Moore Than This

"Here we are living in paradise, living in luxury..."

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

CNN reports something worthwhile shocker!!

The "Lazy Sunday UK" rap (aka "We Drink Tea") gets bigger and bigger. A short report from CNN on online video sharing features a (very) brief clip of Sam and Raph representin' for Cambridge.

To think I'd see the day when CNN actually showed something worth watching. Meanwhile, the Illimms boys have come up with a patriotic rock ballad entitled "America (I Love You)". I'm not hoping for similar exposure on US news channels, but go watch it for a none-too-serious look at how the world sees America.

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Coming home in a body bag

My snowboarding trip to Nagano was great fun. I went with CIE students Josh, Joe, and Patrick, as well as our Japanese friend Shoji and Joe's friend Joey (yeah, I laughed too) who is studying at Nagoya. We got to Hakuba (the area where our ski resort was) via night bus from Kyoto - 11pm to 6am. When we got there we found that they charged an early check-in fee for giving us breakfast, as well as various extra charges on equipment hire and insurance - a very efficient scam. However, having Shoji with us, we were able to negotiate in Japanese and the rental guy ended up giving us discounts on almost everything.

So we hit the slopes, after having travelled on a bus all night. I did pretty well on the beginners' slope, and migrated with the others to the slope above. Coming down that one, I came a cropper and twisted my ankle pretty badly. I was forced to complete my descent very slowly. Fortunately, after dinner that night we went out to an onsen, where we soothed our various aches and pains.

Rather more unfortunately, after a slow start on the beginners' slope the next day, I went up again the next slope, where I twisted my ankle again. This time there was no question of finishing the descent, especially as I injured myself only a few yards from the ski lift. I crawled back up there and explained my predicament to the staff. With my cack-handed Japanese (and Shoji's help) we managed to convince the staff that I was in urgent need of rescuing. A very hot Mountain Rescue girl appeared from out of nowhere and told me that I'd have to be evacuated via the 'rescue boat'. I was like "Rescue boat? That's not covered by my insurance fraud!" (cf: Futurama), imagining a huge helicopter appearing from above. The rescue boat was actaully like a canoe on ski runners, that zipped up over the passenger. It was basically a body bag on skis, as I realised while frantically pawing at the zipped-shut canopy. What's worse - facing a steep mountainside with an injured ankle, or being fastened inside a tiny space? I had ample to consider the question as I was speeded down the mountain. The first thing I saw when I was unzipped was my friends congregating to see what had happened to me (now you can see what they saw!).

I spent the rest of that day (our 2nd at Hakuba) resting up at the hotel with an ice pack on my ankle. Following that excitement, I took it much easier the following day. After trying the baby slopes, I returned to the slope where I'd twisted my ankle twice and navigated it without any further injuries, thanks to the zig-zag technique that Shoji had taught me the first day. By the time we all met up at about 4:30, we had a lot of stories to tell; we'd split up according to ability and gone separate ways on the mountain. We went to the onsen again, and finished up with a cold beer - the best way to relax after a day on the slopes. All in all a very good break, and I think I've caught the winter-sports bug, despite the lack of much daredevil black-diamond slope action on my part.


Friday, March 24, 2006

Still my university

So Frank Ellis has been suspended. My feelings and thoughts on this have ran the gamut over the past month, from initial revulsion to a more considered argument, but never forgetting that Ellis's comments are deeply wrong and offensive. However, I think that Leeds University's reasons for suspending him are all good, particularly the third one:

Dr Ellis has failed to comply with reasonable requests given to him by his employer. For example, we asked him to apologise for the distress which his remarks on race and other matters have caused to many people inside and outside the University. He has not agreed to do that. Nor has he given us an undertaking to make it clear in public that scientific questions about the differences if any between different racial groups are questions which lie a long way from his own area of academic expertise as a lecturer in Russian and Slavonic Studies. And he has failed to give us an undertaking that he will make no further public comments suggesting that one racial group is inherently inferior (or superior) to another unless there is no possibility whatsoever that anyone hearing or reading his comments might reasonably associate him with the University of Leeds. The University is clearly and publicly distancing itself from Dr Ellis’s comments on race.
The apology argument IMO is that as his employer, Leeds Uni has the right to ask him not to stir up trouble in the workplace - and that was all it was, a request - which he refused (see this post on Ellis's Irving-esque free-speech-marytyr complex) He is not being silenced for fear of "stirring up" the student population - there are no reports of Mohammed cartoons-style organised protests designed to intimidate. Moreover, the fact that he's also refused to recognise the difference between his published comments and the scope of his work is sure grounds for disciplinary charges (which, as the university press release notes, "is not in itself a disciplinary penalty").

The press release concludes with the statement that "The disciplinary process might take some time to complete ... the University intends to make no further public comment on the case until the conclusion of that disciplinary process." In the absence of a comment from them, I will simply say that they have done the best they could from a tricky situation. I await the outcome of the disciplinary procedure for further comment, but until then, I'm still proud to study at this institution, and that a degree from the University of Leeds means something beside the amount of credits notched up.

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Tasty moments

From our Nagano trip:

Waking up on the bus to discover a landscape covered in snow (銀世界). Haggling with the rental guy, and getting discounts which we didn't ask for. My first go on a snowboard. Going up on the ski lift, marvelling at the pure white scenery around me. Falling over for the first time. Falling over many subsequent times. Falling down badly and twisting my ankle. Stuffing our faces at the hotel buffet. Recuperating from the day's efforts at a local onsen. Falling over and twisting my ankle again. Getting evacuated down the mountain by a very pretty Rescue Patrol girl. "Don't tell me how to live my life." The three essentials: snowboarding, onsen, beer - a perfect last day.

More detailed blogging to come. But this provides a pretty good taster.
Photos now up.

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Monday, March 20, 2006

I am the jester in the ancient court

I'm off to Nagano this evening, via all-night bus from Kyoto. If I can update while I'm there, I will, but if not then this blog will be a bit quiet for five days or so.

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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Green beer

This from Of Rice and Zen, a very funny blog about an English teacher's experiences in Japan that I recently discovered:

Seeing loud drunken gaijin being inconsiderate with sound waves fills you with shame and anger. You vow never to be seen in public with such DG again. In fiction this kind of hubris usually comes before an ironic fall into a big pile of bathos.
This pretty much sums up my St. Patrick's Day yesterday. I went to Murphy's in Shinsaibashi, Osaka, allegedly the first Irish pub in Japan, to celebrate with some Australians. Yes, I became that drunken gaijin, swilling down overpriced green beer and getting my face licked by pretend Irishmen. I am not proud.

I returned to Osaka today to buy some CDs - the new Belle & Sebastian album, and Delays latest, which was an impulse buy. I saw them supporting the Manic Street Preachers in April last year, and they seemed to be going away from the winsome indie of their debut album to a more muscular, electro-pop style. B&S also take a more musically in-your-face stance on their new album. Good stuff all round.

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Friday, March 17, 2006

What's Britain really like?

To anyone who has often pondered this question (whether from the UK or not), I now have the answer.

My good friends Sam and Raph from back home have come up with a UK response to the SNL "Lazy Sunday" rap. It's called "We Drink Tea" and it gives you the full lowdown on what life in Britain is really like.

Go watch - seriously, it's a lot better than anything else you could be doing right now.

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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

You know you're living the crazy gaijin stereotype when...

You find yourself standing beside a busy motorway on a freezing March night waiting to cross to the other side to get sushi, throwing shapes at the speeding cars while your friend belts out numbers from Fiddler on the Roof. 'Nuff said.

Today is White Day, the counterpart to Valentine's Day a month ago, where boys give chocolates (traditionally white chocolates and almonds) to girls. Oddly, in contrast to the enormous hype leading up to Valentine's Day, there wasn't a single tie-in or promo display to be seen. I managed to buy some chocolates before setting out with friends on the sushi escapade, but in doing my bit for the stereotype of useless men managed to leave them back at the dorms. I'd nip back to get them, but the icy turn the weather has taken in the past few days has led to snow swirling past the CIE windows. Braving Arctic conditions to get chocolate is a bit much - if I'm going to end up dead in a ditch trying to impress girls, it had better be for something really spectacular.

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Sunday, March 12, 2006

Work: as unappealing as ever

Hope you enjoyed the "supersized" post on freedom of speech. I get bonus points for writing it when I'm supposed to be revising for my midterms next week. They don't really seem real at the moment. It's a real pain-in-the-arse byproduct of Kansai Gaidai's per-semester admissions policy that you have four (count 'em) exam periods per academic year, and I frankly never thought that I'd do more exams per year in a foreign country than I would in the British education system. Well, I suppose if there's one place in the world that's more exam-obsessed then Britain, it's Japan.

Fortunately, after that we have "spring break". (The gradual creeping of Americanisms into my lexicon bothers me, but everyone here uses the term, so I should just "get with the program". There you go. I think a part of me just died.) I've arranged to go to Nagano with a few American and Japanese friends over the break to learn snowboarding. I'm looking forward to it - it'll be my first real go at winter sports, and it makes up for not going skiing with the family when I was back home for Christmas.

I have (to my shame) spent the weekend trapped in the hermetically-sealed bunker atmosphere of Seminar House 4, caught between desultory bouts of kanji memorisation and chatting on to similarly non-motivated students. Have to get out and do more stuff. This semester's going far quicker than I expected, and not in a good way.

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Saturday, March 11, 2006

Free speech - the big post

Talk to most people about freedom of speech, and they'll advocate the right of people living in a free society to anything they want - within limits. Support for "pure" free speech is never as prevalent as it seems; there are always qualifications. There are legal restrictions against certain types of speech that would go against the law of the land (incitement to murder, racial hatred et al). Therefore, "pure" free speech is an illusion in any organised society. However, as the world gets smaller and communication and travel grow ever easier, cultures and beliefs will run up against each other and one person's free speech will be another person's incitement.

Witness the Jyllands-Posten cartoons. If you were reading the news in late January/early February '06 you'll know what happened, so I'm not going to re-link all the news stories (the Wikipedia entry has a decent potted history). What struck me on reading further was how manufactured the controversy was. A group of Danish Imams had toured the Middle East with a dossier of the cartoons, which happened to include three obscene and racist ones which weren't published by JP. (One of them wasn't even a cartoon.) The newspaper apologised to anyone who might have been offended, but that wasn't enough for extremists who wanted the Danish government to apologise (a stupid and impossible demand, as Denmark has an independant media), and then stirred up hatred towards Denmark, other European countries, and anyone who republished the cartoons, Christian or Muslim. For them, the cartoons weren't offensive. It was the climate of free speech that allows the mockery of dogma and hypocrisy that they find offensive.

It was a very odd time. Protestors in London carried placards saying "Kill Those Who Insult Islam" and "Freedom of Speech Go To Hell". Funny, they were all for it when they were carrying those placards - but dead against when it concerns Danish cartoonists. Were those placards part of the give-and-take of opinion that defines a free society such as Britain? Well, yes and no. I was outraged at the opinions expressed at the protest, and surprised that no arrests were made. At the same time, it created a backlash by Muslims against those extremists who claimed to share their religion. (UPDATE: As of 15/3/06, three people have been charged over their role in the protests.)

David Irving, of course, was not nearly as fortunate. The liberal arguments against his prison sentence seemed to ignore the fact that he had simply fallen foul of the law in Austria, and this was no sinister PC conspiracy. If he had said the same things to a far-right conference in the US (as he had been intending to), he'd still be a free man. I think that the Austrians had every right to prosecute him, given their history and sincere wish to to make amends, but that jailing him will in and of itself be counterproductive. As he alleges himself to be a historian, his views should be challenged by the standards of historiography. During his libel action against Deborah Lipstadt, the historian Richard J. Evans completely discredited Irving. His evidence proved then and proves still that Irving is no historian, but a shady character who twists the facts to fit his prejudices.

Which brings us nicely to Dr. Frank Ellis, of the Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies of Leeds University. I came across a decent post on Ellis' racist comments and his seeming desire to turn himself from a previously obscure academic into a free speech martyr:
Why is the nature of Ellis' defence important? It tells us he wants to be a martyr. Unable to prove his position with legitimate (peer-reviewed) evidence, he's instead looking for proof that the liberal elite Guardian reading establishment is silencing him.
I wrote previously that his belief that there was scientific proof that black people have on average a lower IQ than white people meant he was unable to think logically, and therefore shouldn't be teaching, let alone in a university. I still believe that. But nevertheless, the overwhelming emotion when I wrote my post was visceral disgust. I didn't want this man at my university. I wanted him out. I wanted him kicked down the stairs of the Parkinson Building to lie sprawled face-down in a litter of fast-food wrappers and discarded club flyers (bit of local colour for you there). If someone's views are that repugnant, you find it hard to acknowledge that they can be talked to, rather than just shouted down. However, the only way to combat bigotry is to argue with it, defeating every point as it comes up, forcing their retreat into muttered accusations of "political correctness" and conspiracy theories, and eventual shamefaced silence. Don't sack Ellis. Prove him wrong, and then let him resign without honour when he's been comprehensively discredited.

This is why Irving is by and large a spent force, at least outside the neo-Nazi gutter. This is why jailing him seems slightly superfluous - his greatest punishment was the destruction of his reputation at the Lipstadt libel trial. This is why silly cartoons should never give extremists a free pass to insult "the West" and its freedoms. Free speech means the right to give and take offence, the right to argue your point against others, the right to be wrong, stupid, bigoted, hateful and offensive. There will be a lot of arguing. But if you're on the side of truth, you will eventually win.


Wow, this really is a big post. I bashed through this pretty quickly, so didn't have time to link in all the other articles and posts I've read recently that inspired me to write this. Here's a few of them; they're all worth reading.

Liberal Elite: You have the right to be offended
Normblog: Offence, give and take
Harry's Place: Act now and Don't act now
Timothy Garton Ash: The tyranny of the group veto

Liberal Elite: I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.
Normblog: Mockery of the Dead

Devil's Kitchen: Ellis's article in Leeds Student, plus some commentary which I disagree with. My opinion on the article itself is in the comments.

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Thursday, March 09, 2006

"Maybe I can fill the void with lots of urgent calls..."

The past fortnight has been a real drag. I've been working loads, but with precious little sense of achievement. Most of the work/revision is for weekly lesson tests in my Japanese classes, which I usually only see coming about two days in advance. So I'm revising like mad for these, and when I have a few clear days I just crash and spend my free time either sleeping, on the Internet or watching Scrubs (Season 3 DVD). This lack of direction is eating into my other classes. I submitted my project proposal for Issues in Contemporary Japanese Society and Culture this week, and got it back today with "OK" and a few other scrawls from my teacher across it. I don't know where I'm going to go from here with it. I have no conception of working towards something, or what my future goals might be. I honestly can't think of anything I want to do beyond passing this year. And then getting back to Leeds. And ... then what?

I just feel adrift at the moment. Adrift in work, in personal relations, in my plans for the future. Although the quote from the mighty Peep Show that titles this post shows that at least I still have my cynicism.

N.B. The Frank Ellis controversy is still rumbling on. My first post on it was written kind of in the heat of the moment, and my opinions are still pretty fluid. Inspired by the Mohammed cartoons, David Irving's Austrian prison sentence, and other events in the news, I'm trying to write a longer, more considered post on freedom of speech, which will hopefully be up soon.

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Monday, March 06, 2006

Crash wins Best Film Oscar

Congratulations, Paul Haggis and co. I saw Crash's UK premiere at the Cambridge Film Festival last summer, and thought it was an amazing film. Here are my impressions of the film, that I wrote on a messageboard soon after seeing it.

Crash defied my expectations - in a good way. I had expected it to be worthy and oh-so-sensitive. How wrong I was. From the eerily abstract opening sequence, set to Don Cheadle's soliloquy about the isolation of living in L.A., the film gripped and didn't let go. I find a lot of films set in L.A. to be generally dull and self-regarding (apart from anything by Michael Mann), but this harnessed the ensemble cast formula of Altman's Short Cuts and lashed it to a powerhouse plot that explored the nature of prejudice, hatred and love without becoming at all politically correct.

There are no easy answers in this film. The audience is simply left to make up their own minds from the actions and words of the characters. The fact that a low-key domestic scene between a husband and wife can be as gripping as the astounding car-crash rescue sequence halfway through the film should give you an indication of the quality of both the writing, acting and direction. Crash signifies the arrival of a major new talent on the US indie scene.
I wrote this before I knew Haggis wrote Million Dollar Baby, but it still rings true for his debut directorial role. Apart from the slightly annoying soundtrack (the use of faux-ethnic choirs to indicate Something Very Sad has happened is neither subtle nor moving), there isn't a single criticism I'd make against the film. I can't wait to see what Haggis will come up with next.


Sunday, March 05, 2006

Not my university

Bad news back at Leeds, where apparently a university lecturer has expressed racist views in an interview with the Leeds Student newspaper.
In a row that has reignited the debate on the limits of freedom of speech, Frank Ellis, a lecturer in Russian and Slavonic studies, sparked anger after stating, in an interview with the university's student newspaper, that he was an 'unrepentant Powellite' who thought that the BNP was 'a bit too socialist' for his liking.

Ellis said he supported right-wing ideas such as the Bell Curve theory, which held that white people were more intelligent than black people. '[It] has demonstrated to me beyond any reasonable doubt there is a persistent gap in average black and white average intelligence.' Repatriation would get his support, he added, if it was done 'humanely'.

Now students are preparing to picket his lectures, protest on campus and bombard the vice-chancellor with emails calling for Ellis to be removed from his post.
If he was stupid enough to say all this in the context of an on-the-record interview with a student newspaper, then he deserves whatever he gets. Personally, I'd be very happy to see the back of him, not just because of his noxious and offensive views, but because his stated belief that the Bell Curve theory "proves" that black people have lower intelligence than white people shows that he is unable to think logically and rationally, and therefore should not be allowed to teach.

To be honest, I'm just really saddened to see stuff like this at my university. Hopefully they will show him the door soon enough. More cheerful blogging soon to come.

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Solar flare

solar flare
Originally uploaded by moorethanthis.
Took this photo today on campus. Sitting down on a row of steps, organised into stairs for a kind of colloseum effect around a circular stage. The huge disc acts as a shade over it, to keep the sun and rain off. I think it's a nice effect when the sun shines through the panels and dapples the stairs. I never usually bother to take photos of the things I see everyday, but I think photography is starting to turn into a hobby for me, with Flickr as an impetus. I'd like a better-quality camera in future, but for now it's good to know I can take decent "arty" photos with an average point-and-shoot digital number.


Character acting

Following on from the short aside about studying kanji a couple of posts ago, I remembered an article I read some time ago on the story behind a Chinese word. Among the kanji I'm plowing my way through at the moment is "危機" (きき, or kiki), which means crisis. The two characters which make up the word are '危' (danger) and '機'(opportunity). This is exactly the same as the Chinese word which gave rise to the belief that "in Chinese, danger + opportunity = crisis". It's been the springboard for a mysteries-of-the-orient view that the best time for finding opportunity is in a crisis. Seems to me a slightly patronising, orientalist view of things, like those businessmen who read samurai texts to improve their business skills. The article debunks this view very nicely, and you learn a bit about the Chinese language as well. What more could you want?

Also, I referred to kanji as 'ideograms' in the previous post. I've since edited it, as Prof. Mair puts me right in the third paragraph of his article:
Linguists and writing theorists avoid "ideogram" as a descriptive referent for hanzi (Mandarin) / kanji (Japanese) / hanja (Korean) because only an exceedingly small proportion of them actually convey ideas directly through their shapes. (For similar reasons, the same caveat holds for another frequently encountered label, pictogram.) It is far better to refer to the hanzi / kanji / hanja as logographs, sinographs, hanograms, tetragraphs (from their square shapes [i.e., as fangkuaizi]), morphosyllabographs, etc., or -- since most of those renditions may strike the average reader as unduly arcane or clunky -- simply as characters.
So now you know.

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