Mean Train Grannies

Today, as I moved aside to offer the old lady behind me the last seat on the train I was shocked to recieve a two-handed full-body thrust push that spun me around. I couldn’t help smiling at the sheer rudeness as she defiantly glared into my eyes!
I must point out that there are many more nice old people there are on the train who are greatful whenever you give up your seat, but it’s the cantankerous old hags and old sloppy drunk dudes that are the most memorable. Too bad nice people don’t tend to stick in one’s memory the way nasty ones do. Still though, I can’t help but laugh at the mean grannies on the train…

Motivational Competitions

It causes siblings to try to best their brothers and sisters, it causes classes and schools to forget social heirarchy for a bit and come together to defeat their rival teams, and it was the catalyst that spurred on many brilliant minds and philanthropists to make privatized space travel a reality.

X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis kicked off the PopTech conference here with a lofty goal on Thursday: “Our mission is to bring about radical breakthroughs,” he said in his opening-day address.

But I wonder if the public’s imagination can be captivated by the final frontier on Earth as it was by Burt Rutan’s Spaceship 1’s triumph. Space travel and colonization are fascinating, but there is so much that is yet to be discovered on Earth that we could be focusing on in the mean time. Alternative energy sources, undiscovered life forms, and how the many different systems of the Earth work together are just some of the stuff we could better understand if there was more interest, funding, and research put into the marine sciences.
The article mentions the discovery of a deep-sea microbe that eats methane and farts out elemental hydrogen. Now, if only we could capture cow burps, have the bacteria convert them, and use the hydrogen to power our cars, we could reduce bovine greenhouse gas emissions and tap into a previously unimagined source of energy! Dude, that prize is so mine!

Okinawa Revisited

The lovable blenny defends his mighty kingdom against any diver foolish enough to invade his territory, until you get too close at which time he zips back into the safety of a small hole
As I review these pictures from my dives in Okinawa they awaken a hunger for spam, a thirst for good awamori, and a strong urge go to the beach and jump into the sapphire waters that lap the shores of the Ryukyu islands.
And the fish! They were so colorful and delicious that I found myself doing something at Churami Aquarium that I have always poked fun at Japanese tourists for doing whenever they visit any aquarium.
After picking out fresh fish at the market and having the restaurants, situated one floor above, turn it all into a delicious meal, I couldn’t help but stare through the 6 inch thick plexiglass and think of a feast. I remember thinking, “Damn, that mahi mahi would go excellent with a big frosty glass of Orion beer!”.
The warm twang of the sanshin and the crashing surf are beckoning to me, inviting me back with promises of kicking back on the beach with a drink in hand and a full belly after a long day spent in the water. I hope I can make it back to those beautiful islands some day, the sooner the better.

Capoeira West Batizado 2005 Pictures

Yo, pictures are up from the Capoeira West 2005 Batizado:

Justin’s post and pictures
Michelle’s pictures

The batizado brought together groups from all over to Japan, allowing the participants to play against players using a variety of styles and techniques. It was fascinating to see the game being played by such high level players, to observe how the balances between trickery, speed, flexibility, acrobatics, and strength affect the mood and pacing of the game.
The coolest thing about this martial art is that if you look at the faces of the participants, almost everyone is wearing a smile and is having a good time. Though sometimes it is appropriate to strike another player and to inflict injury, mostly the participants do not play to hurt each other, and rather just demonstrate moves rather than carry a potentially dangerous kick or sweep to completion.
I?ve been told that you have to be careful when you play with students from other schools, but I?ve only heard and read about ruthlessness in the roda second-hand. From what I’ve seen in Japan, capoeira does not tend to attract the same meatheads, the guys who are out there to prove their manliness by exerting dominance on every one, that other martial arts do.
I often hear people say that capoeira is not effective as a martial art. Then why haven’t we seen people use it in Pride, UFC, or K1? Well, in these venues, other martial arts have an edge. For pit fight situations like these muay thai, jiu-jitsu, shoot fighting, etc… give a fighter the edge. I would also argue that, like Aikido, it takes a lot of time and practice before one can use it to fight proficiently in contrast to the relatively little training it takes someone learning jiu-jitsu before that training can be effectively applied in a real fight situation. But mostly, choosing to engage in such a fight goes against the philosophy of capoeira, which preaches cunning and trickery over brute strength.
Luring an opponent into attacking and then springing a trap when they least expect it is how the capoerista would choose to engage an enemy. For example, he might feign a retreat or a fall to the ground, and then instantly spring back and ambush the attacker with a powerful kick. And if he is at a disadvantage or starts losing the fight, then running away is a completely acceptable option. This is no Cobra Kai approach to life.
Mestre Bimba was once asked “What would you do if someone pointed a gun to your chest?” to which he replied “Then I would die, my son.”. There is no conventional sense of “honor” in this martial art, which was built from the practical knowledge of those who needed to protect themselves and fight outnumbered and outgunned, against all odds. Survival and learning to thrive amid the hardships of life are the values inherent in capoeira.
In Brazil, capoeiristas are known to fight holding razorblades in their hands and between their toes. The lateral shift of the jinga, the use of cartwheels and acrobatics, and the dazzling movements on the ground look a lot more dangerous if you can picture how these graceful movements could be used to slice and dice an unwary opponent. It?s interesting to note that members of the older generation are viewed both as lawless thugs and as protectors against the government and police. Many of them kept the nightsticks of police that they had defeated in street fights as trophies, and one famous capoeirista actually went into police headquarters and returned his sizable collection to them as a taunt (In case you were interested, these accounts were taken from Capoeira: A Brazillian Art Form by Bira Almeida and The Little Capoeira Book by Nestor Capoeira). Now that?s bad ass.

Public Education: same infrastructure, different environments

Last week, I started teaching at a shogakko in Ashiya, the Beverly Hills of Osaka. It was a breath of fresh air, and once again my motivation has been jumpstarted after 6 months of losing momentum.
A few weekends ago I went to scope out the neighborhood, and spent a whole Saturday skating around town. Benzs, BMWs, Peugeots, Porsches, and other luxury cars make up the majority of the traffic in this area, and it seems like most of the residents here have never seen a skateboarder riding on their streets. The houses are nice and large, there are plenty of well-groomed trees and pathways (makes for good riding), and everything looks either new or well taken care of. In any case, you can tell that the people who live here have some serious wealth.
I took a ride down to the beach, and was surrounded by things that I really wanted to do but couldn’t. A group of kayakers kept pace with me along the shore as I skated towards some sailboats in the distance who were having a regatta. As I passed over a bridge, I paused to watch five separate groups of wakeboarders, who were taking turns riding and jumping down a wide open canal.
Ah, it was so frustrating to see all of these people doing all of these things that I have wanted for so long to do and not being able to join them! I know that I’m lucky to have been able to do even do these sports in the past. But because of my desire to do these things will almost certainly be unfulfilled, I think I’ll stay away from the beach at Ashiya from now on. Now I can better relate to those who have not, it has made me more thankful for all that I have.
The kids that I’m teaching in Ashiya are being raised in an environment so different from my that of my high school. To generalize, most of them have the support that they need from their parents and teachers, come from affluent families, and are adequately challenged by their classes. After teaching only the 4th grader classes for just one day, it is abundantly clear that these elementary school students are better at speaking English, and in many cases reading and writing, than my current high school students. When they grow up, these kids are destined to attend high-level high schools, and are much more likely to set their goals higher and to succeed.
It is sad to think that if my high school students had the same support and education as my elementary school students, they would be so much better off than they are now. Most of them are going straight into work instead of trade school or college, after they graduate in December (this is strange because most students in Japan graduate in April- another sign that I?m at an unusually low-level school). The function of my high school has been to keep them off the streets until they graduate, and to help place them into jobs when they finish school.
I truly like my high school students outside of class. I can see that that most of them are bound to live lives full of challenges that they are ignorant of and ill-equipped to handle. At the elementary school, I can and will make a small difference with my students for the limited time I have with them. At the high school, I will continue to do what I can, but the best thing I can do for them is to reach out to the few students who want to learn, and to talk with the others and share in their good times.
I have had a few small victories in my high school classes. Although they are a lot less disciplined and respectful than what I was used to, the kids generally find my lessons to be interesting, even if I think otherwise. They still read manga, text on their phones, constantly talk to each other, and sleep, but sometimes I can get almost everyone to pay attention to an activity or game. I am convinced that I could make a difference if I had my own class, but teaching at this school as a full-timer would likely burn me out like most of the other students who teach here.
The problem kid’s stack of manga reminds me of forts that I used to make out of sofa cushions.
I am also proud to say that the one ?problem? kid that I was warned “could become violent” and advised to let sleep in class actually pays attention, asks for my help on our assignments, and participates in my lessons. None of the other teachers can believe it, but he’s actually one of my better students. It just goes to show you that there is a way to get through to almost anyone, even the ones that are given up on by everyone else. What he really needs is to be challenged more in class, because he is clearly a smart kid, but that is not the way of the Japanese educational system. Clearly, the system has failed in his case.
I am thankful that I have been able to teach at schools ranging from one side of the spectrum to the other (regarding funding, quality of teachers, resources, etc…). It has given me a perspective on the educational system in Japan that few others have been able to experience. It is easy to see how a teacher who taught in only one or a few other learning environments (for example someone who has only taught in rural, high level, a technical, a remedial, special education, nursery, or the different ranges of trade schools, colleges, etc.) might gain a skewed perspective of the system and make sweeping, case-specific generalizations about the Japanese educational system.
So what are some things that can be done to fix the system in Japan? First of all, people who work for the Ministry of Education should be required to visit a wide spectrum of schools and participate in lessons on a regular and frequent basis, to witness the effects that their decisions and policies have on the students, teachers, and staff first-hand. There are too many decisions being made without listening to or considering the input from the trenches. Problems could be much more quickly, efficiently, and effectively spotted and mitigated if the administrators were grounded a little more in reality rather than basing their decisions solely on second-hand information and administrative theory and speculation.
Next, the goal of students ranging from kindergarten to junior high should mainly be to master conversation with a little bit of reading, writing, and grammar to supplement the curriculum. If learning is made into an interesting subject, then students will start doing better at it. Expecting junior high school students to focus on grammar and non-spoken English is unrealistic (not to mention boring) and has its roots in the Ministry of Education’s old way of thinking. One might think that the head honchos would question why they can?t speak English even though many of them had studied it over several years, and try to make changes to the system as not to repeat the same mistake with the subsequent generations of students at stake, but it just doesn?t seem like they do.
I am also of the opinion that the entrance tests for high schools are not appropriate for junior high school students. The tests put too much stress, even more stress that high school students in the U.S. are subjected to from taking the SATs, on these young children. On the other side, I have heard that the entrance exams for the universities and colleges that high school students take are relatively easy (in general).
Entrance into higher education is more heavily weighted by the high school that one attends than how one performs on the aptitude tests, or on one?s grades, in comparison to western schools. Why is this? Shouldn?t the tests given to older students have a little more riding on the stake of one?s future than the ones given to 14 and 15 year olds? All I know is that I would have never had a chance to go to a U.C. school if the fate of my educational future had been determined by my performance in junior high school.
Putting too much pressure on any living thing will stunt its growth, and I do think that the high school entrance exams have a net detrimental effect on Japanese students (I think that this would be a fascinating topic to do some serious research on). It is so sad to see how much the kids stress out right before the tests. They should be able to enjoy their childhood when they?re still so young instead of carrying an adult-sized burden.
The last big thing I would change in the system is to introduce an emphasis on learning individual, critical, and creative thinking. The perceived need for this change probably stems from the values that I was raised with in America, but it seems that the majority of my students can not or do not want to think for themselves. They prefer to make decisions and think about things as a collective, but wouldn?t it be better if the students could both function well on their own, and as part of a team(I do believe that students in the U.S. would benefit from learning how to work and play together a little bit more and be a little less self-centered in their ways of thinking and acting, but that?s another issue)?
Should this change come into effect, it would greatly cut down on the amount of time that people in this country spend on meetings and consulting with others before actually getting things done. Do meetings really need to be had to decide on when to have other meetings? Again, perhaps this is an ethnocentric goal, but I think it would be a good thing for everyone to be able to express their own opinions at times other than a drinking party.

Random Short Story

I’m not sure how I stumbled upon this (I think I was doing a search on Kyushu), but it was a good short story. I really like short stories, like the ones by by Hemmingway (like the Nick Adams series), Louis L’Amour, Phillip K. Dick, William Gibson, or those by Roald Dahl. It’s amazing how much you can make with so few words.
Lately, short stories are just about the only newly released literature that I can read. I can usually get through a magazine, or peruse a few chapters of a book before my legs start to get tired from hovering around the English section. If only Kinokuniya would put chairs in their store in Umeda, then I would be able to read as much as I like.
The one new book that I actually own and am still working on is America (the book). It is seriously the best book to have over here because whenever I crack it open at school, it looks like I’m doing work. All of the teachers assume that it’s a textbook and that I’m using it for a lesson! Ah, sometimes living in a country where few people are good at or interested in English has its benefits.
On a side note, I’m finding that trying to study Japanese by reading novels is not a very good or easy way to stay motivated. The literary form of Japanese is much different than colloquial Japanese, but I guess it’s the same with English and other languages.
I think most Japanese feel the same way, because they seem to prefer to ingest their words accompanied by pictures. I enjoy reading comics sometimes (right now I’m reading Preacher by Garth Ennis- thanks Huw), but usually I would rather read a book and let my mind generate everything inside of my head than let a comic construct a world for me. Unless I’m tired of reading, of course.

The Darkside of RFID

You should read Bruce Sterling’s post on (a book about) the possible misuse of RFID chips. If you’ve been keeping up with RFID news, the new version of the American passport is slated to have one of these chips imbedded into it, and there has allegedly been little thought given to security issues that will arise from their use (like identity theft and data mining). Don’t know what I’m talking about? You should find out.