Monday, February 23, 2009

A Short Tour

The snow fell like it meant business early last week, but just as quickly as it came, it left without saying a protracted goodbye. That's a good thing. I hate the sight of soot on snow.

With the sun out and temperatures above single digits (I'm thinking in Celsius), I ventured outside to take some pictures and have a look at what was going on near the station. Tamara asked me for a look at what has changed in Niigata and the station is a good place to start.

This is the back of the station, and it looks like a mess. There used to be a couple of huge parking lots but they've been torn up to build what appears to be a winding road that leads right up to the entrance. The two rectangular staircases encased in glass and a walkway are supposed to help increase foot traffic around the back of the station. The big magnet of course is the white building on the right.

Bic Camera opened a three-story superstore here last Friday. I went there on Sunday so the crowds were a bit smaller. They're having special one-day sales all this week; come buy a hi-def TV today! You need a bicycle? They've got 'em. Liquor? Yes, ma'am! Some people think it is Big Camera, but check the katakana, folks -- ビックカメラ.

All of this is happening on the east side of the station. Go through the east passage and it will look like this:

Brightly lit. White walls. Lots of glass. It'll remind you of the areas in Tokyo Station near the bullet train entrances.

So, what's happening on the west side of the station? Well, it's gonna be death for Yodobashi Camera. Everybody will be visiting the new superstore so business is gonna die a slow death. I'm sure they've got exit strategies in place -- a new location, a new building and, wham, business is back.

Speaking of exits, here's what the west passageway looks like now:

Notice what's missing? Yeah, the homeless and their cardboard-box village are all gone. Liza-chan told me that when the Emperor came for a visit recently, the homeless people got "relocated." Also missing were the swallows that used to nest there:

Conspiracy? Here's a picture I took from 2003:

And you thought apartments in Tokyo were cramped.

About a 10-minute bicycle ride from the station is the new main library of Niigata City:

Looks kinda like the crown of a shimeji mushroom, doesn't it? The library is so popular that there is a wait to get into the parking lot. It is two floors with banks of computers, study rooms and -- most impressively -- three long shelves of books in English. If you've ever been to the Prefectural library in Toyano, you know just how impressive "three shelves" sound. Plus, the city library is brand new, so the building doesn't have that musty, radiator-steamed carpet smell.

Oh. Daiei is gone. Replaced by:

In addition to more clothing shops than you can count, LoveLa Bandai is also home to Kinokuniya, which used to be across the street. A reasonably-priced supermarket is in the basement. Notice Rainbow Tower on the left side of the picture. 450¥ will get you to the top.

Other sites on my tour:

The NST broadcast studio, on the banks of the Shinano River.

Bandai Bridge with Toki Messe (朱鷺メッセ) behind it. "Messe" is mess-ay, not a mess.

Yuki's hospital. If you ever get sick in Niigata, Yuki recommends that you not go there.


In other news...
*Now, you're probably thinking...he did a lot of walking that Sunday. Nope. I've reclaimed an unused bicycle from the construction field next to the apartment building:

The basket is falling apart and the back wheel likes to stay flat rather than inflated, but it beats walking. There's a Hokuetsu High School (北越高校) sticker on the back, so if anybody from that school is missing a bike, you come find me and reclaim what is rightfully yours. Until then, I will keep it in working condition, which is much better than what it was two weeks ago.

*Wanna see another vending machine?

Milk in glass bottles!!! Coffee milk too! Can't beat that.

*Liza told me that Niigata's female high school students wear the shortest skirts in all of Japan. When they go on school trips to Okinawa, administrators there take out rulers and there is much tsk-tsking as measurements are done in public. Congratulations, young ladies of Niigata! Nothing comes without determination.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

What's Special About Special?

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell wants to take The Beatles and Bill Gates down a few pegs. Of course he thinks we should consider them geniuses and they deserve our admiration. But what he wants us to rethink is the way we consider them as something beyond what is normally possible. To Gladwell, the quartet of John, Paul, George and Ringo is not a once-in-a-generation band; but the circumstances of their development -- ah, now that was special.

Our fallacy is we think of the success of The Beatles or Gates or any other extraordinary person or group as the result of great talent (or intelligence) and the focused application of that talent. What we don't take into account, and what Gladwell shows us over and over, is how extraordinarily fortunate these successful people tend to be. Have you heard about The Beatles' extended stay in Hamburg, where they played together almost every day, often eight hours a day? Well, how did you think they became so good? Did you know that in 1968, a teenage Bill Gates wrote code on a computer on a daily basis when most computer science professors at the time didn't even have access to a computer? And what did Gates end up doing?

Gladwell hammers home the point that circumstances can and often do count more than intelligence by comparing The Smartest Man in the World with J. Robert Oppenheimer. What's amazing in this tale of the tape is Chris Langan (The Smartest Man -- 190 IQ) couldn't last one year of college and ended up becoming a bouncer while Oppy once tried to kill his university adviser and ended up in charge of the Manhattan Project. Oppy's secret advantage was his upbringing; he came from a rich family and learned how to defend himself in front of authority figures -- very handy when you have to explain why you tried to poison your assigned mentor. Langan came from a fractured home and developed a distrust of authority, which Gladwell surmises led him to drop out of school once he had bad luck with financial aid and got stuck with unsympathetic teachers.

In the second half of the book, Gladwell deals with the influence of culture on success. He takes a chapter to explain about airplane crashes and why Korean culture contributed to all those accidents suffered by Korean Air. Gladwell is really good at showing how much nonsense common sense can be and in this chapter, there is this winner: Airlines have at least two pilots in the cockpit, the captain and the first officer. The guy with more experience is the captain. Now, only one person flies the plane at a time. So, when do more accidents happen -- when the captain is flying or when the first officer is flying? Common sense will shout that of course crashes happen most often when the first officer -- the less experienced pilot -- is flying. But of course....If you're curious about why, head over to EastWindupChronicle because the good folks there have it on audio!

My favorite part of the book is Gladwell's discussion on Asians and math. Why are Asians (here, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese, Hongkies and Singaporeans) so much better at math? Again, we're talking about culture -- it has something to do with the way the Chinese (and Korean and Japanese) language expresses numbers. English seems arbitrary (41 = forty one, so shouldn't 11 = ten one?) while Chinese seems logical (11 = 十一 = ten one while 41 = 四十一 = four ten one).*

And, according to Gladwell, it has something to do with the culture of rice-farming. I can't tell you enough how much I love this part. Gladwell is so utterly convincing when he explains why if you have a culture that grows predominantly rice, as opposed to one that grows wheat or corn, you're gonna produce people who are better at math.

Yes, Gladwell's argument is clever, persuasive and entertaining. But he's pretty serious about his goal. He wants us to see that culture has advantages and disadvantages. So, culture can be a hindrance in one instance (such as Korean in the cockpit) but it can also be an advantage in another case (such as Korean in calculus class). And if we look at success the way Gladwell does -- as a goal that can be achieved not just by the Beatles, Bill Gates and Oppy, but by a much larger group of people given similar circumstances -- then we an begin to think of ways to help more people achieve success. The talk of rice leads Gladwell to conclude that farming wheat or corn can lead to a culture that has a two-month summer vacation at school. And that a culture that grows rice wouldn't have any of that nonsense. And maybe it's not rice the U.S. needs to adopt but a school year without such a long break.

*Two asides.
I. Gladwell doesn't talk about the way Asian languages deal with big numbers and I always notice that Japanese and Korean students get mixed up when they have to deal with millions and billions. It has something to do with separate characters for thousand () and ten thousand (). So when someone wants to say 100,000 in Japan, you get 十万, which is ten-ten thousand. A million would be 百万, which is one hundred-ten thousand. Go through higher combinations and you'll start seeing people use their fingers to count off place values. Here, English has got that beat. We check the commas and every time you slap one on, we give you a new name. Got two commas? You're working with millions. Three commas? Billions. See? EZPZ日本語Z!

II. The book has lots of fun with numbers: 10,000 hours is the magic number you need to practice in order to achieve greatness...just ask Mozart, or Bill Gates; a huge percentage of the Canadian National Junior Hockey team was born in January or February...ever wonder why?; it usually takes at least seven errors to cause a plane crash.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Niigata Winter Food Festival

This year's food festival features rice bowls () and hotpots/stews (). We tried lots of stews but left the rice bowls alone.

A sampling...

もつ鍋 -- stew with tripe

いか焼 -- grilled squid

Nothing says Niigata Food Festival like whale.

Of the three, we only tried the stew. We had squid, but it was fried tentacles, not grilled whole squid. And I'm not a fan of whale soup -- it's really, really oily. But if you spot any whale sashimi, I'm down.

For more

The good news is, the food festival is happening tomorrow too, and in two other locations. You know where to find me tomorrow. I regret that I have only one mouth...

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Proustian Moment

One big disappointment I have with Hannibal the movie is the filmmakers didn't try to show us the good doctor's memory palace. This is how he remembers things. In his mind's eye, there sits an enormous structure built from fusing a number of real palaces. Dr. Lecter's version of Muzak plays as he walks the halls to the rooms where his memories and vast volumes of knowledge are stored.

Me? I don't have the mental discipline to build a palace. I could, if I rolled up my sleeves, come up with a log cabin in the woods: one big room with a loft, and maybe an outhouse because getting a plumber is pretty pricey. And the woods are important, because some of (much of?) my memories are dark and unexplored.

Take this path less traveled:

On a quiz show last night, the guests were asked why the space shuttle flies upside down. Easy. So the astronauts can see the Earth. Also, did you know that the rocket boosters are reused but the big orange fuel tank burns up once it is separated from the shuttle?

I stopped paying attention to the quiz show so Yuki asks me the second shuttle question afterwards -- The shuttle launches from Florida and lands in California. How does it get from California to Florida after it lands? She was hoping to stump me but I knew that one too; it gets a piggyback ride on a jetliner.

How come you know all that useless information?

Well, the piggyback ride appears in 007's Moonraker. But all my shuttle trivia comes from elementary school. When I was in the 4th or 5th grade, a scientist from NASA came to give a presentation about the space shuttle. This was in the early 80s, when the shuttle was still pretty impressive and the Challenger had yet to blow up.

At the presentation, he asked us if we knew who the first American in space was. A guy sitting in my section raised his hand and shouted out an answer.

... Shepherd!!

We were sitting pretty far from the stage but the guy seemed to have heard the answer. And he was pleasantly surprised.

That's right! Hey, that's pretty impressive! The first American in space is Alan Shepard.

Everyone in our section cracked up. When the laughing died down, the kid repeated himself.

No, I said German Shepherd!

The kid was thinking of Laika, I guess. Anyway, everybody heard his answer pretty clearly the second time and we all enjoyed the best laugh of the day.

Yeah, I hadn't thought of that moment in...

Monday, February 2, 2009

Things around the neighborhood

You might have heard that vending machines are everywhere in Japan. True.

And you can get practically anything you need from them. Most likely true.

This vending machine looks like a coin locker. What can you get for 110-200¥? Veggies. Slim pickings today. White radish is available. So is a kind of Japanese mustard spinach called meikena (女池菜).

The vending machine is located right in front of a plot of farmland, but I can't say for sure that that land produced this produce. It's also next to a bus stop. Pretty convenient.