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21st January 2008

8:49pm: Stereotypes
So we're back in Japan. Nothing has changed; not that I really expected it to. We went to a ramen shop today and ate massive punch-bowls full of the stuff while drinking barley tea and listening to jazz music. (Two of the little-remarked upon features of Tokyo ramen shops are that they always give you as much barley tea as you can drink and always have jazz playing in the background. I have no idea why this is, but the three things - ramen, jazz, barley tea - seem to go together very well.)

Anyway, there was an interesting article in the paper about Masi Oka, the actor who stars in the TV show Heroes as a Japanese geek-cum-superhero type guy. (Why do superheroes always have geeky alter-egos, by the way? Peter Parker, Clark Kent...they're never normal, sensible people, are they?) The writer, a Japanese guy, was complaining about the stereotyping of East Asian men in American cinema and TV; Hiro Nakamura (the character Oka plays in Heroes - yes, he really is called Hiro...oh my aching sides), he says, is just the latest in a long line of geeky, inadequate, submissive, meek and generally naff East Asian men in American cinema, and that's all they're ever portrayed as.

This is partly true, and something I've noticed too, but there are of course other East Asian men in Hollywood. There is the dirty old man, who has an unhealthy interest in junior-high school girls' panties and smokes too much. There is the yakuza-punk-chimpira type, who is surly and menacing and does a lot of monosyllabic grunting. And there is the mystical ninja/samurai/judo master type, who is serene and wise and can also beat people up quicker than you can say 'Mr. Miyagi.'

In fact none of these types have much bearing in reality - and nor indeed do the East Asian female stereotypes we often see on the big or little screen: the dragoness ninja queen, beautiful but deadly; the demure, seductive sex-kitten; the ageing prostitute. What interests me about these stereotypes is actually how sexualised they are - we either seem to see East Asian people as perverted in some way (the submissive weakling man, the filthy old sleaze), or else as hyper-erotic (the cute young temptress; the sword-wielding scampily clad assassin). It's odd, and it reminds me of similar stereotyping of black people in Western movies and literature, whereby black men are always seen as sexually dangerous and black women are sexually promiscuous.

It's funny how you notice these things only when you've stepped away from Western culture and come back. I remember watching Lost in Translation after having spent a year in Japan and being shocked at how absurd and unsympathetic it was in its portrayal of the Japanese. But by all accounts, people in Europe and the US lapped it up, and probably never even noticed how racist it was.

Anyway, maybe one day there'll be an East Asian leading man in a Hollywood film. Denzel Washington and Will Smith have broken that particular barrier for black people; I'm hoping Ken Watanabe will be the first East Asian to win an Oscar for Best Actor - and ideally not as a samurai or army officer or other typical 'Japanese' role. Just as a normal person. That would be refreshing.

Cognitive Blindspot

21st December 2007

11:40am: Another Quote
No great insights today (as if there ever are!); just, on the subject of favourite quotes, I recently came across this one, from the former UN Secretary General, Dag Hammerskjold:

I don't know Who - or What - put the question. I don't even know when it was put. I don't remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone - or Something - and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.

I like that. It strikes me as an extremely elegant description of a 'calling'. I sometimes wish that I had a calling; but then again part of me also likes the idea that I can do whatever I want with my life. I suppose if I did have a calling, I wouldn't regret that loss of freedom - but I'll never really know. Anyway, like I said, no great insights!

Cognitive Blindspot.
12:20am: Little Black Books
According to the Telegraph, match.com and facebook are to unite in creating a 'Little Black Book' application, whereby users of the madly popular social networking site can search for dates. (I always suspected that the main motivation behind the social networking phenomenon is sex, and I feel that this confims my suspicions.) Apparently internet dating websites are terrified by facebook, because it threatens to be able to do what they do, better, and for free; this is their first move to fight back.

I'm in two minds about internet dating. My initial reaction is always to think, "Get a life." People managed perfectly well to get dates before the internet came along, and at least part of me sees the whole thing as yet another means by which we are coming to rely on technology far too much. I also worry that the whole thing is so deeply alienating and childish: I don't like the idea of being able to refine parameters and perform advanced searches for an 'ideal' partner - for me the whole point of dating is the element of surprise and adventure, and it kind of spoils things to be able to know all about a prospective partner from the get go (and even to be able to dismiss potential dates on the basis of their not meeting some pre-defined conditions when they might in fact be perfect for you). I suppose I see it as yet another example of how 'convenience' and technology just take so much of the fun and magic out of life. I also know that I would never have ended up engaged to Mamiko if I'd left it to internet dating. She's hardly the 'type' of woman I'd search for actively - our interests are completely different, she's four years older than me, and she's a total sadist. (Then again all women are, I suppose.) But we just happened to meet by chance and, hey presto, for some reason we're perfect for each other. By resorting to the internet, aren't people ruining their chances of that sort of meeting?

However, there is something churlish about criticising something that does apparently work for some people. Obviously internet dating has made some men and women really happy, so I shouldn't have such uncharitable thoughts. And I'm lucky enough never to have really been in a position where I've been desparate for a relationship but unable for whatever reason to get one - so who am I to judge?

19th December 2007

11:45am: Life Goes On
Is it really 3 years since the Indian Ocean tsunami? I suppose it is. I mention it because at the moment the cricket world is discussing the test match currently being played between Sri Lanka and England at Galle, a city which was devastated during the disaster and where thousands of people died. This is the first time that the stadium has been used since that day in late 2004 - it has taken that long to make it serviceable again - and it almost didn't happen, because some in the cricketing fraternity thought the pitch might not hold up for the full five days. I'm happy to say that the England cricket team have acknowledged the importance of the event for the people of Galle by refusing to even entertain the notion of postponing or moving the game. This match isn't about winning or losing or even the quality of cricket; it's about bringing back normality to a place that sorely needs it.

It seems like an utterly banal point to make, when you think about it: life goes on. What isn't banal is that it shows an important characteristic of human beings (and indeed life itself) - the refusal to lay down and die, to be a victim. The show must go on. Three years on and ordinary Sri Lankans are still dealing with the aftermath of the tsunami, but they're getting there, slowly but surely. Here's to them. I hope Sri Lanka win the test.

12:01am: Austrian Writer Says Something Wise
One of my favourite quotes is by Peter Handke, the Austrian writer, who once said: An advertisement tells me that life is beautiful - a personal insult.

I think that what he was getting at was that we shouldn't need advertisements to tell us that life is beautiful. We shouldn't, in fact, need advertisements to tell us anything other than that a certain product is available and it's good. But for some awful reason, advertisements (certainly in Britain, which for some reason I've never understood has the best and most artistic advertising in the world) have begun to take on a greater meaning than just "please buy this". These days the whole industry is about co-opting even the most fundamental emotions - parenthood, love, friendship - and using them to not only sell but also, horribly, to associate. The perfect example is Mastercard, whose advertisements have the brilliant, but terrifying once you think about it, tagline "There are some things in life that money can't buy: for everything else, there's Mastercard." Terrifying because the tagline usually comes at the end of a beautiful thirty-second film about parental love and affection for a child - and how sweet it is to be able to buy that love through fishing trips, new computers, and bigger toys than the other kids in class.

Anyway, I agree with Handke. Life is beautiful, at least most of the time, but to have that explained to me by an ad-man, who is really just hawking something no matter how artistically, is like a slap in the face to my very humanity.

This is part of the reason why I don't buy McDonald's food, and have been to a McDonald's restaurant maybe once in the last five years: it's because of that awful "I'm loving it" ad campaign, which sought to somehow associate hamburgers and fries with being in love, for Christ's sake. That's an even bigger personal insult than an ad man telling me that life is beautiful: an ad man telling me what it is to be in love, and by the way, isn't being in love rather like eating a hamburger with a side order of fries?

It's also the reason why I won't be buying a Playstation 3. (Well, apart from the reason that I can't afford it.) I mean, their latest ad campaign, in the name of all that's holy, has the hook: This is Living. This is Living! It's almost like a sick joke. I mean, I like playing computer games as much as the next man. But I've never once convinced myself that the hours I've spent doing it have been anything other than a grotesque waste of the short time available to me on this earth. And I don't think I'd be able to live with myself if I could convince myself of that. Yet here's Sony, telling me that, by buying a Playstation 3 and having a computer sprite under my control beat another computer sprite to death, I will be really living.

They must think we were born yesterday. What an insult. Now do you see what Handke was getting at?

Cognitive Blindspot.

7th December 2007

12:12am: Desert Island Discs
My favourite radio show is without doubt desert island discs. (It's been on Radio 4 for about three hundred years, but it never gets old.) The premise is, of course, its genius: a 45 minute interview in which the interviewee has to choose eight songs or pieces of music to take with them to a desert island. It can't really fail, and having a sexy presenter right now is just the icing on the cake. Anyway, for no reason other than that I can, here are my current choices:

1. Promised Land by Bruce Springsteen. I love Bruce; I think he's one of the few genuinely honest performers around in that he's quite happy to go in and out of fashion and has no care for being thought of as 'cool'. This is him at his best - angsty, energetic, desperate, passionate, and optimistic, and it would be great to put on in the morning to get me up and ready to go.

2. Jupiter: The Bringer of Joy - Holst, from The Planets. Just because it does exactly that - brings joy. Even though the famous march has been reduced almost to cliche by endless reproduction, in its original context it's still enough to make the hairs stand up on my neck and make me want to stand up and say, "Yes! I'm glad I'm alive!"

3. Cherub Rock - The Smashing Pumpkins. Probably my favourite band, so it's hard to choose just one song by them. I think this is them at their best, and a sort of microcosm of their ouevre. Rocky, proggy, grungy, and you can hear all the elements of what made them the most musically accomplished outfit of their era - Billy Corgan's genius for composition, James Iha's crazy guitar, and Jimmy Chamberlain's brilliance on the drums: so brilliant he makes all other drummers seem like guys just hitting things with sticks.

4. The Rite of Spring - Stravinsky. I've written about this one before. I think it's at the absolute zenith of Western art - the very point at which beauty stopped being the ultimate purpose and it started to become fundamentally about navel-gazing, politics and grandstanding instead. This ballet was just on the right side of that divide.

5. The Hook - Steven Malkmus. Any song that begins with the line at age 19 I was kidnapped by Turkish pirates is a fair bet to be a success with me. I think Steven Malkmus is vastly under-rated. His music manages to be both funny and touching, and his lyrics would stand on their own just as poems. Ever since Pavement split up he's gone from strength to strength.

6. Superunknown - Soundgarden. This just reminds me of being a teenager. I used to listen to songs like this and think, yes, there is more to life than growing up, getting a job, living in suburban boredom, and growing old. Some people out there are trying to create something, and are passionate about it. Of course in this case partly they were being passionate about taking heroin. But mostly it was about good rock music.

7. Flamingo Sketches - Miles Davis. I couldn't overlook Miles Davis. What can you say about music like this? Nothing.

8. Slip Slidin' Away - Paul Simon. Just a great song about what it is to be alive, and I love the ambition of that aim. To try and say something with meaning, a sort of elegy for life.

Even looking back over the list I find myself thinking what a dickhead I am. No Marvin Gaye? No Leonard Cohen? No Smiths? No Beatles? No Bob Dylan? No Supremes? No Temptations? No Ben Folds Five? No Sleater Kinney? No Dinosaur Jr.? Some of my absolute favourites are missing, dammit.

I could rewrite it all over again tomorrow, and every day for the rest of my life, probably.

6th December 2007

4:41pm: British people really do love to have a good whinge about America. I was thinking about this today while listening to a radio debate between Shami Chakrabarti, leader of the pro-civil-liberties lobby group Liberty, and an American legal expert, over the question of rendition of suspects. Apparently in a recent case before the Supreme Court, it has been ruled that even if a criminal suspect has been brought to the US illegally from another country (i. e., outside the ordinary extradition procedures), then setting aside the question of the legality of the seizure or otherwise, they can be tried before a US court.

Needless to say, Chakrabarti was vigorously opposed to this decision. She used the hoary old liberal chestnut that, in a democratic society, the rule of law is vitally important and if compromised by the government for any reason in any small manner, then tyranny and dictatorship follow. Most of the people who phoned in afterwards agreed with her. They saw it as yet another example of America riding roughshod over freedom and liberty, bullying the rest of the world, and ignoring international law. (They also mostly completely misinterpreted the whole thing to mean, 'George Bush is now going to go around kidnapping whoever he likes and having them stand trial!' as you would expect.)

As is often the case, I always want to ask Chakrabarti-ist liberals what they would have liked the alternative to have been in a case like that of Eichmann, who as you probably know was kidnapped by Mossad agents in Buenos Aires in 1960 and taken to Israel to face trial. In that case, Israel technically violated a long-established customary rule of international law - that of State sovereignty - but very few people would argue that it wasn't justified. Eichmann was not the type of man the world could continue to allow to escape justice, and even if Israel should technically not have kidnapped him, the fact remained that he ought to have been tried - and would not if he had been allowed to remain in Argentina.

I would submit that 'the rule of law' is often bandied about by liberals as the cornerstone of society, but that the law is in the end only a means by which justice is served. In Eichmann's case justice demanded that a certain law be broken, and if on occasion the US judiciary is faced with the decision of whether or not to try a dangerous criminal based on a possible illegality in his or her seizure, I would applaud its decision to go ahead with a trial. (And the Supreme Court wasn't even advocating kidnap or anything else; it only said that if a court was faced with such a decision, it would be lawful to try a suspect.)

British readers will remember Ronny Biggs, a man involved in one of the most famous crimes in post-war Britain - The Great Train Robbery. Biggs was responsible for the theft of a huge amount of money and was at the very least an accomplice to murder, but because he managed to flee to Brazil he never faced the punishment that he should have. He lived free to a ripe old age. I call that madness - but what is madder still is that, if Ms. Chakrabarti had her way, had Biggs somehow ended up back in the UK circa 1970 without being properly extradited, it would have been wrong to try him. That is liberty at the expense of common sense.

In any case, I sincerely doubt that any court in any country in the world would act in a different way to the US Supreme Court in this matter, so the rest of us can hardly point the finger at Washington. People do, though - because nothing beats a good Thursday lunchtime grip about evil old Uncle Sam.

Cognitive Blindspot.

5th December 2007

12:20am: Ghosts and Ghoulies
I had a conversation about ghosts with my sister the other night. She has this idea, you see, that she has a bit of a sixth sense; she's somehow more attuned to the supernatural than most.

I never know what to say about this topic, because I'm totally conflicted about it: it's the place where, for me, reason and experience collide. That is to say, I'm sure that there are rational explanations for just about every ghost sighting that there has ever been; tricks of the light, flaws of memory, hoaxes and hallucinations can do amazing things to people's credulity. The fact that most supernatural activity seems to happen at night without witnesses always stands it in bad stead. I know all that.

And yet, twice in my life I've been convinced that I've seen, if not ghosts, then things that can't be completely rationally accounted for.

The first time was when Mamiko had this old apartment in Tokyo, which I used to visit every Tuesday night because Wednesday was her only day off. It was a tiny place in a rickety old building, with a long street of dodgy bars, strip clubs and 'hostess' pubs outside, so I always had trouble sleeping in it until the day I started buying 99 yen ear plugs. One night I was lying in bed tossing and turning, listening to drunks singing outside and trying to chat up the hostesses, and sleep was coming even later than usual. It got to 2am, then 3am, then 4am, and every half an hour I'd get up and move about, sometimes trying to sleep on the sofa, sometimes getting a glass of milk, while listening to my girlfriend happily slumbering away. (Can there be any stranger feeling, by the way, than the mixture of emotions you get when you can't sleep but your SO can? Half of you is desparate not to make any movement at all lest it wake them up, but the other half of you is consumed with jealousy that they can be so contented while you're so miserable.)

Anyway, at about 4.30am I was lying on my side facing away from the door, when I felt a hand touch my shoulder. It lay there for a second, then seemed to grab and shake my upper arm. I vividly remember looking up and seeing a grey figure standing next to the bed, looking down at me and lowering its head as if peering into my face. I immediately lashed out with my arm and sat up, and felt a brief flash of coldness in my hand before the figure disappeared - not by vanishing but by dashing out of the room and into the kitchen.

I got up and went into the kitchen and there was nobody there. I then spent the rest of the night checking all the windows and the front door, and waiting for dawn.

The second time was when I had recently arrived in Japan, and was sort-of seeing a girl we'll call T. Together with her friends we went to a large cemetery in Aoyama, a posh part of central Tokyo, to drink under cherry blossom trees. (That isn't as weird as it sounds - Aoyama cemetery is one of the best places in Tokyo for cherry blossoms, and in spring the place fills up with drunken picknickers from noon till midnight.) We stayed there for most of the night, and at one stage T and I sneaked off to fool around a little. We found a place behind a large family grave, but we weren't there for longer than five seconds before we simultaneously noticed that there was something else there with us.

It was a green globe of light, about the size of a football, floating perhaps three metres off the ground above the grave. We watched it for ten minutes, moving this way and that, before T saw others in the distance over other graves, hovering in the moonlight. It was indescribably eerie.

Now, I know that both of these incidents are suspect. In the first, I hadn't slept well and might have been drinking the night before (I can't remember exactly) and that could well have caused my mind to play tricks on me. In the second, T and I were both drunk, it was at night, and there might even be some scientific explanation for what we saw - St Elmo's Fire or Will 'O the Wisps or some such.

I know all that. But still. I know what sleeplessness is, and what hallucinations it can cause, but that grey figure is still so vivid in my mind that it's hard to explain away as a brain fart. And we might have been drinking, but both T and I saw exactly the same things in Aoyama cemetery that night, and T even has some photos she took and which show we weren't hallucinating. So what was it?

As I said, I'm conflicted. My head tells me one thing, but I'm unsure whether to believe it. I suppose sometimes you just can't square experience with logic.

Cognitive Blindspot.

30th November 2007

11:14am: Putting Myself Through Hell
In two weeks time I'm going to ask Mamiko's dad for his daughter's hand in marriage. When I proposed, about a year ago, she thought it would be best to just let him know then, but for some reason I decided it would be best to do it properly, meet the old guy face-to-face, and perform The Ritual. (In Japan, traditionally, a woman's young swain is supposed to approach the father, bow down, and ask if he can marry the daughter. He is then told to, basically, fuck off. He then has to leave the house and come back later, whereupon this time his proposal will be accepted.)

Now part of me is beginning to curse that decision. Why did I think it was a good idea? With each passing day I get more and more terrified. I don't know why, you see, but Mamiko's dad is scary.

Okay, I'm lying, I do know why he's scary. Partly it's because he's the foreman of an entire fishing port, which gives him this sense of authority and confidence which leaves the position of 'alpha male' in no dispute. Partly it's because he barely every speaks, but spends most of the time glaring moodily at people. Partly it's because girlfriends' dads are just innately a little frightening - I always worry that, at any second, they're going to accuse me of being a feckless young layabout who's tempting their darling daughter into a life of penury and unhappiness - before summoning their mates into a lynch mob and running me out of town.

But mostly it's because he has a black belt in judo, and could probably dislocate my spine or something with just a flick of the wrist. That's the kind of guy you shouldn't do anything to piss off.

Cognitive Blindspot.

28th November 2007

12:34am: American Hero
I've just finished reading In the Lake of the Woods, a novel by Tim O'Brien, better known for his Pulitzer-nominated The Things They Carried. It's a great book, by the way - a definite recommend. But incidental to that, I did some research into the My Lai Massacre, an event we studied in GCSE History when I was 15, and which plays an important role in the book. As part of that research I came across the figure of Hugh Thompson Jr., a man I'd never heard of before, but who for one day, in the face of mankind at its most brutal and grotesque, stood out for the qualities of honour, integrity and compassion, and who I think can honestly be labelled a true hero.

Thompson was a helicopter pilot who arrived at My Lai when the massacre was almost over. (For those who don't know about it in detail, the event took place on March 16, 1968, when men of a US Army company collectively murdered somewhere between 300 and 500 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians, mostly women and children.) He immediately began doing what he could to help the victims. From Wikipedia:

Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr., a 24-year-old helicopter pilot from an aero-scout team, witnessed a large number of dead and dying civilians as he began flying over the village - all of them infants, children, women and old men, with no signs of draft-age men or weapons anywhere. He and his crew witnessed an unarmed passive woman kicked and shot at point-blank range by Captain Medina (Medina later claimed that he thought she had a grenade.) The crew made several attempts to radio for help for the wounded. They landed their helicopter by a ditch, which they noted was full of bodies and in which there was movement. Thompson asked a Sergeant he encountered there if the Sergeant could help get the people out of the ditch, and the Sergeant replied that he would "help them out of their misery". Thompson was shocked and confused but took it as some kind of a joke. The helicopter took off - then one of the crew said "My God, he's firing into the ditch".

Thompson then saw a group of civilians (again consisting of children, women and old men) at a bunker being approached by ground personnel. He landed and told his crew that if the U.S. soldiers shot at the Vietnamese while he was trying to get them out of the bunker that they were to open fire at these soldiers. Thompson later testified that he spoke with a Lieutenant and told him there were women and children in the bunker, and asked if the Lieutenant would help get them out. According to Thompson, "he [the Lieutenant] said the only way to get them out was with a hand grenade". Thompson testified he then told [the man] to "just hold your men right where they are, and I'll get the kids out". He found 12-16 people in the bunker, coaxed them out and led them to the helicopter, standing with them while they were flown out in two groups.

Returning to My Lai, he and other air crew noticed several large groups of bodies. Spotting some survivors in the ditch he landed again and one of the crew entered the ditch and returned with a bloodied but apparently unharmed child who was flown to safety. The child was thought to be a boy, but later investigation found that it was a 4 year old girl. Thompson then reported what he had seen to his company commander, Major Watke, using terms such as "murder" and "needless and unnecessary killings". His reports were confirmed by other pilots and air crew.

One of his crew, Lawrence Colburn, later recalled the dialogue between Thompson and the Lieutenant (sometimes identified as a Mr. Calley, at other times a Mr. Brooks) as follows:

Thompson: Let's get these people out of this bunker and get 'em out of here.

Brooks: We'll get 'em out with hand grenades.

Thompson: I can do better than that. Keep your people in place. My guns are on you.

How perfect a reply - one is tempted to call it noble even: I can do better than that. The measure of the man, you might say. Willing to risk his own life, and to risk being responsible for the killing of men on his own side, in order to save those who were innocent - in order to do better than all the other soldiers around him.

The truly apalling thing, of course, is that it fell to this 24-year-old junior officer (inferior in rank to the Army Lieutenants who were responsible for the massacre) to do anything decent at all that day. We'd all probably like to assume that, put in his position or one similar, we would be brave, sensible and good enough to do the same thing. However, given that he was the only one out of over a hundred perpetrators and witnesses to do anything significant to stop the massacre, the horrible truth is that the chances are not high that any given one of us would.

I know quite a bit about humanitarian law - that is, the laws regulating armed conflict - certainly enough to have an awareness of how rare and heroic people like Thompson are. Men who find themselves caught up in such events most commonly either blindly obey orders or, at best, remain passive bystanders. The annals of war criminal case law are testimony to it. I can do better than that is a motto that I think ought to be more widely followed; the unfortunate fact is that more often people are content with I can't do anything about this or, worse, Best to just go with the flow.

It's a corny way to finish this entry, perhaps, but I'll say it anyway: think about the implications of Thompson's story, and examine how you usually behave when you see something happening that shouldn't be. I certainly have today, while reading about him, and will continue to.

Cognitive Blindspot.

27th November 2007

10:23am: Here We Go Again
It's in the news again today: Israel-Palestine peace talks. So Channel 4 News naturally seized the opportunity with both hands to make an in-depth report into how evil Israel is last night. It's amazing that a major, well respected source like that can get away with such plainly biased reporting. But then again most aspects of modern journalism are completely baffling to me.

Anyway, that isn't what I wanted to talk about. What I really wanted to talk about was the saddest aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict: namely the fact that ordinary Palestinians are as much victims of their own leaders as they are Israel's - and probably much more so. The Gaza situation at the moment is the classic example: all Hamas has to do is to recognise that Israel has a right to exist in peace, and then the people of Gaza can have normal lives again. But they won't, and keep clinging obstinately to their pledge that the Jews should be kicked out of the Middle East by the most violent means available. No matter that this goal will never be achieved and their sheer bloodymindedness is hurting the innocent people they're supposed to be protecting. (This is, of course, to leave aside Israel's own behaviour.)

This cycle - whereby Palestinian and Arab leaders routinely abuse the civilian population of Palestine, but never get the blame for it - has a long history. Back in 1948, of course, there could have been an independent Palestine, if only the Arab countries nearby hadn't tried to destroy Israel and hadn't then gobbled up what should have been the new Palestinian state for themselves. In 2000 Yasser Arafat threw away the chance for peace and walked out of negotiations when he refused an offer from Israel without even making a reply, without even making a counter offer, an event which effectively launched the Second Intifada. The terrible conditions in which most Palestinians live are mostly the result of the neglect shown by the Egyptian and Jordanian governments when the refugee camps were first set up in Gaza and the West Bank after 1948. There is also, of course, there is the common practice by Hamas of launching rocket attacks against Israel from the most densely populated areas of the strip, using their own civilians as human shields.

So much of the current suffering is down to poor leadership. But the enemy is only ever Israel. Of course, Israel has treated ordinary Palestinians grossly unfairly. But life for them would have been so much different if they had been blessed with a set of leaders who didn't use them as political pawns and who had their best interests at heart.

26th November 2007

11:23am: Circles
It's funny. I really don't find supermodels attractive. And I'm not just saying that to try to appear like a 'new man'. I just think there's a point at which being beautiful becomes something ugly in itself; we can picture beauty as a circle, where if you follow the curve too far around it lurches back into unattractiveness. Most supermodels cross that barrier - their height becomes clumsy looking, their slenderness becomes skinny, their body lines ungainly.

It's a bit like Eddie Izzard's idea of the circle of coolness. At the beginning, there is 'looking like a dickhead', and as you follow the circle round the coolness increases...until finally it reaches the end of the circle and goes back to 'looking like a dickhead' again.

Quite a few fashions have crossed the barrier between uber-cool and looking-like-a-dickhead. Baggy jeans sliding halfway down the backside, for instance.

23rd November 2007

11:42am: Food is for Eating
I'll be going back to Japan in three weeks' time, and let me tell you, my mouth is already watering at the prospect of again being able to eat out at truly great, cheap restaurants every night of the week.

I think people are aware that the Japanese have a distinct cuisine and that they like their fish, but that's mostly where knowledge ends. Well, it's much, much more than that: eating out is the national religion in Japan, and restaurants are its churches. There truly has never been a race of people on planet earth with collectively as much passion, interest and desire for good food. From French haute cuisine to native seasonal delicacies to South-East Asian fusion to Nepali curry to West-African barbeques, Japan has it all and has it consistently better than anywhere else.

It's great to see this finally being acknowledged. I remember reading once that whereas London has around 10,000 restaurants and New York something like 40,000, in Tokyo there are 160,000 - and Tokyo's vast superiority over any comparable city has been confirmed by its first ever Michelin guide, which has found 191 Tokyo eateries to be deserving of a Michelin star. This compares to 97 in Paris, 54 in New York, and 50 in London. I'm surprised it isn't even more.

My favourite restaurant in Tokyo is a little place near Mamiko's old apartment called gayagaya, which has the best clam soup in the whole world, thick with garlic and butter that coats the inside of your mouth. That's where I'll be in a few weeks, sipping my warm sake and eating my clams, hopefully while a smattering of snow falls outside. Then I'll be writing to the Michelin people that they missed a trick when they walked past that place.

Cognitive Blindspot.

21st November 2007

5:39pm: Manifesto
One thing that annoys me about being politically conscious or aware in British (and probably Western) society is that there are basically only two 'packages', sort of like different set menus in a Chinese restaurant, with everybody subscribing to one or the other. So, either you read the Guardian, like contemporary art, are pro-choice, pro-Palestinian, anti-Iraq war, vote Labour or Lib Dem if at all, care strongly about climate change and organic foods, put faith in Big Government, and believe immigration is to be welcomed. Or else you read the Telegraph, vote Tory, are skeptical about climate-change, hate the EU, worry about crime and pensions, want to see less tax, mistrust Government generally, are dubious about the benefits of immigration, and use the phrase, "Not in my day!" quite a lot.

I hate this, because I've always believed in a common sense approach to politics: believe what you think is right, not just what has been decided for you by the political ground you have chosen for yourself. What especially irks me is that because I have strong beliefs which are on either side of the left-right divide, there is basically no home for me in either half and I tend to be castigated by those on both sides.

See, I'm quite strongly pro-life, and very strongly pro-Israel, which basically makes it impossible for me to associate myself with the Left in Britain, who if anything these days define themselves less by their stance on labour relations and more by being "feminist" (in their own eyes) and anti-Zionist. But on the other hand, I'm extremely dubious about the claims of libertarians and anti-EU types, am broadly pro-immigration, and have rather authoritarian views on a lot of issues - all of which prevent me from becoming a card-carrying Conservative.

So what am I? I'm someone who has his own opinions. Unfortunately, there is no party for people like me in the UK - nor in any country whose politics I know much about.

ADDENDUM: By mistake I used the phrase 'pro-life' in this post, which is a term I hate. I generally like to classify myself as 'anti-abortion' instead.

19th November 2007

11:42am: Girls and Boys (II)
Let me tell you three things that I've discovered happen to a man after he starts living with a woman.

1. His tee-shirts and shirts are no longer his own property. They're on loan to him to wear when he's out shopping or at work, of course, but they're always ready to be recalled at a moment's notice and used for pajamas by his woman. He doesn't mind this so much, because women look so sexy in men's shirts and tee-shirts. But he just wishes she would ask before taking them, especially when it's an Armani shirt that he was planning to wear for an important meeting the next day and now it's all wrinkled and smells of girls.

2. When he's ordering food in a cafe, he always has to stay one step ahead of the game. For when a woman says, "No, I don't want anything big, just a salad," what she's really saying is "I do want something more than a salad, but I don't want to feel like I am, so I'll surruptitiously take half of whatever you order." Stay one step ahead of the game: he should always order a portion larger than he really wants, so then he can watch his fries and onion rings disappearing from his plate and into her mouth and know that at least he's still got enough left to fill himself up.

3. He can no longer peacefully slumber in his bed like he always used to, free from constraint and at a temperature of his own choosing. No, now he has to snuggle. He's obligated to do it by an unwritten and unspoken understanding between the males and females of our species. No matter where he goes underneath the covers, there is no escape from the hugging and holding. He never gets used to it. Instead, every night he stays awake until she's asleep and then carefully extricates himself so he can find the space he craves.

He puts up with these things because women are such beguiling and delightful creatures, and because they have breasts. And over it becomes easier to bear because he starts to forget a time when he actually did own his own clothes, when he was entitled to full portions, and when he had the run of his own bed. At that point all of his friends can see that the light has died in his eyes, and they're too sad to even make fun of him anymore. Probably because they're in the same position themselves.

16th November 2007

11:19am: Freedom of Blah (II)
I have a hard time getting worked up about civil liberties. They're the talk of the town at the moment in British public life, mainly because of two things: the government is planning to issue ID cards to all legal UK residents; and there are calls for extending the time limit for detention of terror suspects without charge from 28 days to 56.

What's wrong with me? On the face of it, these are the exact things that somebody with my political views and background should be campaigning stridently against. But I just can't, no matter how hard I try, see what the fuss is all about.

I think it all stems from the peculiar way that human rights in the West are conceptualised. In the visions of Locke, Rousseau, Paine and Hobbes that our societies are based on, the State is seen as the great danger in society - the monolithic institution that will crush individual autonomy and deny our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This leads to a vision of 'human rights' as fundamentally about protecting individual liberties - especially freedom of speech, the right to privacy, and the right to be innocent until proven guilty.

In Japan, people just don't have that view about human rights. There, rights are about the good of the community - they are conceptualised as the framework by which society's safety is ensured. In other words, the majority of people have the right not to be put in danger from terrorists, to be the victims of crime, or to be denied work because of illegal immigrants, and it is worth sacrificing the individual liberties of terrorism suspects or other criminals in order to protect those rights. Things like ID cards and detention for 28 days without charge are staples of the Japanese legal system, because society as a whole places more importance on the rights of the majority to live in safety than on the rights of the minority (criminals, terrorists and illegal immigrants) to have their civil liberties protected.

During my time in Japan I, like all legal foreign residents, had to carry around an ID card and inform the government about my place of residence. At no point did I find it irksome, and I certainly didn't view it as an infringement of my rights. I barely gave it any thought, in fact. That's just the way Japan has chosen to run its affairs - individual freedoms are less well protected by law in that country, but the trade-off is that it's a very safe and secure place. I don't think the Japanese have the balance perfectly right, but as it stands it's better than the one that pertains in the UK, the US or France - unless of course you plan to commit crimes or plan terror attacks.

I, for one, won't be singing and dancing on the rooftops if I have to carry around an ID card in Britain. But at the same time I hardly see it as a step towards coming under the thumb of Big Brother as many of my compatriots do. In any case if that's what people were really worried about they'd be campaigning against the CCTV camera systems that are slowly kneedling their way into every corner of urban Britain - but oddly, they rarely do.

Cognitive Blindspot.

15th November 2007

11:46am: Teenage Kicks
We watched 10 Things I Hate About You last night; one of those films that just happens to be on and which you become unavoidably sucked into, like a televisual mind-flayer. Actually, I loved it. It could hardly fail being based on such foolproof material - it would be difficult not to make a good high-school reworking of The Taming of the Shrew, and in any case the charisma of the cast is enough to pull anything off. (It stars Heath Ledger, of Brokeback Mountain fame, 'before he was famous', as well as Julia Stiles from the Bourne films.)

It made me incredibly nostalgic, actually, because by happenstance the kids in it were turning 16, 17 or 18 in the exact same era I was - the mid/late 90s. And when I look back, I think that generation - our generation - was on the tip of a kind of cultural faultline; we were the last set of teenagers to make the transition to adulthood without widespread use of mobile phones, the internet, mp3 players, or even CGI in films. Nowadays all those things have come along and changed the world in all kinds of subtle and not-too-subtle ways, and things will never be the same for any generation of teenagers ever again.

In a funny way, it makes me sad. Kids today have no idea what it is like having to wait for your sister to get off the bloody phone in the evening after like ages when all you want to do is call your friend for like five seconds to arrange to meet. They have no idea about the painstaking, heartrending process of making a mix-tape for a girl you like - the thought and effort that went into it, and the nightmare of having it go wrong. (Tapes. Just think about that for a second. When I was a teenager, the prized musical medium, the totemic gift of the rock gods, was a cassette tape.) They will probably never have heard that dreaded sound - of the piece of music you love so much being warped and twisted by an old stereo player that has decided to chew up the ribbon. They won't know what it's like to have things like pen-friends who it took about three hours to write a good letter to. The boys amongst them will have no idea of the genuine fantastic mystery that the opposite sex used to hold in the days when there was no readily accessible internet porn and naked girls were the domain of women's locker rooms or else dreamland.

Being a teenager back then, and every generation prior to that, was a horrible experience in a lot of ways - we were so much more beholden to the power of our parents than young people are now, so much more constrained by limited technology, so much more naive. But life also had a lot of charm then that it has now lost: when you'd slaved for an entire saturday over making a really good mix-tape there was a pleasure in accomplishment there that making an mp3 playlist simply can't match. And now that cultural faultline had been crossed, we'll never be able to go back.

Cognitive Blindspot.

14th November 2007

11:31am: Girls and Boys
Bilbo linked to a damn interesting damninteresting article today, about mate-choice in guppies and what it can tell us about the "wedding ring effect" - the commonly noticed phenomenon that women seem to slightly prefer men who are already spoken for. (I've actually noticed this phenomenon myself - when I got engaged to Mamiko I suddenly saw an increase in flirtation from female friends; then again maybe that's just because I started wearing decent underarm deoderant around then.)

The 'guppy syndrome' shows that females of the species will often mate with males simply on the basis that those males are mating with other females, even going so far as to mate with unattractive males simply on that basis. Obviously, the fact that other females have deemed a fish 'spongeworthy' is indicative to a lady guppy that there must be more to him than meets the eye, and she starts to see him in a different light. This then becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, as the guppies with all the girls become more and more popular while the loners become even more alone - and probably go off on their own and form under-water support groups.

A Guppy.

The psychology of human sexuality is endlessly fascinating for me. I'm not sure that guppies have all the answers, but I am sure that biology works behind the scenes in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways when it comes to who people want to have sex with.

What is undoubtedly true, I think, is that women are much cleverer than men when it comes to sex-war propaganda. The other day I caught the end of a Jeremy Kyle show (think a British version of Jerry Springer, with even uglier and stupider people if that's possible), and the main gist of it seemed to be that a married woman had had an affair, and she was justifying it on the basis that her husband no longer gave her the love, affection and romance that she needed. Most of the female members of the audience seemed to sympathise; while they didn't necessarily excuse her behaviour, they generally accepted that excuse - the consensus being that, while men have affairs to boost their ego and because they're habitually promiscuous, women have affairs for love.

And I thought, "Bullshit!" But the argument is kind of persuasive, because women are such good manipulators, and because they naturally bond together over the percieved injustices men perpetrate against them. In sexual politics, men are generally always the villains - whether it's because they have affairs or because they force their wives into affairs through lack of love - and it's all because we just don't play the system as well as women do. Men are competitive, see, so while one man is being castigated for having an affair, other men are mostly thinking "well, it just goes to show what a good husband I am" - or, more likely, "well, if she's dumped him, maybe it's my turn to move in."

Anyway, guppies. Is there anything they can't do?

Cognitive Blindspot.

13th November 2007

2:14pm: War, what is it good for?
There is a certain meta-narrative of war these days that sees it as unremittingly brutalising, hellish and cruel. Mostly it stems from the Cold War, I think - all of those mean, nasty conflicts in places like Vietnam, Angola, El Salvador and Afghanistan were like hammer blows against the very profession of soldiery. It was Remembrance Sunday this week (I believe in other countries it's known as Armistice Day?) and a large part of the televisual programming revolved around the "War is Hell" motif - The Not Dead, a Channel 4 documentary last night, was a case in point. But you see it across Western culture generally: there is a large section of the population who will oppose any military action on the basis that war is always terrible and can never be justified. During NATO's Kosovo campaign, even, or the 2001 bombing of Afghanistan, huge swathes of the British public opposed the actions of the government - even though more black-and-white cases for war could hardly be made. The image we're presented with is that war basically involves lots of young men being completely dehumanised and irrevocably psychically wounded, and the whole thing is just too awful for words.

The reality must be more complex. We now know, for example, that Wilfred Owen - the quintessential 'anti-war' poet - wrote to his mother on returning to the front, and the thick of the fighting, in 1918, that he had "never been happier". (Siegfried Sassoon, another famous 'anti-war' poet, earned many medals for bravery and the nickname 'Mad Jack' for the eagerness with which he went over the top to kill Germans.) Many veterans find readjustment to their home life difficult not because they are traumatised, but because being a civilian is so boring compared to what they were previously doing.

My grandfather was a case in point. He joined the army at 16 (lying about his age) in 1939, found himself in a tank in Normandy in 1940, and was shot through both legs by a German machine-gun when bailing out of that tank after it had been crippled by an anti-tank gun. He was evacuated at Dunkirk, nursed back to health, rose to the rank of Corporal, and was on the beach at D-Day - from where he fought his way to the borders of Germany with the rest of the allied armies. He loved being a soldier and he loved the war - he loved it so much, in fact, that he re-enlisted as soon as it was over and fought in the Korean war, too.

I don't think for a second that he particularly enjoyed killing people. He was a friendly, peaceful and cool-tempered sort, who lived a basically decent life. But the vision of him proudly wearing his medals on Remembrance Sunday, visiting Normandy on regiment reunions, and painting his plastic airfix military models, just doesn't sit with the vision of war that we're asked to see by the zeitgeist of our times.

Perhaps it has something to do with the difference between a volunteer and a conscript. And of course, fighting the Wehrmacht or the Chinese Army as my grandfather did is not the same as massacring civilians in the killing fields of Angola or Mozambique. But I think it should be more often acknowledged that warfare is a considerably more complex beast than simply being "hell". That just doesn't properly explain the psychology of the thing, and why human beings - particularly male human beings - so readily become involved in it.

Cognitive Blindspot.

9th November 2007

11:07am: Honesty
My Master's thesis is going to be published in a legal journal. It's not finalised yet, so we'll have to wait and see, but it's something to be excited about. I've always wanted to see my name in print - I just never expected that it would be at the top of an article about cultural pluralism and the Human Rights Committee. I was hoping more for the "best selling historical novel" end of the market.

Anyway, nothing particularly insightful today. I watched a documentary about Georgia the other day (why do my entries in this blog keep coming around to the Caucuses?), and one sequence showed a politician describing Georgia's geopolitical context. Pretty much word for word, he summed it up as: "To the West, Turkey, with all its human rights problems and Islam. To the South, Armenia - a shit country, even more shit than Georgia. To the East Azerbaijan, run by mafiosi, all they have is oil, and all they're good for is cheap oil. And then to the North is Russia, stupid Russia, with Putin and his bullshit war in Chechnya. So Georgia is basically surrounded by shit."

And I thought, if he were a politician in Britain, he'd have my vote. Instead we have a gang of tossers who can't even manage to answer a question without obfuscation and avoidance.

Cognitive Blindspot.

5th November 2007

4:32pm: Me Like Bananas
Karl Pilkington once claimed, in a Monkey News, that a woman working at an animal sanctuary was fired from her job, because a chimpanzee wanted to play with her breasts and she refused. The 'foreman' apparently demanded that she comply with the wishes of the 'monkey', and when she didn't she was summarily sacked.

Ricky and Steve ridiculed the story, and ended by denouncing Karl as an idiot and an imbecile as they did at the end of every episode of Monkey News. In all respects, in fact, it was a usual Monkey News story (for those who don't know it, Monkey News was a feature on Ricky Gervais and Steve Merchant's radio show for years before finding its way onto their podcast; the basic gist is that, each week, Karl tells a 'true' story about monkeys - usually actually chimpanzees - which is in fact complete rubbish). As a casual listener, I had a good chortle like everybody else, and put it out of my mind.

So imagine my surprise this morning when, idly browsing around wikipedia, I came across the story of Koko the gorilla, who is allegedly able to communicate with humans in American Sign Language. Apparently, as well as being highly intelligent, Koko has a bit of a 'thing' for breasts - specifically, nipples. She delights in pinching people's nipples, and often demands that visitors lift their shirts to show her. And, lo and behold, it seems that Dr. Patterson, her handler and closest human companion, has demanded that at least three female employees "indulge Koko's nipple fetish" - otherwise their job would be in danger. The animal sanctuary where Koko lives has in fact been subject to several million-dollar lawsuits from female employees claiming sexual harrassment by the gorilla and her keeper. (We'll leave aside the idiocy of claiming a million dollars from a charity for endangered species, which seems like the ultimate in taking things too far, to another day.)

So, in fact, Karl was telling the truth - or, at least, something more approaching the truth than Ricky gave him credit for.

Incidentally, you can read a transcript of Koko's efforts to communicate with Aol users in an online chat in 1998 here. It's unintentionally hilarious, and you'll notice that the only things Koko seems to meaningfully be able to communicate are "fine," "give me food," and "nipple". In fact, this transcript should be enough, alone, to put to bed forever the question of apes being able to use human language: all Koko does is talk utter gibberish which Dr. Patterson makes ridiculous mental contortions to try to make sense of. (My particular favourite is when somebody asks what Koko thinks of Michael [another gorilla] and she just points at her foot and big toe repeatedly. This is interpreted to mean that he's a "good male" because, er, 'foot' means 'male' and, er...) In fact, all Koko seems to be able to do is beg for food - and sexual favours - in a slightly more sophisticated way than a dog or guinea pig. After all, as a kid I trained my dog to be able to sit on his hind legs and wave his forelegs back and forth, which is just as good 'sign language' as Koko's if all you want is a bit of beef jerky or a banana.

4th November 2007

11:53pm: Every Man For Himself and God Against All
Without doubt, my favourite director is Werner Herzog. One of my pet hates in any artistic form is people trying to be weird - being deliberately eccentric - which is why I appreciate a true original like Herzog: a mad, weird visionary who never appears to be doing anything less than what he considers he should be doing. There's no artifice in the strangeness of his films - you never get the impression he's being arch or overblown. He's just quite clearly very odd.

My favourite film by him is
Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle - in English, "Every Man For Himself and God Against All" - otherwise known as The Enigma of Kasper Hauser. It tells the story of a man - Kasper Hauser - who has lived all his life in a tiny cave somewhere in the countryside, without any human contact except for a mysterious masked man who appears from time to time to give him food. Aside from that, his only company is a rocking-horse.

One day in 1828, the masked man appears and takes Kasper to the middle of Nuremburg and leaves him there, holding a letter of introduction asking for him to be inducted into a certain cavalry regiment. Kasper can barely speak - his vocabulary consists of only three phrases: "Horse!", "Don't know!" and "I want to be a knight, as my father was." He is taken in by kindly members of the local aristocracy, and the film charts the attempts made to integrate him into society. But Kasper, who eventually learns to speak, read and write in a rudimentary way, keeps asking uncomfortable questions - he can't understand the basic underpinnings of human relationships - and finally he ends up in a kind of limbo, outside of society and unable to comprehend it, yet reliant on others' charity to survive.

I first watched the film not because I had any particular interest, but because a girl I liked wanted to see it - I'm sure most men reading this entry will understand that motivation. So I had no preconceptions or knowledge about Kasper Hauser, and indeed had no idea that the film is actually based on a true story.

Kasper was a foundling - a boy of around 17 who was found in the centre of Nuremburg in 1828 bearing a letter of introduction, as detailed in the film, and who was cared for and 'civilised' by various notaries in the city. (When first found, he had the mental and physical development of a small child; he could barely walk or use his fingers.) Eventually he became able to tell his story - about being locked in a cell for the first 16 years of his life, with space to move little greater than the size of a bed, and with only a rough toy horse to play with. He would be visited occasionally by a man who never revealed his face and who would leave bread and milk - sometimes drugged so that Kasper would fall asleep and his room could be cleaned.

Nobody knows who Kasper Hauser was, although a common theory is that he had some sort of ties to the Royal House of Baden. Some also suspect that he was kept at Pilsach Castle in his childhood, where in 1924 a secret room was discovered containing old rags and a toy horse. But his sudden appearance, and where he came from, remain essentially a mystery.

Odder still is how he ended up: in 1833 he was brutally attacked and killed by a masked stranger in Ansbach, apparently lured there after being deliberately targetted. His murderer was never found.

Cognitive Blindspot.

2nd November 2007

11:05am: Fevered Egos
Generally, I have no interest in celebrities, celebrity gossip, or celebrity reality TV shows. The very idea of 'celebrity' is horrible, appalling, and any number of other derogatory comments, and the fact that people should pay real money to read about the exploits of the unjustly famous is something I find weird beyond measure. People like Paris Hilton and Pete Doherty are undoubtedly, to quote Bill Hicks, "fevered egos, tainting our collective unconscious and making us pay a higher psychic price than we realise" - and the world would be a quantifiably better place if we all just stopped caring about them.

That said, I make two exceptions: Michael Jackson and Heather Mills-McCartney. The former is so odd and his story so bizarre that I can't not be interested in it - like watching a surrealist satire on modern life. The latter, meanwhile, is just so plain awful that I simply must know what happens next. More like watching a train crash.

I strongly dislike Heather Mills. Let's get that in the open straight away. She strikes me as a money-grabber, a fantasist, and a liar, and totally undeserving of any of Paul McCartney's money - money which he earned legitemately, rather than through just marrying somebody rich. But her recent performances had earned her my sympathy. She did an interview on British TV the other day in which she honestly came across as a woman on the very edge of suicide, and her claims - that the media frenzy surrounding her was pushing her to the brink - were compelling. Even if, as most newspaper people point out, she has only herself to blame for stoking up that frenzy in the first place, that still doesn't excuse the behaviour of the British press, which in most scenarios such as this would compare negatively with a pack of sharks.

And then there she is, the very next day, giving an interview in the US blaming Paul for the divorce. And I think, well done, Heather. Cry foul at media intrusion, then show yourself to be a hypocrite and liar - and, worse, a petty manipulative harpy - at the very next available opportunity. That'll get the public behind you.

Meanwhile Paul McCartney behaves in an honourable, respectable and professional manner throughout, almost his only comment being: "
The only solution is to remain dignified. If I don't keep a silence about it, I lose this idea of being dignified."

Dignity? A word so rarely heard these days that it's almost become antiquated. Now here's a celebrity worth talking about.

Cognitive Blindspot.

1st November 2007

7:59pm: Patronising Foreigners
One of the most annoying things about life in a foreign country is, I think, the fact that you're marked out as different and become treated as such, unavoidably. This is especially true if you're of different ethnic origin to the native population, but it happens even in situations where the 'foreigner' is extremely similar to the 'host' - like Australians in England.

I was thinking about this the other night, while watching Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. In it, Gordon was introduced to the staff of the kitchen he'd be 'working with' (trans: shouting at), and quickly discovered one of the chefs was French. He immediately insisted on addressing the man in broken French at every opportunity - answering oui or non to his questions, shouting tu es un putain! at him when he did things wrong - even though the guy spoke perfect English and was probably more adept at swearing than the great Gordom Ramsay himself.

I felt very strongly for that French chef, because I know his position - and how frustrating it is - very well. There is nothing more grating than doing your best to fit in, to assimilate, to respect your hosts by learning the language and behaving as is expected - only to find that at every turn you're constantly reminded of your foreign-ness by people wanting to show off their schoolboy French/German/Spanish/whatever.

It happened to me all the time in Japan, and the tendency of the Japanese to immediately try to speak English - however awful - with every white person they come across, was something I initially found sweet and welcoming. But the longer I was there, and the better my Japanese became, the more irritating and patronising I found it. "I'm not an idiot!" I kept wanting to shout. "I am actually capable of learning how to speak your language! And I speak it better than you speak mine!" But that would have made me come across as a maniac. Perhaps there is something maniacal about thinking such thoughts. But just try listening to a bank clerk or government official or station attendant explain a complicated rule in a language he barely knows, for the umpteenth time, and you'll start to get slightly maniacal yourself. I guarantee it.

By far the most annoying aspect of being a Japanese-speaking Brit in Japan is the tendency for people - even your closest friends - to drop English words randomly into the conversation, even though they know your Japanese is good. Even Mamiko does this sometimes. This morning while I was in the shower she knocked on the door and shouted "Chotto, mirror ga hoshii'n da kedo" - she wanted the mirror - even though she knows that I know the Japanese word for it. But you can't ask why they're doing this, lest you sound churlish.

My favourite example was told to me by a guy I used to work with. He had to go to the dentist, and went through the whole procedure of booking and appointment and describing his symptoms in Japanese. Then when he was laying down on the chair and the dentist was starting to drill, he was told, "Moshi itaku nattara, right hand wo agete kudasai ne."

I mean, if you can understand the rest of that sentence, you already know what the Japanese word for 'right hand' is! And if you don't, then the sentence will still be meaningless. (Although you might be able to guess from context.) So why say it?

I've never quite understood this tendency, and for a long time I thought it was only Japanese people that did it, but Gordon Ramsay has proved to me that British people are just as guilty, so I suppose it's a universal human trait to patronise foreigners.

Then again, I think of the examples I know of foreigners living in Japan for years and never bothering to learn to lingo, and I suppose it's really our fault rather than the Japanese. (And in my experience, the English - and in this I really do exclude the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish - are definitely the worst culprits.)

Cognitive Blindspot.

31st October 2007

1:32pm: Mr. President?
I find US presidential elections very interesting. Partly it's because in Britain we don't vote for our Prime Ministers - only the party - so the idea of actually voting for a person is a sort of novelty. Also, to an outsider, the whole process seems so wonderfully Byzantine; full of terms like "caucus" and "primary" and "electoral college" - it creates an atmosphere of mystery and romance. We just tick the box for who we want to be our local MP, which is easier and more efficient but less quaint and consequently, to my mind, a bit dull. (And, it must be said, often we can't even get that right.)

Anyway, I was reading an article about the upcoming election today in an old Time magazine while I waited for Mamiko at the doctor's (I would never ordinarily stoop to reading Time, but at a GP's surgery sometimes you have to make do with what's available). It had a link in it to this site, which allows you to take a survey and work out which candidate is best for you.

My personal winner is somebody called "Former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel", while at number two is "Illinois Senator Barack Obama", and number three "New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson". This makes me a Democrat, apparently.

At the bottom of the barrell - the candidate I'm least likely to support - is "Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo". Yeah, he sounds like a right twat.

Perhaps some of my cousins from across the pond can explain something about these people.

Incidentally, I've discovered that if you answer 'yes' to every question you end up with Rudy Giuliani, if 'no' you get Ron Paul, and if 'undecided' you get somebody called Joseph Biden (although that seems to be based on alphabetical order).

Cognitive Blindspot.
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