Sunday, December 30, 2007

Dogs and Demons: Japanese Bureaucracy Reviewed

While I was in Japan in 2005 for my post-doc fellowship, I came across a list of books about Japan for gaijin wanting to understand Japan better. Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan by Alex Kerr was on that list. I wasn't able to find most of these books when I was in Japan, and what with moving and new jobs, I'm just now getting around to reading these books, as well as many others that I've put on lists of books to read over the past several years.

It took me several days to get through Dogs and Demons. It wasn't a quick read. And it was rather thought provoking, particularly since it made me see some of my experiences in Japan from a different perspective.

Japan, for the most part, is thought of as a highly advanced country. And in some respects, such as highly efficient mass transit with trains that arrive on time, it is. But in others, it's stuck in the 60s. When I went to get shinkansen tickets from Tokyo to Kyoto when my brother came to visit, I didn't just go online and put in when I wanted to go and get back a list of options to choose from like I would here in the US. Instead, I went to the JR office, and sat down with the ticket agent and explained that I wanted to go from Tokyo to Kyoto on a specific day, returning 2 days later. The ticket agent then looked up in a giant yellow pages type book the schedule of trains for those days. Then he filled in a paper form, then he entered some information into the computer. The original dates and times I wanted weren't available, so he had to repeat the experience with the yellow pages and the form. Finally, I ended up with two round trip tickets from Tokyo to Kyoto.

One of the key points of Dogs and Demons is the extreme amount of bureaucracy that exists in Japan -- the forms, the rules, the unwritten rules. And how unlikely change is to occur because of the bureaucracy that exists and that the people making up the bureaucracy have been brought up in an educational system that doesn't foster challenging the status quo, and while at one point in time, that bureaucracy was efficient, it hasn't kept up with the times. But unfortunately, the rest of the world has passed Japan in terms of efficiency in some ways. Now, if I want to take the train from Jacksonville to Washington, DC, all I have to do is go to Google, and find the right website, and purchase my tickets. But not in Japan.

One of the things I noticed while I was there was the inefficiency within offices -- tasks that have been automated here, such as direct deposit of paychecks, are still done by clerks that walk around and have people sign the register and receive their envelopes of cash. To create sets of copies, instead of having a fancy copy machine that collates and staples for you, each page is copied and then a team of people collate the sets.

Another point of this book was the fact that while Japan is seen as a nation that reveres its nature, its mountains and rivers, it is actually in the process of damming all the rivers, flattening all the mountains, and filling in all the bays -- leaving nothing natural. This reminded me of the view from the train window going from Tokyo to Kyoto - mile after mile of telephone wires, concrete structures, and odd shaped towering buildings. There's nothing attractive about a scene showing a jumble of buildings draped in wires.

For anyone who has spent any time in Japan, this is an eye opening book. While one review on described the book as a spurned lover writing a tell-all, I felt that it was actually written by someone that loves Japan, but is simply disappointed in how things have been managed. The author also covers issues related to the environmental ministry and the fact that it doesn't regulate anything related to the environment; education and rote memorization and how people aren't able to question authority/bureaucracy; the failure of higher education to be a player on the international scene and provide scientific breakthroughs; and the continued fear of foreigners and how the Japanese continue to keep them at arm's length. This book was written around 2000/2001, just about the time the government was reorganizing the various ministries and their responsibilities. I would be curious to see an update to this book at some time in the future from the author.

While I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Japan, this book managed to put in words some of the feelings I had when deciding not to stay and apply for a position at a Japanese university.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Sticky Fingers

We went to Sticky Fingers in Atlantic Beach last night for dinner. Every now and again, there's nothing I like better than some messy ribs. I always go for the rib sampler so I can taste the several varieties of bbq styles.

Memphis Style Dry -- this is a dry rub, and while I'm not used to the dry rub since most ribs come with gooey sauce, I love the taste

Habanero Hot -- these are too hot for me; next time I'll have to ask them to replace it with the Tennessee Whiskey

Carolina Sweet -- these are good; a bit too sweet at first bite, but then the sweetness mellows

Memphis Style Wet -- similar taste as the Dry, but with the gooey sauce instead of the dry rub, good flavor

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Happy Holidays!

I hope everyone is having a lovely holiday season. I'm recovering very nicely from my stairs incident, and no longer look like I've been beaten to a pulp. Some joints are still bruised and sore, but those are easier to hide with clothes than a black eye and huge bump on the head are. Which means I no longer get funny looks or asked, "What happened to you?" with strange glances towards my husband.

Anyway, I've spent Christmas eating. Breakfast was homemade bread, ham, scrambled eggs with cheese, mimosas, mango, oranges, and pumpkin bread. Dinner was turkey, roast beef, red beans, macaroni and cheese, followed by cheesecake. Delicious! And the best part of it was I didn't have to cook any of it.
"The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair."
- Douglas Adams

I have no idea where I found this quote, but I like it.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Sugar Plum Fairy Tutu

I have to brag a bit here... My Mom made the tutu. The full article is available at the Riverside Press-Enterprise site (membership may be required).

Hotel Babylon (the book, not the show)

I just finished reading Hotel Babylon by Anonymous and Imogen Edwards-Jones. A quick read that I didn't want to put down. This book is a member of the industry tell-all genre, like the Nanny Diaries. It focuses on a single day in the working life of a London five star hotel receptionist who ends up working a double shift (24 hours). It was fascinating to see what kinds of demanding, bizarre, weird behavior people spending thousands of dollars a stay will get up to. Or what items on their bill they try and get out of paying.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Reading

At one point in time before one of my jaunts to Japan, I went to Borders and picked up several books to read on the plane. My goal was to find several of the thickest sci-fi/fantasy books I could find, figuring they'd get me across the Pacific and back, plus be there when I woke up at 4 in the morning and couldn't get back to sleep.

One of the series I picked was George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. The first book, A Game of Thrones, I recall reading on one of those trips. However, I don't know what happened to that copy. When I moved and unpacked, I realized I had the second book in the series sitting around. But unfortunately, I couldn't remember the story line, and these books have so many details, so many characters, and so many plot twists that picking up the second book before re-reading the first one again would have made it difficult to follow along.

So I borrowed A Game of Thrones from the library. And I struggled through it. I don't recall it being this difficult to get through the first time around. Then again, I was a captive audience on a plane the first time I read the book. This time, I have a huge pile of other books just begging to be read. I managed to get through the book, forcing myself to finish it. Fortunately, despite the middle part being a bit of a drag, the end was a quick read, and actually intrigued me -- enough so I'm not going to box the second book in the series and stuff it in the storage unit. But I'm not in a rush to read it, either. I'll probably wait until I get through the pile of library books I picked up on Friday.

As for the story line, it's the usual fantasy novel -- multiple families plotting and warring against each other. If you like this type of novel, then go for it, otherwise it's nothing spectacular. I still prefer Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Oregon in winter

In March 2007, before moving to Florida, I visited some friends in Oregon. It was a particularly cold and wintery weekend -- it had even snowed the day I flew up to Oregon in parts of Southern California where snow is seen maybe once a decade.

This is a photo of I-5 heading north towards Portland. Not long after the photo was taken, the sun was out and the ice and frost were melting.
Posted by Picasa

Mission Inn, Riverside

When I was starting out on my big adventure driving cross-country from California to Florida, I decided I wanted to stay at the Mission Inn in Riverside on my last night in town. When we checked in, we discovered we'd been given an upgrade. To one of the Presidential Suites.

This is what we saw when we entered the room.

This is the ceiling of the room. This particular room is located in the rotunda.

This is the view east of Main St. The big building is the Marriott Hotel.

This is the view immediately outside of the room -- Main Street shops.

Posted by Picasa

White Cloud

Meet Zoe, a Great Pyrenees. She's a bit camera shy and I've had a hard time getting a good photo of her. Usually some sound or other distraction happens and away she goes, or she turns her head at just that moment when the camera clicks. In this photo she's just had a bath and has been combed out, so she's nice and soft and fluffy. Great Pyrenees like to be outside, so this is not her usual state. Usually she's got dirt and leaves hanging off of her because she's an outside girl at heart.
Posted by Picasa

Sunrise, Jacksonville

This is sunrise over the Cedar River from the balcony of our apartment, taken at some time during the summer.
Posted by Picasa

EO Inn, Orlando

For work, I've gone down to Orlando a few times. And yes, there is a non-entertainment Orlando, a real-world city outside the Disney-fied entertainment world. So I've stayed at the EO Inn, which is just down the street from the office. It's a small boutique hotel and spa, and if I arrive after about 5 or 6 pm, I have to call the number posted and get the code to open the box outside the door. I think I've actually seen a front desk person maybe two or three times total out of about a half dozen visits. But I love the decor, and the location is perfect. If I'm tired and just want a light dinner, there's a Panera Bread on the first floor of the building.

On one of my Orlando jaunts, I got a room upgrade to a corner room on the top floor. It was great. Too bad I was only there for one night.

This is the bathroom to this room -- his and hers sinks on either side of the bathtub. By the way, they have great shampoos and soaps and lotions. Some places have mediocre and cheap stuff, but this place has the good stuff.

This is the room at the foot of the bed -- two comfy chairs, a desk overlooking the Eola Lake. A great place to plug in the laptop and work. There's also a door opening out onto the balcony, which stretches down the length of the building.

This is the view from the window, overlooking Lake Eola.
Posted by Picasa

Soccer Trip - Miami

We went to Miami in summer for the 2007 ConCaCaf Gold Cup soccer tournament. We watched Canada and Guadeloupe, and Haiti and Costa Rica, in the Orange Bowl, which is now no longer in use apparently. Unfortunately Trinidad & Tobago played in Los Angeles, so we didn't see them play this time. It was an interesting experience. The first game, Canada and Guadeloupe, didn't have that many people watching. But Haiti and Costa Rica had a lot more people show up. I didn't understand a whole lot of the various shouting going on since I speak neither French nor Spanish. And there was definitely a fair amount of exuberance on behalf of the spectators, but not as much as seen on some televised matches in other countries where things fly and entire sections of the stands do something in concert.

In amongst the soccer games we went to, we did some beach and restaurant exploration. And some pool-side reading. All-in-all, a lovely Miami experience.

Posted by Picasa

Miami Carnival Weekend

We went to Miami the first weekend in October for Miami Carnival. These are photos of the view from the hotel room. (I really should start keeping track of which hotel these views from a hotel room are taken from.)

The entire reason for going was to attend all the Miami Carnival functions. We arrived Thursday night. There was some show going on in some arena, but due to the fact that I'm getting older and can't handle going out late at night after working all day, then driving for 5 hours, I opted out of that event. The next night was the White Party, which has been previously been held at the Deauville on Miami Beach. This year it was at a hall out by some medical center that the cab driver had never heard of and couldn't find despite an address and a map. Then, the performers didn't start performing until about 3:30 a.m. We arrived around midnight expecting that the show would start about 1 or 2, based on previous experience. But no, nothing until 3:30 in the morning. And the first performer left a lot to be desired. We finally gave up about 4 in the morning and headed back to the hotel.

Saturday night was another set of performances with food and drink booths. This is usually held at the FIU Campus (the one with the hospitality school). But, no, not this year. This year they moved it to a race course. And as one of my brothers-in-law pointed out, I shouldn't even have expected decent food since the venue was a race course. But despite the fact that the food was merely ok when it was even available, the music was good. And it was a first for me, I've never been to an outdoor concert in the rain.

The final Carnival activity was to be a parade on Sunday. But we decided against going. First of all, there were two parades -- one in Broward County, one in Miami-Dade County. At the same time on the same day. And the fliers for both events listed the same performers. We figured that even though time works differently in Miami than in other parts of the world, the performers we wanted to see would be at the other parade (one of the laws of my world). And it turns out that there was a shooting at one of the events. So we were very pleased that we'd decided that instead of going to the parade, that we'd take a nice long walk along the boardwalk and have dinner in Miami Beach.

Posted by Picasa

Baymeadows Road

This is the view I have when I leave work and head east on Baymeadows Road. I was sitting there (and sitting there and sitting there and sitting there, which is a whole 'nother story) watching the clouds come over.

Regarding the sitting there situation, Baymeadows Road was not built to accommodate the massive amounts of businesses and office buildings that have sprouted up over the past 5 years or so. And the traffic lights aren't timed, either, so I get up to speed and go through one, only to have to come to a stop at the next one. It's the old go, stop, go, stop routine.

Anyway, what I've noticed is that while every other direction at the intersection at Baymeadows and Southside gets to go (westbound, northbound, southbound), the eastbound lanes (the ones I take) have a red light through about 3 cycles of the traffic lights at the intersection. And of course, the most traffic happens to be heading eastward. So sometimes it will take me about 20 minutes to get from the driveway of my office building to the intersection at Southside which is just a mile or two away.

And to help deal with the blockages created by these mistimed lights, from 4:45 to 5:15 pm on workdays, there's a policeman that stands at the entrance to my office building parking lot. When there are a few cars waiting to turn out, he blows his whistle, then walks out into the street, and creates a break so we can turn either right or left.

And people think LA traffic is bad -- at least they've heard of timing the traffic lights there.

Posted by Picasa

A View of Jacksonville

The other day we went for a drive up to Fernandina Beach, just to get out of the house and see if we could find Fernandina Beach. This is a view of downtown Jacksonville while heading north on I-95 immediately past the I-10 interchange, taken from a moving vehicle. (No, I wasn't driving.)
Posted by Picasa

Post Fall Fall-Out

Ok, I've been checked over, and the doctor has declared me okay to return to normal activities after my swan dive down the stairs the other week. The bruises will still take a while to go away, as will the headaches, but other than that, I'm fine.

Which is a relief.

But let me tell you, the black eyes I had when the bump on my head drained were awesome. I should have taken pictures. There were some striking colors that I didn't realize were natural.

Blog Reading Level

Apparently there's this blog reader level test out there, so for kicks, I ran it.

This blog's readability level:

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Arlington Park

Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk is depressing. It makes me not want to have kids. It was dreary.

It's set in a single day in a suburb in England. It covers the lives of about five different couples, each with children. The husbands work while the wives mostly stay at home with the children. It's told from the women's perspectives.

"And what was it all for? What was the point of it? In what sense did the girls, even the scientists, profit from their hard work and their grades? Sooner or later they would meet a man and it would all be stolen from them. That girl with her chemistry textbooks would meet a man, and little by little he would murder her." (p 160) One of the women feels that her life has been murdered by her husband, and that it doesn't matter which man he is, any man would have murdered her life.

None of these women connect with each other, nor are they really connected to their children. They feel disconnected to the world around them, yet there's no explanation for this other than the tenuous one that it's because they're mothers and they stay at home.

Overall, a depressing book. If I have children, is this what I have to look forward to? This book makes me want to find one that will counteract this feeling.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Stairs 1, Karen 0

The other day I finished Cracks in my Foundation by Marian Keyes while at the emergency room at St Vincent's. Why the emergency room, you ask? Well, I'm not quite certain myself. One moment I was hauling my work bag, my lunch, a bag of books, and myself down the stairs, and the next, I was slowly going head over heels, and landed on my back. I still don't know what happened. Although I managed to get myself back upstairs with some assistance from the cabdriver who lives downstairs. I dumped all nonessential items, made sure I had some reading material. He then took me to the hospital.

Note: When whacked on the head, it's hard to fill out those forms at the hospital. I'll be creating a little business card thing that contains all that information I needed for that form so the next time I have it handy.

I'm very glad I grabbed the book, because the tv in the room was too loud, so I turned it off (by the way, I didn't have to wait for my room -- filled out that form and got whisked away in a wheelchair). Anyway, I'm fine. I'll probably have a headache for the next 6 weeks or so since I got hit, or hit my head on something on the way down. (It looked like someone had placed a Grade A XX large egg under the skin on my forehead.) And I have some amazing technicolor bruises. And the one shoulder that didn't hurt was given a tetanus shot, so it's sore, too.

What you don't see in the movies, though, is that when someone has a black eye in real life, it usually is accompanied by some major swelling. My eyelids are so swollen I feel like I'm squinting. And my left eye looks like someone took red and purple eyeshadow and smeared it all around. But it's difficult to see because the swollen eyelids kind of hide the bright colors.

As for the book, I enjoyed it. She had some good points about travel. The essays on shopping got a bit tiring after a while, though. And the short stories weren't as engaging as I think her books are.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Conspiracy Club

I picked this book up (The Conspiracy Club by Jonathan Kellerman) because I've enjoyed Kellerman's Alex Delaware series set in Los Angeles. For some reason, I thought that this book was also part of that series, but obviously I didn't read the back of the book very carefully.

This one is set in a decent sized city somewhere near the plains and also near a lake. It features a psychologist in a hospital who is trying to figure out who killed his girlfriend.

A decent pool-side read, or airplane book.

Hard Rain

I'm finally back into a reading groove, and am slowly but surely making my way through my latest pile of library books. The latest one is Hard Rain by Barry Eisler. It's an action/adventure/mystery/thriller set in Tokyo featuring a half Japanese/half American named John Rain.

One of the reasons I'd picked this one up was because I'd seen it on a list of books set in Japan. I haven't been to most of the places detailed in the book because I tend not to go to night clubs and what not, but I recognized the names of neighborhoods and could picture them in my mind, like Harujuku and Akihabara, or the Asakusa temple area. I always enjoy being able to picture in my mind as I'm reading the setting for a book.

I did enjoy the book -- it was a great book for a weekend read.

Sunday, December 9, 2007


I found the local Jacksonville library branch a week ago. This particular one reminds me a bit of the Riverside library branch on Magnolia Ave. It's an older style building with windows that let lots of light in. This Jax branch doesn't have tons of stuff, but there's plenty of fiction and other stuff to keep me busy for a while. Plus, I can request books from other branches and pick them up at my local library.

In the meantime, I did pick up a half dozen or so books to read. One of them was yet another Dick Francis (Whip Hand). I've read pretty much every single Dick Francis book my Mom has before I moved out to Jacksonville. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to tell by reading the back of the book or the first couple of pages whether or not I'd read this particular one before or not. Turns out I had read it, but I couldn't remember the plot at all. I think I've read so many now that they're all blending together in my memory.

Pasta Sausage Sauce...

This is what we've been calling this recipe from Simply Recipes (Fettuccini with Creamy Tomato Italian Sausage Sauce). I've made it several times now, but with whatever pasta I have on hand and with regular Italian sausage (Publix brand), no hot or spicy (the recipe calls for half regular, half spicy Italian sausage). It's been a huge hit every time, and we highly recommend it. I actually prefer mine without parmesan cheese on top (I know, something must be wrong, me not wanting cheese!), but C prefers his with parmesan.

Anyway, we highly recommend this one.