Monday, April 30, 2007

Going off topic

We all need to talk. It’s like food. Conversation is something we need as often as we eat.
Some talk more than others. I don’t have to talk as much as you. Women talk three times more than men.
That’s because men listen only a third as well as women.
But even when a woman is talking to another woman they still talk more.
That’s your impression. But even if it were true, women are better at talking than men.
Oh, I agree. Females are generally the groomers in any species. They empathize with others better, know how to sympathize. Did you know that four times as many males as females are autistic.
And how do they get that way?
Brain lesions. Fewer mirror neurons which help you understand others. More men have a deficiency of these mirror neurons. If you have fewer mirror neurons in the cerebral cortex, this stops you from empathizing with other people. Things that can go wrong with the mind are legion.
There you go again. Treating a serious subject inappropriately and lightly. Taking the conversation off the topic of men and women talking and shifting to the details of autism. You are such a.. a conversational pirate. You pretend to agree, introduce a red herring about autism and then hijack the conversation into your field.
I was only trying to help.

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Autobiographical and semantic memory

Seen any good movies lately?

Yes, one I have to recommend, it’s really good, oh what’s the name of it, it’s on the tip of my tongue. That’s the problem when you get old. You can remember events in the distant past but sometimes you can’t recall what you did last week.

It is a nuisance, isn’t it. You have to choose subjects to talk about carefully. If you went to see a movie on Tuesday you can’t remember the name of it by Sunday. But you do remember you went to see a movie, right?

Yes, and I can recall that it was a good movie, and certain scenes like drawing pictures of little animals, became a series of children’s books, woman writer, she bought farms and bequeathed them to the National Trust.

Beatrix Potter.

That’s it. Movie was called Miss Potter. Oh, I feel so foolish sometimes. I feel I should retire to the sidelines of a conversation. That’s what happens to old people. People talk to them differently. Like only talking to children about certain subjects.

Think of it as a natural process. When you are young you record events and their details in the events section of memory. You use those events to generalize and this governs your behavior. These generalizations and patterns of behavior become your semantic memory. As you get older the semantic memory gets bigger. It doesn’t need all those events to make new generalizations. The character becomes more fixed.

Unkindly put, more inflexible? So how do we keep changing, remain positive, stay fresh?

Maintain curiosity, keep an open mind, observe, do puzzles, be less judgemental, don’t leap to conclusions.

I still want to remember names for faces, and places where something happened.

So take up writing a journal, or drawing.

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Saturday, April 28, 2007


The cat not coming back.
Oh, sure. Sad., yes. But he was a stray. Chances are he found a better place to live.
Don’t you have any feelings?
Feelings? Like anger, sadness, fear, joy, surprise, of course, and what’s the other one?
Yeah. I have ‘em. Sure. My amygdala works just fine.
That’s it. There you go again. You keep trying to reduce big emotional issues to logical explanations. You think we function only by reason? Bet you've never read any of Keats or Shelley.
Odes? To urns and daffodils? I’ve read them. Just as much beauty in a steam engine or a line of clever code.
I’m not just talking about basic emotions. There’s higher ones too.
Well, like sympathy, love, guilt, embarrassment. Even the cat looks guilty when he nicks a piece of chicken off the bench. We can’t do anything without feelings. They get us started.
Could be even more to this emotion vs reason argument than that. There was a manager somewhere, capable, sociable, and all. Had a brain tumor removed, along with bits of his frontal lobe where it was thought reasoning took place. But after the operation, his emotions had gone. He was still logical but without appropriate emotions to guide him he got stuck making decisions and became overly obsessed with details. This balance between feelings and logic, the human mind is an unmapped continent.

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Friday, April 27, 2007


You look a bit slow today. A bit under the weather perhaps?

Went to bed at 3 AM.

Burning the candle at both ends?

Just can’t seem to get started. Today I am positively disabled.

Disabled? You talk of disabilities? Take a look at what you can do when you only have your brain and one eyelid left. Here, Jean Dominique-Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Stabbing in the park

Did you see what happened?

The girl was just ahead of me, walking up the path and suddenly this man on a bicycle rode past and stabbed her.

Not even a word?

Nothing. He just slowed down and poked a knife at her and she gasped and fell, and he rode off. Over there.

Did you try to stop him?

It was all so quick. It was over before I even realized what had happened. I felt so stupid.

Some weird people in this park at night.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Sometimes when I finish work I just want to get on the train and go to sleep

All the way home.

You have to finish my sentences, too? But yes. All the way.

Work went well?

Was OK. But I met Larry or Harry whatisname having a coffee before he tootled off. You know him. And reading…

Don’t tell. The Economist.

No brainer. You know that. Everyone knows that’s all he reads. And he tells them.

To anyone that will listen anymore.

Anyway, he asked me if I was going home by train and I said yes I was, today, because I wanted to snatch 40, and maybe do a puzzle…

Since when you do puzzles on the train?

Well, since, well, last week.


But listen. It must be good for the aging brain. You have to finish it before you get off the train. I just managed it.

What was it?

The puzzle? 4 years ago, Margaret was 7 times older than Joan. Margaret is now 3 times older than Joan. 3 more years, Joan will be half as old as Margaret now. How old are they now?

Ha. Easy-peasey. Mental arithmetic. Answer is… give me a sec. Margaret is 18, Joan is 6. Right?

Right. How come you did that so quickly?

Call that a puzzle? How long did it take you?

Er – bit longer. Nakano to Kichijoji. Bit of margin scribbling. But I reckon I mended some synapses, so much so that I remembered to buy chocolate at the little shop.

Oooh! You’re forgiven.


For being a dunce.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Class photo

All look serious now.

Like this?

No, no, look serious.

Ha ha ha.

No laughing. It’s no laughing matter. This is a serious group photo.


It’s needed for the school paper.

Ha, ha. He wants a serious photo.



It turned out alright. By telling them to be serious they reacted the other way, didn’t cooperate as usual, joked around, and I got a decisive moment. The class chemistry was captured.

Decisive moment?

Henri Cartier-Bresson. Hero of mine.


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Monday, April 23, 2007

Collapsed in the street

Sorry to be late.

What kept you?

There was a woman…


No, no. She’d fallen.

So you had to be the gallant hero…

Listen. She was lying in the gutter, she was scarcely breathing

And of course you had to give her mouth to mouth?

Look, she was about 80 years old, couldn’t speak, sweating profusely…


So I called for an ambulance. The police came first and sat her up, checked her for injuries, there were none, and looked in her bag and found she was miles away from home.

Did they think you had knocked her down on your bicycle?

I worried about that. But after they put her in the ambulance, the senior policeman said the signs were she’d had an attack, maybe diabetes, people fall to their knees and put their hands on the ground when that happens. And that’s just how she was lying.

Like that chap over there?

What? Another one?


Sunday, April 22, 2007

Sunday Bloody Sunday

Used to be Sunday bloody Sunday was an expression of boredom. Totally fed up with that quietest of days. Nothing open, nothing to do. Imagine! A small town in the antipodean backblocks in the 1950s.
Truly Sundays were Sunday bloody Sunday.

Yeah, then there was this early 70s movie with Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson sharing Murray Head.

And then there was the song by U2

And now we have George Bush singing it. Winking and blinking and nodding. Cheered on by Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, even John Kerry and Hilary Clinton. Oh a hoot. Suddenly Sunday isn’t boring or bloody anymore.


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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Garden Gnomes

There. The petunias and marigolds herald spring.

Gnomes too?

Of course. Can’t have a garden, no matter what size, without a gnome.

Some people have a thing about gnomes in gardens. Like they're a symbol of suburbia.

I have no prejudices.

You’re not afraid that someone will kidnap your gnome?

And send him around the world? Like the gnome from Sydney who left a note for his owner: "Dear mum, couldn't stand the solitude any longer. Gone off to see the world. Don't be worried, I'll be back soon. Love Bilbo xxx." As long as he sends me photos to show me where he is I won’t worry.


Friday, April 20, 2007

Bagels and just in time delivery

Sorry, we’re closing.

You have bagels?

We will in the morning. We don’t make them here. It’s not economic. We have no space.

I need them early. For breakfast. By eight.

You’ll have ‘em. Delivered fresh every morning at seven.


Sure. We run JIT.


Just in Time. TC equals Q times kc over 2 plus D times K over Q.

Which means?

TC is the total cost, Q is the optimal order size, kc is the cost of carrying one unit of inventory, D is the demand…

OK, OK, are you a bagel shop manager or an economist?

I am a Japanese bagel shop manager. I worked at Toyota before. I learned to make cars just in time there, now I apply it to bagels.


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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Sumo wrestlers, swimsuits and tattoos in the bath

How fat is fat would you say?

Like when he jumped in and the water all flowed out?

He’d have to be a sumo wrestler.

You don’t know that.

But he was big.

And what’s this? We have to wear swimsuits? In a Japanese bath?

Inside you don’t have to but that pool outside is for males and females. It make a sense.

Translation’s a bit odd. ‘Please wear a swimsuit without fail, in the case that it enters into the swimming pool.’ What’s ‘it’?

And I thought tattoos were not allowed.

Well, it would be a brave bath-house attendant to turn away a yakuza. And sssh. Did you ever see a tattoo that just said ‘Tattoo’?

Hmm, very McLuhan.

As in the medium is the massage?

Very apt. Looks like he has 50 year old shoulder in bad need of some therapy.


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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Honey bees and Einstein

Species die-off. Happening to honey bees now too.
I read that, too. You know, someone has a theory that CCD is caused by ...

Colony collapse disorder. The bees go out, look for pollen but just don't return.
And the bees waiting for the waggle dance get disappointed?

It's no joke. Hives in the United States, in Europe, have lost 60 to 70 percent of their bees. Some researchers reckon, get this, that cell phones are to blame.

on! Cell phones? Hoax again! Conspiracy theory!
Listen, there are studies which show that bees are still going out to look for pollen, but never making it back home again. This happens wherever there are cell phone towers. The radiation interferes with the bees' navigation systems and m
ost never make it back.
So honey will be off the menu from... well when?
That's only the beginning. Bees pollinate crops. I read somewhere that Einstein said that if bees disappeared, man would have only only four years left on this planet.

Whoa! Wait a second. Where's the source for that? Let me google it.... Look, I can't find anything in Einstein quotes about bees. Lots on physics. no bees.
Still, if all the bees disappeared, it wouldn't be a good thing.
With you on that. Einstein or no. Like what the Easter Islanders did to Easter Island.
Sort of, except that their statues were a bit prettier than cell phone towers.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Various shootings

There’s been a shooting.

I heard. In Virginia. Those stupid U.S. gun laws.

No, no, another. Not as bad. I mean only one person, but still terrible, here in Japan. Tonight. Look, Nagasaki, on TV.

The mayor?

Iccho Ito. Terrible. And he was anti-nuclear weapons.


Shot him as he was campaigning in front of Nagasaki station.

I agree, it’s awful, but you know, those politicians, they drive you crazy with their sound trucks, and loudspeakers turned up to max volume shouting their names, yelling vote for me, destroying your Sunday walk in the park.

Yeah, I wouldn’t vote for one of those politicians, but I wouldn’t go so far as to shoot him.

Someone did. Could it have been a crime provoked by technology?

You could say the same of the Virginia event. Handguns available at supermarkets? Lax laws!


Monday, April 16, 2007

Leonard Fletcher

Hello Leonard.

I'm Leo.

Sorry. Fancy a shrimp?

Thought I could smell something besides you.

Hey, wait a second. Back off. Let me get it out of the paper.

Grrr. Gimme. Gimme.

Ow! You slashed me. Look, blood! How about I give you the shrimp if you do that fetch trick.

Just give me the shrimp or I'll shred your hand.

Nice kitty. You've had your rabies shots, haven't you, Leo?

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Yucca with parallel dogleg stems

You’ve had it for a long while, I think…

The yucca? Oh, Since 1986, that’s twenty years.

And it hasn’t died?

They say you can’t kill a yucca. Although Benny in Denmark says not all species will survive as far north as he lives.

It looks a bit funny.

You mean the parallel dogleg stems? Let me tell you how that happened. I went away for a year during, oh, 1994, it must have been. I put the yucca outside the house, so he’d get some rain sometimes, you understand. During that year the wind blew him down so he lay horizontal to the ground and that’s when he started growing those two shoots up towards the sky.

Ah, so when you came back, you stood him up vertically.

Exactly. And the shoots which had already grown about 20 centimeters up, or sideways, depending on how you looked at him, started growing for the sky again and thus turned 90 degrees back again. That’s why the yucca has these parallel dogleg stems.

You don’t think it looks a bit, well, deformed?

He’s not a regular yucca, I grant you. I know, I tend to anthropomorphize him, but, he has loads more character than most other potted yuccas. I couldn’t give him up, not after all he’s been through.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007


Ha, hot buttered potatoes. They were delish.

Why are we listening to Irish music?

My mother was Irish. A country whose biggest export is their people. And I like songs with a story. Same as I like pictures with a story.

Put on some Bach.

All form, no content? But OK. No one will go snooty if you play Bach, I guess.

Is there dessert?

Why not? Life’s too short for bad wine. And as Ernestine Ulmer said, "Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first."

I think Erma Bombeck put it a shade more dramatically, "Seize the moment. Remember those women on Titanic who waved off the dessert cart."

Ooh, I like that.

She was good with titles too. Family - The Ties that Bind... and Gag! Or, I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression. And, The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank.


I could. Good people often do bad things.

Know what you mean. “The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.”

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Friday, April 13, 2007

12 liter cat

The box I ordered finally arrived.

You ordered a box?

Last December.

That's quite a time. Four months.

Back order, it had to come from Italy.

Ah, the vagaries of the Italian
post office. Is that the box?

I'm doing a trial assembly on the floor first. Bound to be something missing.

Four hours later.

, all done. It'll carry a dozen bottles of wine.
Or a 12 liter cat.

Ora è un motociclo vero pratico.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Airport interrogation

May we aks you some question? We are sorry our poor English.


Thanks you. Number one. Are this your bag?

Yes. It is my bag.

Good. Number two. You pack this bag yourself?

Yes I did. Then my cousin threw a couple of things in last minute like. But I packed it myself, yes.

OK. Number three. Did anybody give you something to carry?

I don't carry stuff for anyone. Besides the powder for my uncle in the militia, that is. Normally I only carry stuff that's all my own you know.

Good. Number four. Are you carrying any dangerous goods?

Nothing dangerous. 'Cept the mace and the AK47 that my cousin said I really should take along, but they don't count as dangerous.

Nothing dangerous. Thank you sir. You may board. Have a pleasant flight.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

I want to be an interpreter

You from round here?

You mean, my country?

Yes, where you come from?

The northeast. Near Vietnam.


Not far, but far. I am here for my schooling. First I am monk. Now I am waiter. I save money, learn interpreter.

What languages do you speak?

Lao, Thai, Vietnamese, English. Also a little French.

How old are you?

Twenty, sir.

You learned these languages at high school?

At high school. You have map? Here, Xan Nua.

Your village?

No, high school. My village is only four houses. 20 kilometers more, up a mountain valley.

You go home often?

Oh no, sir. One year one time.

And you go by bus?

To Xan Nua then walk. Have small road but my family are farmers, not have telephone. So I walk.


Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Watch it, there’s a road block up ahead.

Shall we turn back?

No point. Another group has just come out on the street behind. Look.

Any side street we can go down?

No way out. We’re out of bribes. We’re trapped this time.

We could just do nothing. Pretend we’re checking our map or something.

Might work. Give us a breathing space for a bit. They can’t venture far from their ammo supply.

Looks like you’re most vulnerable on the back of a pickup.

Trust no one. Even the girls and children are heavily armed. They take no prisoners and show no mercy whatsoever.

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Monday, April 9, 2007

River moss

Could I suggest some khai paen or river moss as a souvenir?
Moss doesn't sound particularly appetizing. I'm not so vege as to be into lichens and algaes and moulds.
Believe me, it's good. The food's all good here, quite superior to anything they prepare on the Plain of Jars and south.
Hmm. River moss.
It's fried in oil, dried and dusted with sesame seeds. You buy it in green sheets.
Like nori?
Even better than nori. It's in the market. Here. Probably prepared it herself. Highest grade, Ten thosand kip, only a dollar for a big fat pack.
Okay, two.

Sir, sir, how about some water buffalo skin? Or fried grasshoppers?


Sunday, April 8, 2007

We Have Rooms ha! ha!

I park the rented Flying Pigeon on its stand. It falls over. Kun Dom (I later learn his name), watching soccer on TV, calls from reception.
Lock the stand. Bicycle will fall down. Is Chinese.
You have rooms?
We have.
Why ha ha?
Makes good feeling.
Ah, a room with a view. A view of the Mekong. River's a little low isn't it?
Chinese dams. How you like Laos?
Wonderful. One country I can cross the border and still use the same language. My pidgin Thai turns out to be pretty much pidgin Lao.
Not same.
No but the differences are small. 'Thank you' in Thai is 'kop kun,' 'kop jai' in Lao, is it not? 'Good luck' in Thai is 'chok dee', 'sok dee' in Lao. Many important words are the same.
Like 'sticky rice with mango', 'khao niau ma muang.' Very important word.

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Saturday, April 7, 2007


All afternoon spent sitting on the BTS going between Asok and MBK, MBK and Asok, Asok and MBK, because I kept forgetting what it was I was going to Asok for, actually, it was a flight to Laos. I also forgot what it was I was going to MBK for. That was a wardrobe, Despite the bouts of recurring dementia, I finally managed to achieve both. At Asok, Khun Jin was beginning to grimace every time I walked in the door to ask her what it was I came for and at MBK, Khun Waraporn stopped laughing the third time I asked her how tall her wardrobe was.

So are you going to Vientiane or Luang Phabang?

Not an easy decision. Going to Vientiane was cheaper, and mileage counted, but required a six hour bus trip, going to Luang Phabang was more expensive and no mileage but no overland travel problems.

No mileage? And merely to avoid a bus trip?

No, I steeled myself, Remington like, and said damn the miles, I will fly with Bangers Air to LP before global warming forces all airlines to shut down or quadruple their fares to pay their carbon debits. Then I will return to Tokyo, not a pretty thought, but I will be able to make a lot of merit by catsitting Leo for a week.

Where you will be able to enjoy six months of drizzly rain away from this bracing tropical heat.


Friday, April 6, 2007

Rebuff 01

You want to do a thesis on what?
Just that? Talk?
Quite a broad topic, talk.
Thought you might help me narrow it down a bit.
Well. He taps a pencil on the desk. There’s teacher talk, student talk, baby talk, language learning. We do that here. In this department. We ARE after all in education. But just… talk. That’s Sociology.
I was thinking of something outside pedagogy. Like the structure of conversation. Something teachable, in the end.
Hmm. You mean turn-taking, conversational management. That sort of thing?
Probably involve that, yes. I’m interested, you know, particularly in what makes a successful conversation.
His eyes go steel blue, unblinking, behind the glasses. Woolly issue. Stay with pedagogy, I say. Questionnaire, OK. Text, OK. Stats OK. I can help with that. Don’t feel confident with an airy-fairy qualitative study.


Thursday, April 5, 2007


I need a new watch. It loses time; 45 minutes every half hour.
It runs backwards?
Practically. And I have to wind it twice a day now.
Wind it? It doesn’t have a battery?
It predates battery watches. I’ve had it for more than thirty years. My father bought it for me in those Hong Kong days. What kind of watches are good these days?
How much do you want to pay? You want a watch that will last a year or two or one that will last a lifetime or two?
I want one that will keep time and I don’t have to wind up every night.
There’s this one for 300 dollars, runs on a battery, fashion goods maker, or this auto-mechanical one, Swiss, it winds itself when you move your hand, costs 800.
And this one?
That’s a battery watch. $50.
What’s the difference between the $50 watch and the $300 one?
Er, actually nothing. The mechanism inside is the same.
So the $50 watch is cheaper, as reliable as the $300 watch and less trouble than the mechanical $800 watch?
You could say that, yes. But image costs.

A man with one watch knows what time it is, a man with two watches is never sure.


Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Imaginary Conversations

You might remember, there was a man, oh a hundred fifty years ago at least, who imagined conversations between thinkers like Socrates and Aristotle. You might describe them as designed conversations because they were really a series of questions and monologuish answers. I forget his name, William Lammington or something like that, was it?
I think you mean Walter Savage Landor.
That’s who it was. How come you remember names while I am er... challenged?

Anyway, they had to be imaginary conversations because even though he was writing in the 19th century his thinkers had been dead a couple of thousand years before him.
Do you think the technique worked?
Well, when you are used to today’s media interviews with the famous and almost famous, who use the interview as a means of thinking through their ideas, of stopping and starting, editing their philosophy as they speak, the Imaginary Conversations of Landor seem a bit, well, stilted. The sentences are too perfect, the syntax too correct, the thoughts too clear.
That’s what you get. Isn’t it. Using a media that doesn’t match. Like listening to a speaker at a conference read out his or her densely reasoned arguments in a monotone. They force the audience to grapple auditorily with material better suited to presentation through a visual channel. You mean, when you read something, you can regress, refresh your memory on bits you missed.
Exactly, auditory channels are linear, or at least they are if it is a monologue and you can’t ask questions to clarify. Eyes can jump like hyperlinks.
Mind you, teachers and conference speakers now have PowerPoint to make their arguments visual. And you can go back.
Hmm, but I sometimes think some PP presentations are a bit cut and dried with all those bullets and pie charts.
Not to mention canned graphics.

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Tuesday, April 3, 2007


What’s your favorite number?
It’s 3.
I like structure. As in the Three Bears. Or the Three Little Pigs.
Ah. A structuralist. Like Act 1, Act 2, Act 3, eh? So what’s your favorite shape? The triangle?
Mm. Mm. (Headshake) The circle.
A circle?

Mm. What goes around, comes around.
Favorite game?
You quizzing me for some analysis or some study?
No, just curious what your system of beliefs is.
You think I have beliefs? OK. Work this out. Baseball.
Gotcha! Diamonds!
Love ‘em. As in forever. Like the lady said, ‘I never disliked a man enough to return his diamonds.’
You still love them even after seeing Blood Diamond?
Haven’t seen it.
See it. THAT'll make you squeamish next time you pass a jeweller's.