

    This image, your typical car-lights at night shot, has suffered terribly at the hands of the compression engine built into my Coppermine photo database over at (in fact I was so surprised at the lousy quality of images it produces I've just changed the settings so that it publishes them in their original form from now on). That aside, I was very happy with the camera's ability to deal with the scene. I used shutter priority /jpeg mode for this, selecting 30 seconds and letting it figure out the rest. At full resolution it looks great (in terms of exposure etc, not as an iconic image or anything like that!).

    Even without a bridge or tripod providing stability, it took some good quality shots of the (pretty dark) shotengai. Naturally, at such a high ISO there is a bit of noise, although I think there's a noise-reduction system built in, which I have yet to use. Must check that out.

    It's also pretty good with freezing action, as seen in this photo (although once again, the picture has suffered from jpeg-compression - the original is much clearer). With the Star Festival approaching, lots of streamers have been put up along the roadside; yesterday there was quite a breeze, bringing these tassles to life.

    I've been looking at some professionals' websites Blow my socks off. Way out of my league, for the time being. I know that I currently lack the skill and courage to be a great photographer, but I do have the passion, and I believe that that is the most important thing. The skill and the courage can be worked upon. The way things are going at present it looks like I won't have to get a proper full-time job when I return to Tokyo next year, thus I can concentrate on my passions, such as photography, websites and charity work. And Macs, whilst working sort of part time, or at least in a job that does not suck me of my energy.

    I really want to live somewhere with a garden too. Were making do with a little tub of soil this year. Check out my tomato plants (this is what they looked like 8 weeks ago)! There's some real tomatoes appearing too! Very exciting :-)

    This week I took delivery of The New Optimum Nutrition Bible by Patrick Holford. Wow. It's a very good read, and really makes you realise just how much our diets and environment have changed in the last two centuries, following thousands of years of relative stability. Is it any wonder that cancer rates are soaring? That millions of people are affected by an increasing number of allergies?

    I would throughly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in being healthy. The cynics regard it as a thinly disguised marketing tool to promote his own range of multivitamins, but whether or not that is the case, the information it contains (the majority of which is backed up by scientific evidence) serves as a genuine wake-up call to anyone with health problems. One can choose to ignore any advertising if that's what you perceive it to be.

    I personally can vouch for what he says when he talks about the huge difference to one's health that a good diet can make. Thanks to my decision to up my intake of B vitamins (accompanied by a good multivitamin), I have now been able to lower my dose of Epilim to 300mg (from 700mg), with no seizures! In over 13 years of being epileptic, I have never been able to get it that low. It's now 200mg below the threshold at which the drug is supposed to have any effect ...I shall be continuing with my trial.

    Cynics may say you would say that, but put yourself in my position for a moment: If you were able to more or less cut out a synthetic drug from your daily diet, something that you'd had to take everyday, knowing that it's not doing your body any good, and replace it with something completely organic (such as a vitamin complex) that your body actually welcomes, wouldn't you want to tell everyone?! Incidentally, I realised last night that my gums have stopped bleeding (always obvious when I brushed my teeth). The dentist had advised me that I just needed to brush my gums more (inadequate plaque removal is one of the causes, but not in my case). However, a few weeks of sticking to a proper nutritional diet has sorted it out, and a bit of research shows that a vitamin deficiency is also a known cause.

    Our bodies really are incredible. We are incredible in that we continue to stuff all these processed foods into them and think it's not doing us any harm! What gets me though, in a kind of I really can't believe they do this type way, is smokers. I mean, intentionally inhaling so many toxic chemicals on a regular basis? It's understandable in Japan where the suicide rate is so high in any case, but in happy countries (e.g. the UK, which comes out as twice as happy as Japan in international surveys)...? I suppose it's a case of either ignorance or one's attitude towards life, or a combination of the two. If one isn't particularly happy then why would one want to live a longer, healthier life? "Live fast die young" and all that. Personally I'd rather live fast and fun and die old, whilst doing something like riding in a silent glider over an Africa that knows no poverty or hunger, in a cool sky (I can dream).

    Another interesting thing covered in this book is the power of synergy, that is, different vitamins and minerals working together to produce a result that is greater than the sum of the parts. It essentially reiterates the kind of thing that can be found here.

    Take folic acid as an example, something which all pre-pregant and pregnant women are advised to take. Why are they advised to take it? To lower the level of the toxic protein Homocysteine in the blood, which has been connected with depression, caridovascular disease, Alzheimer's disease, miscarriage and of course birth defects.

    A scientific study conducted here in Japan found that a group of women who took folic acid alone saw a drop in their Homocysteine levels of 17.3%, but those who were given a combination of Folic Acid and Vitamin B12 saw a 57.4% reduction.

    That's quite a significant difference (and something we'll certainly bear in mind when we decide to make babies). Just goes to show that the idea that you can just isolate a single nutrient and expect your body to benefit enormously from it in its isolated form is a bit daft.

    If one was to take all of Patrick Holford's recommendations on board though I think one would end up munching on raw grass all day whilst taking the odd multivitamin, so I won't be following his advice word for word. None the less, it certainly makes you look at the crap you see in the convenience stores in a new (even harsher) light. Did I mention that Japan has legalised over 300 man-made chemicals for "safe" inclusion in foods (for the purpose of preservation and looks etc), one of the highest rates of any industrialised nation? And they wonder why cancer is such a problem over here! They should all move to Okinawa. All 126 million of them. I'm not sure my classmate Jason would be too happy though. He seems to like the peace and quiet down there.

    I say, scrap the chemicals and start selling apples that cost less that 150 yen (70 pence) each.

    Anyway, homework to do. tarra.

    Sunday, June 17, 2007

    Life on the 17th floor

    This evening's entry opens with two photos: "Tweety Birds", and "Bicycle girl"

    This evening *Twinkle* and I attended the grand house-warming party of my dear friend Stu and his lovely wife Mariko. Wow. What a place. What a location. 17 floors up on the banks of the Ara Kawa (it is the Ara Kawa isn't it?). Incredible views, including Fuji san, the skyscrapers of Shinjuku and the mountains beyond, the fireworks of Disneyland, and Tokyo Tower. Just stunning.

    *Twinkle* in the park

    An attempt to not pose goes badly wrong.

    And what a lovely crowd was there too. There were a few people we knew from the hanami in Shinjuku Gyouen a couple of months back, but a lot of new faces too. Great to get to know folks, although that woman who constantly took the mickey out of my gaijin-Japanese was sailing close to the wind at times, what with it being the 17th floor and all.

    Don't look down!

    cheeky girl

    The food was absolutely fantastic, really delicious - although with Stu being a chef what else would one expect? My 10-minute chocolate banana cake went down well too, I even had two people ask me for the recipe!

    Stu san on his balcony

    And my camera ...oh, I just love it. I took photos today I would never have been able to take with my old Sony T30. That zoom lens is something else. I could clearly make out the volcano at Disneyland, Sunshine City in Ikebukuro, the DoCoMo biru in Shinjuku. And check out the sunsets too - these have not been photoshopped in the slightest.

    Sunset over Ikebukuro

    Sunset over Kanto

    Me, speaking with a new Swiss aquaintance. Nice chap.

    Tokyo Tower shines bright above the skyscrapers

    Stu and Mariko get jiggy wid it!

    Thank you both for a great evening - look forward to seeing you soon on the 17th floor!

    Friday, June 15, 2007

    More Photos

    I took a scenic route to uni today , via the park.

    It was there that I found some lovely lilies.

    and a little boy, holding onto his hat as he chased a runaway kite.

    Leaving the park, I passed by our local pachinko parlour (slot-machine arcade), and finally captured on digital film their happy message to the world that shines out brightly just above the front door.

    This is of course a quote - the lack of misspellings or grammatical errors giving the game away. They did, however, miss off the last line, which I think I shall paint onto the shop front one night when no-one's around.

    “Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness blow the rest away.” - George Elliot

    Finally, I arrived at Uni. The main hall always makes for a nice photo. I like the way the right hand turret has been left half-demolished, a result of the Second World War. I also like the contrast between this Meiji-era building, and the huge skyscraper just down the road, complete with its rather groovy helipad.


    Thursday, June 14, 2007

    Nikon D40X SLR Camera

    Today was an exciting day for me, as I realised one of my long-held dreams: to own a digital SLR. Whilst the dream may have superficially concerned ownership, it did / does of course go way beyond that. It's the possibilities that owning a digital SLR open up. I really have missed having control over the photos I take. It' been a case of point-and-shoot for far too long now, hoping that the technology will see the scene as my eyes see it.

    In particular, I have missed having the power of a zoom lens. I used to love my old Nikon zoom lens. The power to focus on something in the distance and bring it close to you. To see beauty and happiness a long way off, and invite it in to your immediate reality.

    This was the joy that I experienced once again today, after a 6 year break. I purchased the Nikon D40X Double lens kit (18mm-55mm, 55mm-200mm), 5GB worth of SD cards, a soft case, 3 filters, screen protector and a spare battery. Oh, and I managed to get an English manual too. Those folks at Yodobashi really are great, so helpful. I was also grateful for the 10% discount (in the form of points which I was able to use for a 5-year warranty, spare battery and the most incredible travel-plug you have ever seen. It'll do every country in the world, yet is absolutely tiny!).

    The first ever photo I took with my new camera, a HUGE great toad, looking a little the worse for wear.

    Despite the fact that the Nikon D40X is only a so-called 'entry level' SLR, I am absolutely delighted with it. I am very impressed with its ability to deal with low-light conditions, with its anti-blur motor (built into the zoom lens), its logical menu system, its good looks and the very nice feel of the buttons. Really satisfying clicks too! Yes, and that zoom is something else. I recall wasting countless shots with my old 35mm SLR due to low light conditions and the lack of a steady hand when focusing on subjects a long way off. I've had none of that today.

    That rather bizarre religious building near the Russian Embassy

    Another feature is the incredibly high-speed USB port - double that of its rival, the Canon EOS / Kiss. This is a blessing: the JPEGs are about 4mb each, whilst the RAW files often amount to over 10MB (I'm not actually shooting in RAW though. Give me a new Mac with more memory, a faster processor and larger hard drive and I'll consider it!).

    lunchtime in the park

    I only have one criticism of the Canon D40X: It lacks any physical feature aimed at avoiding the accumulation of dust on the sensor. Many SLR models these days feature anti-static filters and sensors that physically shake the dust off, but the D40X relies on post-shot software. The way it works is you take a photo of a white surface, which it then scans for any dark spots caused by dust. Then, when you download your shots onto your computer, it puts the images through a clean-up process that makes appropriate adjustments to the images to remove any dark spots that may appear, based on that information it gathered from the test shot.

    Salarymen, looking out over Shinjuku South

    Of course, one can manually clean the innards of the camera, but this is not generally recommended.

    I have had that problem of dust on the sensor in the past - its an issue that can affect any digital camera, although it's far more likely to affect those that have removable lenses. Two of my Sony Cybershots developed symptoms of dust on the sensor, although until today (having ow seen an example of what it does to photos on the Nikon website) I wasn't aware that that's what the problem was.

    Still, other than this minor point, which I don't feel is important enough to put one off choosing this model, I think it's an excellent camera.

    It's just a shame that I was unable to get out to any photogenic areas today. The camera- buying and Russian-visa-applying took up a lot of my time, thus leaving me with dead toads and salarymen!

    There's always tomorrow.


    Wow, I certainly know how to waste time.

    I accidentally stumbled across a built-in function of my Mac, that being that it can tell a digital camera (such as my D40X) to take a photo, provided its USB cable is connected. It's a bit weird really, clicking the mouse and seeing the lens do its thing, flash firing and all.

    Anyway, I then started thinking how I might put this to misuse, and cam up with the idea of somehow turning it into a webcam.

    It's taken me an hour to figure it out, but it's all done how. I've finished creating my script. I'm quite pleased by it as it does everything by itself, automatically - it goes like this:

    1. Mac tells Nikon SLR to take photo.
    2. Mac downloads photo off Nikon and deletes original.
    3. Mac renames the photo "webcam1.jpg"
    4. Mac tells FTP program to upload to internet freshly taken "webcam1.jpg", replacing any previous version.
    5. Simple webpage on TameGoesWild server has been set to self-refresh every sixty seconds. When it does, it loads with the new photo.
    6. Mac deletes existing "webcam1.jpg" from hard drive in preperation for next photo.
    7. Thirty second pause, then process repeats. Until camera battery dies.

    So what could this be used for then? Security camera? I could use it next year so *Twinkle*can watch me sleep...! Or I could point it at the tomatoes and keep an eye on their growth via my mobile phone when at uni.

    Of course, it doesn't really have much use at all, but I just love having succeeded in creating some kind of Heath Robinson webcam out of my Nikon SLR and Mac!

    Wednesday, June 13, 2007

    Seeing double. Seeing double.

    A note about this morning's post: yes, I know it appears twice! When publishing there was an error with the database, thus I published again, only to find tonight that it's appeared twice! I then deleted the first entry, but despite the fact that it's gone from my list of posts in Blogger, it's still appearing online! Nevermind.

    Shari, thanks for your comment. I did publish it, but it seems to have got lost in the confusion.

    I would invest in a second DVD drive were I to remain in Japan, but as I'll be leaving pretty soon I don't really want to acquire any more gadgets! To be honest, it's extremely rare that I do have a non-region 2 disk (Japan being the same as Europe) - I was careless when buying this one, assuming that as it was a BBC release it would work fine for me. I went back and checked on Amazon, and sure enough, it clearly states that it's region 1!

    Following this morning's emails I've had an invitation from a newspaper in Sheffield (with a circulation of about 23,000) to publish my Trans-Siberian stories via their blogging platform. They'll publish an article about my trip prior to my leaving Japan to publicise it. Unfortunately I won't get paid for it - let's hope Google Adwords comes up trumps! It'll be nice to have a wider audience though, should encourage me to put a bit more effort into my posts!

    This has also prompted me to buy a digital SLR camera, something that I have been wanting ever since they first came onto the market many many moons ago, and thinking about buying all this year. You may recall me getting all excited about the Sony (Alpha) A100 last year, although my current research into entry-level SLRs has persuaded me that this is not the way to go after all. For one thing, it's very bulky. Instead, I'm going for the D40X, a relatively new model which does well in the reviews.

    I used to have a Nikon SLR; it was a beauty. My first ever proper camera I think (after the Olympus OM10 dad dropped in the sea). I then went on to the Canon EOS300, but the cost of processing 35mm films combined with my first ever trip to Yodobashi Camera persuaded me to enter the digital age.

    Since then (2001?) I have really missed using an SLR. Sony DSCs are all very well and good, but you just don't have the sense that you're taking a photograph when you use them! I love photography, and I long to get back into it. It makes me very happy.

    Somehow, having an SLR gives one an excuse to take photos where otherwise people might think you were a bit odd. "Oh, he mast be an artist. He's got a big lens..." The drawback is that you can't take unscrupulous shots of salarymen sleeping with their legs up the train walls, but I'll live with that if it means I can get some better shots at taking REAL photos.

    I've taken the first step towards buying the beauty - purchased 2 x 2GB SD memory cards on Amazon. Have you seen the price of flash memory recently?!! I was shocked! You can get a gigabyte for £6 now! I remember the days when that would cost you about £500!

    My thanks to B for an enlightening, thought-provoking few hours tonight. It was a delight to wander from place to place: a park, a department-store roof-top, a lively entertainment district, a nice cafe; all whilst discussing the things I've been going through lately. Very therapeutic.

    Well, I'll be off now.

    Till next time, tarra.

    Till next time, tarra.

    Live painting, sponsorship and region restrictions

    Thank you Tom for inviting me out last night to the club whose name I forget. This arty nights the name of which I also forget, are fantastic. Last night, in addition to live drawing by Chantel, a very talented artist whose hand and pencil movements are projected onto three walls of the club courtesy of a camera-equipped OHP thing, there was a fantastic Live Painting session.

    It was a lot more exciting than watching paint dry, and the entire thing was accompanied by the most groovy, crazy jazz you've every heard. It was absolutely filled with passion - there were times when you weren't sure whether the whole world was descending into chaos, when what you thought was feedback suddenly arose from nowhere, shaking the walls, before turning into a regular beat that formed the basis of a euphoric rise into song. The musicians were in an absolute frenzy, sweat dripping from their brows as the artists filled their blank canvas with lines. The central semi-circle, seen below, was not just a blank space. This was actually a projection of half of a camera-equipped potter's wheel. The patterns he made with the clay brought a dynamism to the wall, a focal point for all brush strokes.

    I'm now seeking sponsorship for my trip home. If anyone has any experience of gaining commercial sponsorship for a journey, an event etc, I would be delighted to hear from them. I've fired off a few emails to some UK-based agencies, and will make some calls in tonight - but any tips would be appreciated.

    Finally, before I head off to uni, a note about Region restrictions on DVDs.

    RAAAAAAAAA. This has never been an issue for me before, but I've found that this edition of "Geldof in Africa" just won't let me get around it. Even VLC (which ignores region restrictions), Mac the Ripper and Handbrake (which remove them) couldn't handle it leading me to think that Apple really do play by the rules here, and have put something in the firmware that really does prevent circumvention ...forcing me, reluctantly, to change the region of my Mac's DVD drive. Drastic action I know, and something I won't be doing again once I switch back.

    Ho hum. Time for uni.

    Growth. A terrifying thing.

    Wow, this are tumultuous times.

    This process of coming to realise what power I have over the direction in which my life is leading is positively terrifying. I find myself in a constant state of butterfly-stomach. My mind won't cease from turning over a myriad of ideas, many of which require my stepping out of my comfort zone should I choose to put them into practice. Should I choose to put them into practice.
    There's three cats sitting on a wall.

    Two of them decide to jump off

    How many cats are left sitting on the wall.


    No, three.

    It's a long way from deciding to jump off the wall to actually jumping off.

    It was late the other night, when, inspired by either a book I was reading or an email from a friend, I forget which, I decided that I was going to do something I've talked about doing for a long time - sell some of my better photos. This immediately prompted me to get out of bed, add another domain name to my long list of middle-of-the-night domain names that sit pointing at TGW, longing to be put to better use, and install a couple of databases on a server that has (like the domain names) been sitting all by itself in some warehouse in the USA, seldom visited by anything but robots.

    Yesterday I spent much of the day playing around with templates, and reached the stage where it actually looks like a proper website. Now I just have to figure out how to integrate Paypal.

    Yesterday, i met an old friend, Yuko, who I used to work with in Switzerland. We'd not seen each other for four years. What a joy it was! She is an incredible inspiration, and an absolute joy to be around. So genki! She also has the ability to put people at ease in seconds. I found her lack of polite Japanese when we first met very refreshing; it immediately put me at ease. We found a quiet Japanese restaurant where the beer was half price ...I skipped classes for the rest of the day.

    Twinkle returned from Chicago last night. I was looking forward to seeing her, but also bracing myself for a shock. I knew that the person I was going to meet would be a little different from that person who boarded the plane last week. She'd attended a business convention with 1000 other Japanese people (three plane loads - when the immigration officer asked her how many other were in her group he nearly fell off his chair!). By all accounts it was an incredible weekend, essentially focusing on self-development.

    I was right. The person I met at Ikebukuro was absolutely buzzing, ready to tackle anything in life. Her world had expanded immensely, and her fears of stepping beyond her boundaries whilst still there, were not going to stop her from achieving whatever she wanted to achieve.

    I knew that this would leave me feeling vulnerable and challenged. Read any self-development book (such as Susan Jeffers' Feel the Fear...) and you will hear tales of partners reacting with hostility to the new stronger person that is seen emerging before them. "You don't care about me any more." "You're not the person I met 2 years ago." "Why can't you think about me for a change?"

    I knew all of these lines, and I was aware that I too may start to feel like that, and use some of them myself. My known universe was going to be intruded upon by ideas from someone who had seen a bigger picture and was not restricted in their actions as I was in mine by my fear complex. I was to be confronted by someone who was not bound by the chains that I reamained bound by. Seeing that power in my partner, my equal, was to be a terrifying experience.

    Of course, expecting such a reaction within myself, it was only natural that that's exactly the reaction I had! I saw myself behaving irrationally, I knew why I was doing so, and I knew that I could choose to stop feeling like that should I want to. Angry with myself, I went to bed as quickly as possible, and put the new Bjork album on repeat play.

    It took several hours to work through all this. I am blessed in that my partner appreciates the importance of communication, and also by the fact that she speaks English!! It was 4.15am by the time we said night night. There had been many tears as shared our hopes and fears, and reaffirmed just how important we were to one another.

    Growth is both a terrifically exciting, yet terrifying thing. There are the odd occasions when I feel that it would be nice to just be content with myself as I am - wouldn't life be easier! - but if I am to make the kind of difference in this world that I would like to make, then growth is the only option. I'm glad I have someone to simultaneously hold my hand and kick me up the arse as I face my fears.

    As they say in Japan, Ganbarou!

    Sunday, June 10, 2007

    I love her

    It's very late, and I'm very tired, but I just want to write a little about my cutey who is currently in the US.

    They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that you only miss something when it's not there - there is some truth in both.

    Without wishing to dismiss the value of my previous relationships - all of which have meant a great deal to me, and all of which I remain incredibly appreciative of - (...I'm pretty sure none of my ex's check the Mumble, although I could be wrong!), it was not until I met *Twinkle* that I actually felt that I could be happy being with someone for the rest of my life. She really is my 'dream girlfriend', ticking every box of the list I had lurking in the back of my mind for a few years. There were no fears that I wanted to be with this person for superficial reasons connected with sex, image, nationality, or to satisfy a temporary feeling of neediness (all of which have been motives behind previous relationships). Our relationship did not develop out of guilt either (indeed, when we met I went to considerably lengths to ensure that were we to get together, guilt could not even be considered as a factor. This made for a very interesting courtship, if I may be allowed to borrow such a term from my parent's vocabulary!).

    I am very much looking forward to her becoming my 'dream wife' too, and having children with her, and constantly pushing our boundaries together. She is not one to be content to let life dictate her routine. She is out there, incredibly enthusiastic and determined. In fact, I have as much (if not more) faith in her ability to succeed in anything she pursues as (than) I do in my own!

    She is my absolute ideal partner, for so many reasons. She is not merely supporting me in my quest to learn and move beyond my comfort zone, but is actively pushing me into unchartered territory which is seeing me combating issues I was never aware I had. The gift of growth is a precious one.

    I believe there was a very powerful force behind our meeting - she foresaw it, indeed it was a factor in her deciding to come to Sheffield (although of course she didn't know me then).

    She fits perfectly into that image of the woman that I always wanted to be with. Funny that. One might almost say that it was only to be expected...

    This year has been incredible for the two of us. I think it will be very tough next year to be so far apart for so long, but I am trying to put a positive spin on things. It's the first time I've felt absolutely confident in my ability to maintain a relationship over 10,000km for a year.

    I hesitate to say "I don't know what I'd do without her", because I know that that kind of dependence is not a healthy thing (although this does not stop me thinking this at times). True love for one another sees you setting your partner free, it does not result in binding one another to systems of dependency.

    ...She even gets my dad's sense of humour, a sign enough in itself!


    Friday, June 08, 2007

    A day of knowledge absorbtion and reflection

    It's been another good day today. Summer is really on its way now; this afternoon was the first time this year that I've got off the train and felt like I was being 'hit' by the heat.

    Yesterday's bread turned out to be quite a success, although it was only when I reached the end of the recipe and was about to start my kneading that I noticed it said "makes 2 loaves". I guess it's bread for me for the next few days then. I look forward to making many more loaves in the future.

    Amongst the things I learnt today:

    • During the 2nd World War, an average of 3 bombs per square metre of land were dropped on Tokyo.
    • During the 2nd oil shock in the 1970s, a rumour spread that toilet paper in Japan would soon be hard to come by as the amount of energy used in its production was such that the mills would have to close. This prompted a rush to buy toilet paper. A rule was introduced whereby people could only buy one packet of toilet paper per person per day. When the paper mills never did close, people (such as my teacher) were left with huge mountains of toilet paper in their little houses, which took years to get through.
    • Quantum physics is difficult to understand. Having heard a fair few mentions of it lately I decided to try and educate myself tonight. Crikey oh riley, I think I'll stick to "Bi Angil ulsaas irsen" which means "I'm from England", in Mongolian. The Russian and Chinese phrasebooks are yet to arrive.
    • Siberia is bigger that the United States (including Alaska) and western Europe combined.
    • Lake Baikal is the deepest and oldest of all inland waters.
    • The basins of three of the world's greatest rivers - the Ob, Yenisei, Lena - which run through Siberia, are each bigger than western Europe.

    The most valuable lessons I learnt today did not come in the form of one-line 'facts'. They concern my way of thinking, in particular adjustments I need to make. Until last year, I had, just like most people, occasionally bad-mouthed people. You know, complained about my boss, about the boring tutor, the guy with the smelly feet on the train. I've been working on ridding myself of that habit, and am pretty happy with the results. I do still make slip ups. "Be Aware" is what I repeat to myself.

    Today, the idea was put to me that criticising politicians, governments, institutions was just as bad as criticising ordinary individuals. I struggled with this for some time. Surely, criticism is necessary in the case of governments etc, it keeps them on their toes and more inclined to act in our interests.

    Or does it?

    Perhaps rather then lead to positive outcomes, it leads to further tension. Perhaps by putting our energy into criticising their wrongs, rather than showing thanks for their rights, we are merely contributing to the problem? Perhaps if they came to realise that it feels much better to do good things and be thanked for them rather than do bad things and then have to defend those actions, they would voluntarily act in accordance with what is right.

    Of course, that's a very simplistic example, but I merely what to demonstrate the notion.

    I can think of a concrete example of this kind of thing.

    The other day I read a book produced by two charities. The book was essentially a report on the state of affairs in some of the world's poorest countries, and had many shameful stories of the West's careless abuse of the lives of others in far-off places. Reading this made me feel very bad and upset; you may recall I wrote about it here on The Daily Mumble - I needed to get it off my chest through sharing it.

    Around the same time, I read a different publication which told the exciting news of how hydrologists from one of those charities finally discovered a water source in the desert, a water source that will help safeguard the lives of thousands of people whose lives were threatened by dehydration and disease.

    The first of these two publications made me feel bad and angry. I shared that anger so that other people also thought, "oh, isn't that terrible..."

    The second of these made me feel so happy and excited about the achievements of those hydrologists that I immediately set about promoting the charity's work.

    Quite a difference.
    "I was once asked why I don't participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I'll be there.

    - Mother Teresa
    I shall make a strong effort to embrace this approach.

    In a bid to help me make this a part of my life, today I decided to stop reading the newspapers, as I have been doing nearly every day lately. I've already unsubscribed from the multiple news sites I used to receive hourly updates from: it's now limited to three headlines a day from what is possibly the most dull paper on Earth (The Japan Times) - a deliberate ply to stop myself wanting to read more.

    These past few days I've been mulling over an issue I currently have, that of lacking any framework within which to place the many issues, concerns and projects that I am devoting my attention to at present. It was only natural then that today I should receive an email from a friend who'd had a peek at TGW but knew nothing of my quandary , asking if I'd like to have a natter about it (one may be tempted to say "What a coincidence!" but I do not believe one would be right to do so - this is what the Law of Attraction is all about!).

    On a final note, there was one thing in particular that struck me today, apart from the fact that my hand is in essence nothing but energy, that being the notion that everything that we see around us started with a single thought. Now that may seem obvious, but if you think about it, really think about it, and then relate it to yourself, well, it's quite staggering.

    This is a tremendously exciting time to be alive.

    Now, you must excuse me. I am about to embrace the washing up.

    Thursday, June 07, 2007

    Epilepsy and Vitamins

    I've had a busy day today, involving penguins, experiments with making bread in a large saucepan (*Twinkle* knows how to do it, but being mid-way over the Atlantic she can't really help me out), and study. And buying Bjork's new album.

    Anyway, that's not what I'm here to tell you. What I'm here to tell you is far more important.

    As you know only too well, I have temporal lobe epilepsy, and have had since I was age 16. It's been controlled (to a great extent) by the daily intake of between 500mg and 2000mg of Epilim Chrono (I'm currently on 700mg daily).

    I have had two major seizures (the last one being in the Spring 2005 exam period) and thousands of minor seizures over the past 13 years. As those who take Epilim will know, one of the unfortunate side effects is that it can cause liver damage, and thus I am supposed to have a liver function test every now and then. I tend to ask for one of these whenever my blood is being taken for any other reason.

    Eight days ago, I wrote about the spate of seizures I'd been having following the Trailwalker event (link to that post). I couldn't think of any changes in my lifestyle that might have brought it on - except for the fact that I'd stopped taking my organic multi-vitamins. I vowed then to ensure that I didn't miss a single dose, and to see whether this effected my seizures.

    Well, I must say, the results have been absolutely remarkable. I have hesitated to write it here until now as I could have just been having a lucky couple of days - but now I have no doubts. Within 72 hours of starting back on my vitamins (a combination of vitamins / minerals / phytochemicals / additional Vitamin B complex), my seizures stopped.

    What impressed me even more was that the weekend saw me in Prime Seizure Mode - that is, a Friday night with no more than 15 minutes sleep (on the bus), Saturday concentrating in Japanese all day, and then after that a party with rather a lot of alcohol which went on until 3am! I was then up about 4 hours later for another full-on day, which only came to an end at about midnight after the journey back to Tokyo. If I was ever going to have a seizure, that would be the weekend to have one!

    Up until today, I had never heard anything about the possibility of using vitamins to help control epilepsy from anyone else. It was purely through looking back on my own experience that I came to think that there may be a connection - thus I am more than satisfied that this is no case of the placebo effect.

    Tonight though, it did occur to me that others may have found relief this way. A quick Google Search on Epilepsy and Vitamins revealed that yes indeed, they had. A lot of people. Why has this possibility never been mentioned to me before by any of the many specialists I have seen? Possibly because the sad truth is that Doctor's in the UK get virtually no training when it comes to vitamins & minerals - hard to believe, but true. They don't do "staying healthy", they're only trained to pick up the pieces when everything falls apart - something which I think they do a very good job of (except when it comes to epilepsy...!).

    This is, of course, great news for me. I loathe taking those purple tablets that work against my body's natural functions, and are possibly damaging my liver. They're also a pain in the arse when it comes to international travel / living abroad for long periods of time. Here I now have a safe alternative - in fact not only is it safe, it's organic too! Of course there's no guarantee that I can stop taking Epilim altogether, but I'm going to experiment with reducing my dosage as I have done in the past (that's how I got down to 700mg from 2000mg).

    13 years of epilepsy and no-one ever mentioned this possibility. Extraordinary.

    I guess it didn't help that my own attitude towards nutrition & supplements was not all that great. The thing with supplements is that it's very unusual to see any sudden change resulting from their intake - so how do you know if they're making a difference?! I appreciate now that this is flawed thinking, especially nowadays. After all, if you exercise for one day you are unlikely to see a direct result - but over time the difference made to your health can be remarkable.

    I have also always been somewhat suspicious of the synthetic vitamins on the shelves of Superdrug. I mean, how do you know what's in them? I learnt something else recently too (thanks to my sister):
    [A] primary difference between real full-spectrum whole-food vitamins and synthetic vitamins is that real vitamins contain the essential trace minerals necessary for the vitamins' synergistic operation. Synthetic vitamins contain no trace minerals and must utilize the body's own mineral reserves. Ingesting real vitamins does not require the body to deplete its own reserves of nutrients to replace any nutrients missing from the false vitamins.


    (Oh, something else I learnt the other day: vitamin C is actually white, but came to be thought of as yellow or orange due to the colour of the glue used to stick the supplements together!)

    It's only been in the past year, talking to my sister (a qualified nutritionist) and other friends who have studied nutrition for several years that I have started to appreciate just how important it really is.

    Whilst I would never recommend that anyone reduced their dosage of or stopped taking their prescription meds without consulting their doctor first, I would encourage others with epilepsy to at least try upping their intake of vitamins (B complex in particular), and see whether or not it helps.

    This is a tremendously exciting discovery for me, and I will of course keep you informed of the progress of the experiments I conduct upon myself!

    Flea Market for Oxfam Japan: this Saturday

    Just a reminder that we're holding our second in a series of "One Day Oxfam Shops" this Saturday, 12pm ~ 5pm, at Heaven's Door in Shimo Kitazawa, 10 mins from Shinjuku / Shibuya.

    As well as being a great place to pick up some super-dooper bargains, if you're leaving Japan soon and have anything in saleable condition but don't know what to do with it, bring it along between 12pm and 2pm and we'll sell it for you (and you can be happy to know that the proceeds will be going towards a great cause!)

    For more info see our website at

    A Rude Awakening

    This morning I wake up of my own accord - a nice change from *Twinkle*'s mobile doing the deed.

    My relaxed state of mind was to come to a abrupt halt when I checked the time on my iPod - 12.30pm!

    We'd overslept! Today of all days!

    Alarmed, I immediately woke *Twinkle* up,
    "It's 12.30pm, you've missed your plane!"
    It had departed 30 minutes earlier from Narita, two hours from home.

    I have never seen her move so quickly. Normally, she takes quite a while to wake up, but on hearing that she was straight out of the futon, banging her head on the loft ceiling.

    Whilst privately thinking that this was an absolute disaster, I tried to reassure her, don't worry, we'll call the airline and get you on the next flight.

    She was having none of it though. If she'd missed this flight, she'd have missed her connections... this was not good.

    Why hadn't her mobile woken us up? She switched it on ...and suddenly hit me with the worst swear words I have ever heard her use - a big shock as she rarely swears, and scolds me when I do.

    Somewhat confused, I guessed she was just blaming me for not setting the alarm. Until she thrust her mobile in my face - it said 7.30am.

    I checked my iPod again, it definitely said 12.30pm. What was going on here? Ah. Hang on. It also said 1st January 2000...

    I don't know what happened there. Must have reset itself. It was interesting though to see what happened in such a time of crisis. For a start, it revealed a side of *Twinkle* I'd not seen before! And fancy her thinking I was just playing a cruel joke... She later explained, when we were laughing about the whole incident, that my (forced) relaxed attitude made her think that I had just been pulling her leg.

    She's now safely on her way to the airport, departing for Chicago in a couple of hours.

    That wasn't the only assault on the senses today. I phoned the Russian Embassy.

    My god, if the embassy's idea of communication is an indication of national character, I wouldn't be at all surprised if we enter a new cold war!

    Wednesday, June 06, 2007

    Calls for a Chocolate Revolution!

    Fair Trade still has a long, long way to go in Japan. It's one of those areas, like supporting charities or human rights, that puts Japan to shame. It may have coin lockers and conveyor-belt car parks that are a decade ahead of anything we see in the West, but when it comes to issues such as those mentioned above it remains firmly in the mid-20th century.

    Recently, I've done a wee bit of work with Choco-Rev, a company set up to promote fair trade chocolate in Japan. It seeks to educate people about issues such as the horrendous conditions that child labourers have to endure in the cacao farms of West Africa, and the environmental cost of cocoa production.

    A Chocolate Revolution is indeed called for.

    Hey! Hey! Hey! It's time to party in Kobe

    [this post contains a load of photos that aren't necessarily related to the paragraphs that they are placed between. Such naughty photos!]

    Hoopla hoola hoo!

    Kobe mosaic

    Yes indeedy what an amazing thing this life thing is. Had a couple of excellent lessons tonight with three of my favourite students. I'll miss them when I leave!

    A superb example of Japanese city planning - new buildings are always sensitive to their surroundings...

    Incidentally, the school where I work is looking for a replacement for me, starting 21st August. The pay ain't bad at all, the hours are Mon and Tue 7pm to 9pm at Nihonbashi. Leave a comment of you're interested.

    Posing in front of Kobe's Flower Clock

    We had a superb weekend in Kobe with a big bunch of friends. One of the highlights was the party on Saturday night which saw about 20 of us crowded into a little hotel room (not quite sure whose!) until about 3am; I really enjoyed that (and the drinking of copious amounts of water first thing in the morning meant that when I woke up in the morning I wasn't in the least bit hung over, although that could have been because I was still a bit drunk...!).

    *Twinkle* and Miyuki play the nude

    What made the party extra-special was the fact that one of the folks in the merlang was the incredibly successful producer of Fuji TV's Hey! Hey! Hey! - one of the most well-known TV shows in Japan, presented by Downtown, who are possibly the most famous comedy duo on these islands. What a nice bloke! It was so good to get on first name terms with him (I reckon the alcohol helped!), and I look forward to the next time we meet. He was very kind; listened to me talk about some issues I have, and offered some precious advice. Ne. Very happy memories. It's at times like that that I'm glad that I'm a foreigner as it acts as a natural ice-breaker. Unlike the Japanese around me there is not so much pressure to conform to social norms and remain at a respectable distance etc. (That doesn't mean I make a point of being rude and treading on people's toes - I use my keigo when it's called for!) It makes me feel incredibly excited about the future. And the present.

    It's a hot day in Kobe: *Twinkle* and Miyuki attempt to shield themselves from the sun

    That hotel was the same place that we met Yamazaki Takumi earlier in the year (a very funny guy who also happens to be the author of bestsellers such as kikubari no tsubo, published by none other than Ayumu Takahashi's Sanctuary, whom we've also met, last year in Sheffield).

    Children in Kobe's Chinatown

    It was a pretty good weekend for my Japanese too; non-stop concentration from Saturday 7am to Sunday 11pm! Had a lovely time wondering round Kobe for a couple of hours, visited the Hanshin earthquake memorial park down by the port. Pretty moving stuff (over 6000 people lost their lives as a result of the 20 second quake and ensuing fires). Back at the hotel I chatted with friends who were in town when it occurred back in 1995 - sounded quite horrific, and yet demonstrated just how amazingly resourceful and community-orientated people in Japan are at times of severe crisis, even if they are a seemingly selfish bunch at other times (at least in Tokyo - have a look at reports based on the results of the Asian Barometer for more on that).

    A section of the port destroyed by the Great Hanshin earthquake

    *Twinkle* demonstrates the latest in Japanese coin lockers: they don't use keys as such, instead, you phone the locker using the number displayed, and it registers your phone number to a particular locker. When you want to get your bags out, you just phone it again and it unlocks!

    I really enjoyed getting the Shinkansen back to Tokyo. The bus journey there had taken us 9 hours, but by bullet train we made it in under 3. I really am staggered by the speed that thing travels. Oooh, and they have a new model coming out in a few weeks, looks damn sexy.

    our ride home

    Tuesday, June 05, 2007

    Climate Change: They're listening!

    A message from Avaaz:

    This week, the G8+5 summit could reach an agreement to take bold action on climate change. Governments are watching our petition--help it reach 333,333 signatures by clicking here:
    Take Action Now!

    Our campaign against global warming is on fire! World leaders meet at the G8+5 summit this week--and they're listening to us. Friday morning, we banged boxes of 265,000 names down on the top German negotiator's table in Berlin. Taken aback, he promised to bring our voice into the negotiations, and said he'd track how fast our petition grows. On Saturday, with another 10,000 signatures overnight, we marched at the head of the climate march in Rostock, with tens of thousands peacefully demanding urgent action. Now we're in touch with top officials from France, the UK and Brazil, all following our campaign as they decide on a strong stand.

    Let's turn the heat up even higher. Can you help us get to 333,333 voices for change--the biggest global climate petition ever--before the summit decision? One last push, together, to avert a planetary catastrophe. Take a moment and tell five friends to go to this page--

    The energy here in Germany is electric. Every few hours, new reports come in as governments manoeuvre. Amidst the politics, our campaign draws a clear line: a swift global agreement with binding emissions targets.

    When we met with Chancellor Angela Merkel's top representative who chairs the talks, he promised us Germany wouldn't compromise-- then on Sunday Merkel came through for us, the Brits followed suit, and now Brazil and China have joined the call for a global UN-led process. Bush has started to move but his proposals would be a step back, the US people and Congress are already way ahead of him.

    The summit leaders can tell a global movement is brewing. Our petition, this simple list of names from every corner of the globe, is a sign politicians can see and touch. These talks always come down to the wire-- so it's crucial for world leaders to know how much the global public wants them to stop the climate crisis.

    The summit opens Wednesday, ends Friday. This is crunch time. So just for a moment, put aside whatever you're doing and help us get to a third of a million signatures-- urge your friends and family to sign the petition here:

    We know leaders are watching. Let's make their jaws drop.

    With hope,

    Paul, Ben, Graziela, Iain, Hannah, Galit, Ricken and the whole Avaaz team

    PS: For more information about the G8 summit and the climate change negotiations, see here:

    And for more about Avaaz's work on climate change at the G8 see:

    Monday, June 04, 2007

    Steady George

    In 1997 I spent 3 months working as a 'counselor' at Camp Jened, a holiday camp for adults with mental and physical disabilities buried deep in the American outback about 3 hours north of New York City.

    One of my best friends that summer was 'Steady George', who tended to refer to me a 'great pork chop'. I remember sharing many laughs with him; he was a great inspiration to me then, and remains so to this day.

    George gets friendly with me

    I'm delighted to say that 10 years down the line we're still in touch. It seems he's been keeping himself mightily busy, and has recently featured in this magazine article, which tells the story of how he has overcome his cerebral palsy, in pursuit of his dream of becoming a sportsman. He has devoted his life to helping others with disabilities achieve their dreams, and by the looks of things has been mightily successful at doing so!

    Nice one mate.

    In the press (again)

    Thanks to Nigel and the person who kindly sent him the photo.

    The Trailwalkers in the Sheffield press!

    Read the online version here

    Saturday, June 02, 2007

    'The Secret'

    I'd like to write an entry to counteract the negative theme of my previous entry. This will involve trying to ignore the smell of what is either dried squid, or bad breath. It's hard to tell, I've been on this night bus for 7 hours now and the majority of my senses have shut down to ensure I survive the experience. I'm not a great fan of night buses as I can rarely sleep. The seats are designed for short people, and thus do not support long backs and necks as they should. Still, I did manage to drift off for about half an hour. Otherwise it's been a case of time killing: writing my blog, listening to my iPod.

    Sometime last year, or possibly earlier this year, a DVD called "The Secret" was released. The first I heard of it was in the form of an email from a Japanese friend pointing towards the 25-minute trailer on the internet. Having listened to / read quite a number of (audio)books on the theme of self-development this year, I was not put off by the somewhat ridiculous intro; I watched the whole thing and found it to be about the Law of Attraction, a central theme of many self-development books.

    I was impressed by the author's marketing ploy - calling it "The Secret", and having all guest speakers refer to it as "The Secret" - I think it was this title more than anything that got me interested.

    I thought to myself that it would be nice to watch the whole thing, or listen to the audiobook version, but I was reluctant to fork out a lot of money for it having recently spent quite a bit of an audiobook version of Feel The Fear and Do it Anyway, the classic by Susan Jeffers, and also a 2 hour version of Anthony Robbins' Awaken the Giant Within (only really useful as a reminder of the main points of the book once you've read that).

    When my usual sources of cheap audio came up with a blank, I set my search aside, and decided to think over how I would get hold of a copy. By this time I had decided that I definitely wanted it.

    It was a few days later when, unbeknownst to me, the law of attraction swung into action. The first that I got wind of it was when I was listening to my favouritest-ever podcast, This Week in Tech (TWiT, which is more rathole than tech!), and a mention was made by Leo Laporte of the audiobook company that he uses for his regular monthly listens. He also mentioned something about a discount for TWiT listeners; intrigued, I surfed on over to their site.

    Unfortunately, I couldn't find any form of TWiT discount, and The Secret was as expensive there as it was elsewhere. Oh! But hangon! What's this? Sign up for a monthly subscription and get 2 free downloads! And that's how I got my free copy of the 5-hour audiobook version of The Secret, which I have been listening to tonight (and incidentally, I then phoned that company's London office and cancelled my subscription!).

    I believe it was the Law of Attraction that brought that about. As was my meeting The Rambling Bureaucrats half way up a mountain 2 weeks ago. I'm also increasingly unlikely to agree with people when, on hearing my voice on the phone they say, "I was just thinking of you! What a coincidence!" It happened only yesterday in fact, when I sent a Skype message to someone who I have never contacted like that before - his response: "I was just about to try and call you!". That was no coincidence my friend!

    Listening to The Secret this morning (the sun is now shining in between the curtains as we near Osaka), and thinking about what Susan Jeffers had to say yesterday as I made the most fabulous curry rice I have made to date, one thing that strikes me is the need to remain positive, and loving. These are two areas where I have fallen down lately in the face of situations that have resulted in me opting to feel stressed. As *Twinkle* and I continue to become forever more familiar with one another, it is vital that we do not start to take one another for granted - bit this is something that I feel has occurred of late, with me being the perpetrator. It's not easy living in a one-room apartment (and a small one-room at that), with us both having wildly differing timetables that can create feelings of resentment. Sometimes I have chosen to deal with the stress by running away from it, rather than tackling the root cause - never a good thing. It's important that I continue to study and work on my attitude; whenever I do I am reminded by just how blessed I am that *Twinkle* came to England 2 years ago to find me.

    There's one result of this year's study that I am particularly pleased with, and that is my strengthening conviction that I will achieve whatever I want to achieve. I do believe that we will become wealthy enough for me to realise my awakening dreams of working in the charity sector and making a big difference to the lives of those who are less well off. I KNOW that I will acquire an iMac in 2008/2009 in order that I can expand upon the audio/visual work I'm doing now, something that gives me enormous pleasure. I am sure that we will live in the countryside in the future, and that our children will grow up eating homegrown organic vegees.

    (Speaking of which, we have our first flowers on the tomato and aubergine plants that I bought a few weeks back! Very exciting!)

    As I start to plan my journey back to the UK, I can't help but think what a tremendously valuable experience this year has been. I find it somewhat ironic that despite this being a "Year Abroad", i.e. I'm here due to the fact that I'm a Sheffield Uni exchange student, university has actually played a relatively minor role in my life these past 9 months. It got me the visa, and allowed me to live here for a year without working - the dream I had in 2003 came true! But of course it did. Why wouldn't it?

    The next thing I need to utilise the Law of Attraction for is new knees. They are not in good shape. Last night I suddenly became involved in an emergency mission to try and get a 2GB video from the UK to Japan in the space of 12 hours. Not an easy task when the Broadband is about as wide as the diameter of my little finger. This involved quite a lot of running for reasons I won't explain here, and ended up with me regressing to the state of Mr.Limpy. Whether this is a long-term problem or not I don't know.

    I have New knees. I have New knees. I have New knees.

    Hurrah! Bus is pulling into Osaka. Must be time for a nice bit of brekkie in our favourite organic restaurant (that opens very early), and some chocolate.


    Are Western lives worth more than African lives?

    The past few days gave seen me learning more about the situation in the Darfur region of Sudan, which is located to the bottom left of Egypt.

    Oxfam, the charity organisation that we have donated over £2000 pounds to, is working hard to bring clean water to over half a million displaced people. I read with delight that their brilliant hydrologists have just discovered another water source, which looks like it could hold enough reserves to keep the new community of refugees alive for some time. They are now working towards piping it to the camp to do away with the need for water tankers.

    Last night I attended a meeting during which we watched an NHK documentary about the Darfur crisis. It was deeply disturbing, and I am ashamed that I had not educated myself on the situation there before now.

    One thing in particular that struck me was the price of African lives compared to that of say, Americans or British.

    September 11 saw a few thousand people died in New York city.

    In the past 4 years, in addition to the 2 million people that have been displaced, over 200,000 have died as a result of the Darfur crisis - a number that continues to grow. We're talking about 197,000 more deaths than those on Sep 11th, and yet what kind of response have we seen?

    Certainly nothing like the response to Sep 11th the world trade centre attacks, which I still believe were carried out with the knowledge of the Pentagon. A "War on Terror" held in its name. Trillions of dollars spent on killing people, sovereign nations invaded, international laws trampled upon by the world's superpowers in their rushes to secure oil reserves.

    Darfur meanwhile has been pretty much ignored. At a key UN conference last year a mere two hours were given over to the discussion of Sudan - and most of this time was used to discuss economics, the genocide being dismissed as a minor regional conflict between warring clans.

    After seeing that documentary, i decided to educate myself further on the wider situation in Africa, and developing countries across the globe. I bought a copy of a fantastic book published by Oxfam International and Water Aid, "In the Public Interest: Health, Education and Water and Sanitation for All" (ISBN 978 085598 5691). This is a fantastic publication, providing the reader with an easy-to-understand explanation of the problems that the developing world is facing, with graphs and charts offering graphic demonstrations.

    The story is not a happy one. It shows just how appallingly we are treating these countries, countries whose modern-day problems have their roots in our colonial raping of their resources.

    The raping, however, goes on. Not just of the 12-year-old girls in Sudan, but of essential service providers in many developing countries. Healthcare is a prime example.

    - At least 75 countries do not have enough trained health workers to meet their needs.
    - Of these countries, 53 have fewer than half the trained health workers needed.
    - In ten countries, there are only enough health workers to cover 10% of the population.

    Why the shortfall? One prime factor is the West's poaching of trained doctors. For example, over a 9 year period, over half of all graduates of Ghana Medical School left the country - and went to the UK to work.

    (What won't help is that in Africa, 20% of health care workers are likely to die of Aids in the next few years_

    Western donor nations are now insisting that recipient nations use the private sector to meet their nation's health care needs. In some places this has resulted in a doubling of the number of deaths in childbirth as people simply cannot afford to pay.

    Unfair contracts drawn up by British, French and American private water utility companies have forced desperate countries into paying ludicrous prices for a basic human right - and then these companies have sued the countries, when governments have realised just how much they are being exploited.

    When the Western nations do donate, those donations often go towards "technical assistance". This means highly paid specialists from the donor nation. This does not mean physical help on the ground where it is so desperately needed.

    Let's take the worst offender, the USA, as an example.

    Q. What percentage of the USA's spending on Education in poor countries goes on "Technical assistance"?
    A. 100%

    Q. What about Health projects?
    A. 90%.

    Q. Water and sanitation?
    A. 83%.

    Absolutely disgusting.

    I'm feeling more and more that charity is going to feature heavily in my future life. In addition to donating large sums of money, I will help out physically as well. I'm thinking of going to Africa and getting some first-hand experience. I see this as being several years off, but it will happen.

    I've mentioned this before, but I keenly feel the connection between 'us' and 'them'. After all, wasn't it a Brit that started all this in the Congo? That's where the landgrab began. The pillaging, the misery. We in the developed world owe our modern day success to the millions whose lives we have destroyed, and continue to destroy, in the name of progress. It's only right that we do whatever we can to help alleviate their hardships.