Friday, November 18, 2011

I Should Blog More

So this semester, all my blogging words have fallen into the great black hole that is My Thesis.

It's a monster that I have only begun to vanquish. I'm sorry for that, because I liked blogging, and liked the idea that people care about what I write. So I'm thinking of taking a new direction and starting a project I've been wanting to do for a while, which is a creative writing exercise where I make food reviews of food in science fiction and fantasy. It would be quick, and I think fun. I think I'll sample that idea soon and post something, and have people weigh in on whether it's creative and funny enough to continue with.

Friday, August 26, 2011


Hey everybody, if anyone's still reading this regular-like, if you wish for some reason that I would post more, you can head on over to my Rhetoric of Video Games class blog, to which I am contractually obligated to post to once a week!

Mostly, it will be me doing academics, but it's academics on video games, so it should be cool academics!

Check it out at!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Close Reading of Dr. Seuss

I know I have been absent from the blog this summer, you poor faithful readers.  Mostly, it's because I've been having a blast, and it's also because I've been working on my reading list, which is a fascinating but depressing slog through the literature of nuclear fear.  I hope you'll forgive me for the indulgence, but it's going to spill out here, probably more and more.  Plus, I can use the blog to muse about things that don't necessarily fit into my thesis.

Like Dr. Seuss.

I have been reading a history book, By the Bomb's Early Light, and while I am deeply grateful to Paul Boyer for putting such an impressive collection of material together, I've had a couple problems with his use of material.  One is his assertion that a really questionable quote lifted from another source was "widely quoted" even though I cannot find the quote anywhere but his book and his source's book, but what really grated was this:

"Having for years been ignored, the issue of nuclear war suddenly seemed in danger of trivialization.  Theodore Gesell ((wrong spelling of the last name is original to the text)) produced a Dr. Seuss book comparing the Cold War and the nuclear arms race to a quarrel over how bread should be buttered."

Silliest arms race ever?
I can't help but find this massively unfair.  I can't pinpoint the exact moment when I realized that the book Boyer doesn't deign to name was about the threat of nuclear war.  For that matter, I can't remember how young I read it first.  But I am certain that The Butter Battle Book does not remotely trivialize the issue.  Sure, it's a book for kids, replete with colorful art and particularly Seussian goofy language.  Sure, there's whimsy.  But like The Lorax and like the story about Sneetches, the point of The Butter Battle Book is to bring a deadly serious topic to young children, to make abstract adult concepts tangible.  Theodore Geisel (gee, I can spell it right!) did more than just write a book for kids with a silly arms race.

For those of you uninitiated, the story is basically the Yooks, who eat their bread butter side up, versus the Zooks, who eat their bread butter side down. 

At first, the war starts with snitch-berry switches and slingshots.  But then the leader of the Yooks assures a disheartened guard that those are old-fashioned, and the stakes are rising:

"All we need is some newfangled kind of gun.
My Boys in the Back Room have already begun
to think up a walloping whizz-zinger one!"

The "Boys in the Back Room" are portrayed as bespectacled, scientific types.  They don't seem sinister, just... terribly eager.  They're inventing and innovating, after all, for the good of the Yooks.

Geisel also addresses the way that popular culture plays a part:

"And our Butter-Up Band
marched up over the hill!
The Chief Yookeroo had sent them to meet me
along with the Right-Side-Up Song Girls to greet me.
They sang:
            "Oh, be faithful!
            Believe in thy butter!"
And they lifted my spirits right out of the gutter!"

Butter propaganda!
Elements like this, and illustrated posters on the wall in between the Yooks and Zooks that urge Yooks to remember that they are different than Zooks and to keep their butter side up combine to show bread-butter propaganda!  Following hot on the heels of this, the soldier gets promoted, and now that he's a general, the futility of the race doesn't seem to sting as much.  Keep in mind, this is for kids.  Sure, it would be far too ham-handed for an older audience, but that these themes are being addressed at all in a book for readers still most comfortable with rhymes and simple words is astonishing to me.

It becomes clear that the race is getting out of hand when the newest weapon comes with a description:

"This machine was so modern, so frightfully new,
no one knew quite exactly just what it would do! "

The part where the book starts to get downright chilling, however, is when the new general races to the office of the Chief Yookeroo, which is in a state of disarray.  The Boys in the Back Room are clearly frazzled, and the Chief announces, while staying safely behind a wall and using a grabber of some kind to drop a device into the general's hands:

        THE BITSY
               BIG-BOY BOOMEROO!
You just run to the Wall like a nice little man.
Drop this bomb on the Zooks just as fast as you can.
I have ordered all Yooks to stay safe underground
while the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo is around."

Oh.  My.  Gosh.  The man who taught me about counting fishes put the atomic bomb in fiction suitable for tiny children.  That is huge.  From the intentional similarity to the names of the earliest bombs, Fat Man and Little Boy, to the grim nod to the Yooks having to go into freaking fallout shelters, the reality of the situation is clear.  Even kids who don't understand the context are getting the picture of how scary this thing is.  The image of a line of grim-faced Yooks heading into an underground tunnel reading "Your Yookery" is not played for laughs.  It's actually a pretty frightening image.  It is also frightening as the focus goes back to the narrator, the grandchild of the guard/soldier/general, who notes:

"That's when Grandfather found me!
He grabbed me. He said,
    "You should be down that hole!
    And you're up here instead!
    But perhaps this is all for the better, somehow.
    You will see me make history!
Grandpa leapt up that Wall with a lopulous leap
and he cleared his hoarse throat
with a bopulous beep.
He screamed, "Here's the end of that terrible town
full of Zooks who eat bread with the butter side down!"

Imagine you're a kid, identifying with this narrator.  You're imagining your grandpa, a guy you probably look up to, go crazy like this, screaming about the destruction of an entire group of people.  That's terrifying.  And it's significant too, because it's showing how those we trust, and those who have been trying to do the right thing, can be pushed to these total extremes.  It is not a story with a clearly painted bad guy.  These characters are not engaging in mischief with unintended consequences like the Cat in the Hat.  They know the stakes are high, but neither side can bring themselves to back down, and that's a pretty hefty concept to be bringing into a book for young readers.

Geisel does not pull his punch at the end, either.  As the Zook general appears with his own bomb, there is a standoff at the top of the wall.  The narrator, looking on, is clearly frightened:

"Grandpa!" I shouted. "Be careful! Oh, gee!
Who's going to drop it?
Will you... ? Or will he... ?
"Be patient," said Grandpa. "We'll see.
We will see . . . "

And that's it.  The end.  The Yooks and the Zooks do not see the folly of their violent actions, or the similarity of their cultures.  They don't shake hands and agree it was silly to try to harm each other.  They stand on the brink of mutually assure destruction, and the reader is left with the implicit question of whether the situation can ever be resolved.

The Cold War and the nuclear threat trivialized?

I don't think so, Boyer.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Adventure Catch-Up: Food in Japan

Warning - it is possible that you do not want to read this while hungry, because then it might make me kind of a jerk.  Then again, maybe you'll hate all the food in it, in which case I'm still a jerk, but in a different way.

So now I have time to hit on all kinds of things that I didn't before when I was just trying desperately to keep up with highlights.  One of those things is a subject very near and dear to my heart, and that is food.  As stated before, I love food.  I especially love eating food that has been prepared for me.  For any trip, to any place, I want to be enjoying the local cuisine to the fullest, and Japan is certainly no exception.  There are all the standbys of course - ramen, udon, tempura, etc. - but there are also a wide variety of local dishes that tend not to make it stateside, not to mention other kinds of cuisine passed through a Japanese lens.  Then there are the delicious bakeries, where one of my favorite offerings is karepan (ka-re = curry in Japanese syllabary) which is a delicious bread roll filled with curry, then covered in a deep-fried panko coating.  It is one of those fairly perfect foods, and while it is best when it's piping hot and only just deep fried, it's also pretty good cold and somewhat squished and at the top of a mountain.  I ate a LOT of karepan.

One night, we had okonomiyaki, which is a specialty of southern Japan and as much a process as it is a meal.  You start off at a table like this:
That black rectangle in the middle is a hot griddle.  I know what about half of you are thinking, and that is that I should not be allowed near hot objects, but let me say right off that I didn't burn myself even once, so there. Those spatulas in the corner are, natch, what you use on the griddle.  Or you can play silly buggers with them, whatever.
Then they bring you a bowl of stuff.  The base stuff is pretty simple.  There are batter ingredients, cabbage, and egg.  But then you add stuff to make it so much more exciting than just a cabbage pancake.  The restaurant we went to had a ton of options, and I was feeling overwhelmed, so I lit on what I recognized most readily visually.  There was one with garlic, and my companions could all read that its name did indeed have garlic in it, though nobody could decipher the second kanji.  I decided to go for it anyway, and when the waitress came and left, we learned that I hadn't just ordered okonomiyaki with garlic, I had ordered one called "Garlic Bomb."  Well, good thing that I was not hoping for any hot dates.

You get your bowl of stuff, and mash it together, and fry it on the griddle:
When this part is complete (there is a timer to help you), you brush a savory sauce over it, and then put mayonnaise on it, as well as seaweed and fish flakes if you like.  Cale's is pictured here because his was lovely and mine fell apart somewhat.
Then, of course, you eat it, and it is delicious.  The deliciousness is of particular interest to me because I tried making okonomiyaki at home once when I had never had it before, and I didn't much care for it.  I guess the recipe counts big time!

I ate takoyaki in Osaka, where it is most famous, and it is not pictured because I was hungry and devoured it too quickly to leave any evidence behind.  Takoyaki, for the uninitiated, are fried balls of spiced dough with octopus inside, and they are little pieces of heaven.  I can see those looks, and stop.  They are delicious.

The Japanese have a great selection of little cafes, and they are Cale's favorite places to eat, and so we visited a lot of them.  Usually, there's a set menu available that's a great deal (prix fixe, I guess, is the term we prefer here, but it isn't Frenchified in Japan) and usually, they're pretty good.  Little amuse bouche trays seem to be a growing trend there as appetizers.  Some, like this one, were really pretty awesome:
From left: apple and cabbage slaw, steamed mashed kabocha,
eggplant with ragout, seasoned snap peas, and the surprising
star of the lot, a gelled tofu seasoned with salt and Thai basil.
Some, like this one Cale got, were pleasant enough but seemed to be missing a point somewhere:
From left:  Salad with a bit of... meat? Salmon? a single sauced
meatball, and a chunk of French bread.  It helps to know that
this came as part of a pasta set, but only just.
In fact, most of the presentation in Japan is pretty delightful.  They excel at various parfaits and sundaes and desserts, and while they are not by any stretch of the imagination cheap, I consider them well worth it.  Observe:
Parfait from a little cafe in Hiroshima
Green tea crepe sundae from "Fruits Cafe"
Berry sponge cake deliciousness from the cafe "Source" in Tottori
Apologies for the lighting in the pictures, my ability to photograph inside of Japanese cafes seems to be somewhat lighting-impaired.  But I think the awesomeness still shows through.  They do what our high-end restaurants do, but they do it in the midrange as well, and I think that's marvelous.  I know, I know that tasty food is tasty no matter how it's presented, but I love pretty things too.

On that note, let me leave you with wagashi - Japanese seasonal sweets, which are not always tasty, exactly, and many of the most beautiful types in fact tend towards the bland, but they are really darn pretty.  Mine was a wee bit squished due to travel, but I think it's nice anyway.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

On Culture and Cleanliness

I am going to provide an end-of-vacation interlude here.  This is the last internet I'm likely to have before I leave for home on Monday.  I will, of course, continue to post stories and photos from the trip, but they will not be so excitingly on-location.  And by the time you're all sick of of me and Japan (hey, I am not going to torture you with my three million pictures of forest and greenery at least!) we'll be back to regularly scheduled programming.

The interlude is on the really interesting relationship the Japanese have to the idea of being clean.  This has a couple things to do, it seems, with their relationship to technology, but more on that later.

Feet are a problem because they touch the ground, and then whatever is covering them is soiled, and that makes everything else less clean.  Three million pairs of shoes is the solution.  You take off your outdoor shoes to go indoors.  You wear other shoes or slippers indoors.  Frequently, you put on yet more shoes in order to go to the bathroom, because bathroom floors are not of the same kind of cleanliness as other floors.  For me, this tends to mean a lot of sitting up and sitting down to tie my stupid sneakers, because any slight movement in my shoes tends to chafe my poor feet.

The baths are also really interesting, because you go through this whole ritual in order to soak in really hot water, in a public place (in the US, this wouldn't exactly be or feel clean), and it's almost fetishistic in terms of what you must do before you are properly clean.  You go into the changing room, and you leave your shoes by the door.  You get nude, although the long small towel you use tends to be there to provide some cover.  As far as I can figure it, on the one hand, you have to be totally comfy being naked around a bunch of other ladies, but at the same time, you shouldn't be drawing attention to it in any way.  Then you go into the shower and bath room, and you sit on a little stool, and scrub yourself and wash so that nothing from you is likely to go into the shared bath.  This makes good sense, of course, and I'm glad it's this way, but at the same time, some of the ladies wash like they might scrub their skin off.  For me, this is one of the times I feel the most foreign, because my pasty self is on display in ways that it isn't anywhere else, and moreover, none of the Japanese women emerge from the hot bath looking like boiled lobsters.

Then there's the toilet situation, and here's where technology enters the picture.  The Japanese love technology, and that's the stereotype, but tradition also runs strong here, and the relationship with innovation is a little bizarre.  On the one hand, there's the preponderance of traditional squat toilets.  Utilitarian and awkward as hell for those of us raised exclusively on Western toilets, and not particularly easy to associate with a cleanliness-loving society.

On the other hand, there's toilets that do pretty much everything besides thanking you for using them, and I'm pretty sure that's actually an option on some models I haven't met.  On the low end, you get a choice between a little flush and a big flush.  The next step up introduces a control panel with at the very least "bidet" and "spray" options, which are slightly differently angled, and a variety of other features depending on the model.  You might have a blow dry option, or a button that plays a flushing toilet sound for modesty, or a "powerful deodorizer" button that I am too afraid to press.  The really swanky options involve heated seats, a softly lit bowl, and toilet lids that sense your approach and lift for you.

This all seems to be a bit of a muddle, especially when you're coming in with Western ideas of cleanliness.  On the one hand, really super clean, on the other hand... squat toilets and slippers that you share.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

New Adventures

After my mountain hike, I needed a slow morning, so I did laundry and didn't make it out of the apartment until a bit later, and I tried to go to lunch at one of Cale's favorite cafes.  It was closed, and so was the other cafe he and his friends had been interested in.  The place we had been the night before was good but expensive, and so I wandered a while, got interestingly lost, came back, found a curry place I was pretty sure I couldn't order coherently in, and fell back on my standby of finding a bakery.  Curry-filled bread always hits a spot.  My mission of the day was finding the little folk crafts museum, which should be very close by.  I was pretty sure it was an area I had passed directly through.  Unfortunately, directions and maps in Japan are sort of an art.  Neighborhoods have names, but not all streets do.  Intersections of neighborhoods aren't uniform by any stretch of the imagination, and if what you know is that something exists at the corner of a neighborhood, it's a little tricky.   I'm pretty sure I passed the museum like six times.

A big sign would have been helpful.
I know that one of those times, I thought the building was interesting: I snapped a photo from across the street and moved on.  Downtown Tottori was not revealing its secrets to me, and I was getting frustrated, so I decided to go back to a spot by the train station where I found miraculous free wifi and look up the museum again on the Tottori tourism web site.  I looked at the picture of the museum, and stared.  I recognized it, because it was nearly identical to the picture I had taken earlier.  I flipped back through my camera to make sure.  All I had to do, then, was find the building I'd thought was so bloody interesting in the first place.

Shouldn't be hard, right?

I didn't wander in any more circles, but I know I didn't take the most direct route by a long shot.  Still, I found it, and I'm glad.  It was a little museum, but cheap to get into, and full of really lovely pottery and antique furniture.  I wish I had a magic translator, because the history is probably pretty cool.

Then I had a wonderful evening, where we took a bus out to Kappazushi, which is now officially my favorite sushi restaurant in the world.  Not only is it a conveyor belt sushi place, but if you make a special order, a little shinkansen train brings it out to you, and also, the plates are cheap.  Cheapest sushi I have eaten, but not like US cheap where you fear you might get food poisoning.  I will forever dream about Kappazushi.  Also, there is some weird sushi.  Like creamed corn.  And sushi that is little salisbury steaks.  So really, there can be no more complaints about us putting green chile in our rolls, or whatever - tradition is out the window, and that's fine.

I don't know what's going on with my expression.

Then we hit up my first purikura place – purikura are the photo booth pictures that are insanely decorated and customizable, and they put all US photo booths to shame.  The ones we went to also exaggerate your eyes and make them look a bit bigger, so we look almost like anime characters, especially Cale.  It's probably a good thing we don't have these at home, because everyone would be subjected to purikura with me pretty much all the time.

We topped off the night with German beer.  I know, I know, it's Japan, but Cale knows this great tiny German bar here and it's still international, so... hey, it's my vacation, I make the rules.   Besides, it's worth it to sit down and speak broken English with a cute bartender with oompah music and Japanese baseball making a really weird mix in the background.

I'm still behind - this was all two evenings ago - but all the stories will come along eventually!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Japan in Pictures

Okay, here's the deal with blogging.  I'm back in business, but only sporadically.  We can connect a computer (not mine) to the internet, involving some witch doctoring, and I can get pics off my memory card.  Techies, you can feel my pain; the situation is that the setup here is a separate modem and router - modem issued by the isp and wireless router bought separately.  The router is experiencing tremendous problems, but there is no support for it in existence in English.  I would love to help my friend upgrade the firmware, but it turns out I only know how to support these things in one language.

So here goes, a bunch of pictures!

 Here's the giant squid at the prefectural museum!  Soooo huge!

This part of the museum was like a love song to taxidermy and preservation.  It was really interesting, but the mothball smell got to be a bit much.  There were a lot of pinned bugs, too, and many of you will be totally unsurprised to find out that I took pictures of pretty much every insect display.  I will not inflict them upon you here, gentle readers.

This is in the history section of the prefectural museum.  It's a kirin outfit - they're a big deal around here, since they presumably live in the hills.  I guess they chill with dragons and such.  There's also kirin on a bunch of things throughout town - carved benches up and down the main street.  I was disappointed that Cale has not named all the benches and given them personalities.  I would.

This is the Hiroshima Peace Park memorial arch.  Through it, you can see the Genbaku Dome, preserved as it appeared after the bomb exploded almost directly above it.  I have now traveled - although indirectly - from the place the atomic bomb was born to the first place it was used as a weapon.  And if that's not freaky, I don't know what is.

 Here's the big torii gate at Miyajima.  People used to have to boat through this in order to be pure enough to set foot on the island.  We came by ferry, unpurified, and I hope the various kami and spirits understood.  We went under some other gates getting there, so maybe we weren't too terribly unclean.

Miyajima is serious business though - one of those big holy spots with a very long history of being holy.  It's also frigging gorgeous.

 Here's Cale stalking one of the Miyajima "wild" deer.  They are supposedly notorious for eating lunches and ferry tickets, but mostly they seemed sleepy when we were there.

The brochure warns that they were wild animals.  I've met wild deer, and these ain't them.  These were spoiled, entitled, FAT deer.

I totally hiked all the way to the top of this.  Heck yeah.
Here is a snake friend I met on the way up.  Snake friend was like three feet long.  I wanted more photos, but she was camera shy, so I didn't get much.

Here is the other friend I met.  This friend is about two inches (three-inch wingspan) of stinging death.  The story of this encounter goes as follows:

A couple years ago, I watched some nature special that introduced me to the concept of Japanese Giant Hornets.  I had encountered the name before, when I was trying to identify some monstrously large wasps eating our apricots, but hadn't paid attention since we were in Albuquerque, not Japan.  But the show I watched described in horrific detail their propensity for savaging hives of honey bees, which European honey bees have no natural defense for, and how if you stumble into a nest of these hornets, you are pretty much dead.  I have always feared wasps - I have been stung by them on numerous occasions - and so the thought of the uberwasp really scared me.  But I consoled myself with the knowledge that I was terribly unlikely to find myself wandering through rural Japan.  Ha ha.

Cale warned me about the bears, boars, snakes, and poisonous caterpillars in the mountains, but when you get right down to it, nothing is as likely to kill you as these freaking wasps.  But I figured my chance of seeing such a thing was pretty slim.  I wasn't going off path, I wasn't out looking or anything...

So I was almost all the way down the mountain and I noticed raspberries. "Wow, raspberries!" I went, and leaned in to see how extensive the bramble was.  It sounded like there was a small animal moving around in there somewhere.  A sparrow, maybe?  Mouse?  Another snake friend?  Then I heard a sound like a small jet engine, and the creature pictured above hovered out of the bramble.  "Oh shit," says I, articulate and relaxed, as one would expect.  "Oh shit oh shit.  Is that really... oh shit."

Hornet had his own business to be about, though, and once I got over the fact that I was seeing an insect from my nightmares, I thought I'd better document the occasion.  Sorry it isn't the best picture, but I was remaining 8 feet away at all times, because... well, look at it.