Book Shelf: The Milkweed Triptych by Ian Tregillis

I waited a bit so I could read and cover all three of these books in one fell swoop – Ian Tregillis‘s Milkweed Triptych – Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War and Necessary Evil.

The overall story arc takes place in a forked alternate history starting in the 1930s, and ending in the 1960s by the end of the third book.

Though some one line blurbs pitch the trilogy as “British wizards vs. Nazi superman”, that’s a bit simplistic, and misleading. The books themselves also address this too, quite early on, so lets just lay down the the overarching premise.

The nazis have enabled humans to control fire, cold, be invisible and other abilities via their willpower by hardwiring their brains with electrodes drilled into their skulls, hooked up to special batteries, leaving them all with trailing wires hanging from their heads. This is the work of scientist Von Westarp, who as the series opens, is experimenting on orphans.

Upon discovering this, the British have looked to a group of old and grizzled warlocks as their own secret weapons. To be straight though, this is not a Marvel supervillain vs. Gandalf story. The warlocks do not perform magic as such, more they negotiate with supernatural entities called Eidolons for actions like freezing swathes of Europe, or providing a fog curtain across the English channel, all of which have a price. These negotiations are conducted in the allegedly ancient language of Enochian, and Tregillis’s descriptions of these characters are superb in places.

Boiled down, the two main character protagonists (or perhaps that should be antagonists) are Raybould Marsh, a British spy, and Gretel, a product of a Nazi medical experiment who is a kind of clairvoyant. Of the supporting characters there is Will, a reluctant well-to-do junior warlock, and Klaus, Gretel’s brother. It can be argued these characters are more three dimensional than the main two, struggling with decisions somewhat made for them. Will’s dislike of the blood prices he exacts to ‘pay’ the Eidolons grates on him, and drives him to breakdowns and swings in character. Klaus lives in his sister’s shadow for decades, trying to extract himself and finally know himself and make his own decisions and more than his sister embodies the result of living when someone can see your future.

Whilst Klaus’s ability is to become ghostlike and pass through solid objects, Gretel is able to see timelines and where decisions may lead. These abilities cease when the user’s battery runs low, as it amplifies their willpower, so batteries become a strategic tool in the books. The question you find yourself asking by the second book, is that unlike her peers, does Gretel even need the battery? These peers include the sadastic Reinhardt, with his ability to incinerate things, to the mentally crippled Kammler who drools, and must be directed by a handler, whilst his kinetic powers flatten any object.

I should say that it appeared to me that Tregillis hates Marsh – all the worst things in the world happen to him, and he almost dumbly plods on, as just a point of anger, driving the story. He’s not the only tragic character – most of the characters are tragic, such as poor Heike, another product of the Nazi Dr. Westarp’s experiments who is essentially talked into suicide, before her corpse is then the victim of another characters twisted affections.

The Milkweed Books
The Milkweed Books

The first book essentially covers the war, then moves forwards twenty years to a Cold War where the Soviets have been reverse engineering Von Westarp’s work, and then the final showdown in the UK. The title of the final book, “Necessary Evil”, is interesting in that it’s difficult to believe which of the evils was actually necessary, as they all seem like more of an excuse.

It’s a well written set of books, which seems was always intended to be a trilogy, as setups you don’t even notice in the first book pay off in the last. It does feel planned and structured, over the retcon some writers can be forced to do over such a long arc. This is vital though to build belief in Gretel’s ability to divine futures and steer events down the one line she needs. Tregillis outright poses one such line in Gretel having Heike kill herself so the Soviets would put her brain in a jar for study, and that that same jar would be kept in the same facility she is held in, years in the future, so that she can make use of that jar. It’s a combination of talent, foresight and sheer cruelty.

Each book is standalone to some extent, but I really can’t imagine enjoying any of them outside of the trilogy; it truly is a triptych – a whole divided into three parts.

The final book wraps up most of the loose ends and finally addresses the very physical, sexual tension which builds for three books between Gretel and Reybould. There’s more chemistry between those two characters than between Reybould and his own wife, trapped between his hate, and Gretels fear and detachment.

In summary I would say the books are definitely worth a read, and in case you’re wondering, it is a setup where it’s not clear who the ‘good’ side are, and perhaps none of them are – both sides ruin innocence and in a fantastical universe show the way wars make people do deals rational people would never entertain. There are some parts of the ending which I would liked to have been more decisive, but overall, after the three book journey, it does satisfy, and you realise the kind of willpower Gretel possesses not just because of her powers, but as a person, and how far that can drive Reybould to extraordinary lengths.

Bitter Seeds – Amazon.com
Bitter Seeds – Amazon UK
The Coldest War – Amazon.com
The Coldest War – Amazon UK
Necessary Evil – Amazon.com
Necessary Evil – Amazon UK

Icon Patrol Glove

I’m one of those people who likes to get out on his motorbike most days of the year. Since I don’t pack it away from September till April, I’ve found it’s useful to have a nice, warm pair of winter gloves, ones which are preferably waterproof to an extent too, even though here in central Japan, the  winters aren’t even so wet.

So, when my old gloves were declared worn out, I went looking for a new pair. I don’t have any electrically heated kit, so I needed something basic, relying on the material only. I’ve always heard good things about Icon kit, but never actually tried any, so I looked through their glove selection, and bought some of their Patrol Gloves courtesy of local distributor, AFGMotosports. The local bike groups over at JapanRider and Gaijinriders seem to rate them too. Reseller Revzilla did a video review.

icon patrol glove

I’ve had them for a few weeks now, and I have to say I’m quite impressed. Firstly, the sizing – I went for the size above that which their website suggested – getting XL over L:  when you measure, go in three dimensions, and not flat across the palm, and opt for the larger size if you’re on a boundary.

The glove fits very well, nowhere is it tight, though the fingers do feel a little short, but fine for me. The thumb has plenty of freedom, so indicators aren’t an issue, and so far, no embarrassing misses and catching the horn.

The construction looks good and you feel protected – the large knuckle protector adds to that sense, and so far, nothing is coming unstitched. That gauntlet long wrist cover section fitted well over my jacket too, meaning there were no irritating breezes coming up the jacket arm. I also like the reflective section – I’ve made the mistake of having too much black in my gear over the years, so I’m always looking to improve my visibility level. The main materials are goatskin and the waterproof textile, with some synthetic suede on the wear points.

I’ve worn them around town, and over a 200Km run, where it was ~5-10deg.C and they kept me sufficiently warm for the most part, and still felt comfortable on the handlebars, despite the wind, and you don’t sweat in them either, a problem with some (cheaper) gloves. In the rain, they do indeed keep your hands dry, but as the waterproof layer is beneath, the outer layer will appear wet at times, but that’s fine.

They’re worth the 75USD in my opinion, and again, I bought through the distributors here in Japan – AFGMoto – who are keen to sell kit in either Japanese or English and seem to offer decent pricing on a lot of their kit, so no arguments there. I have to say, if like me, you tend to do these things over e-mail, their response time is usually excellent.

Bookshelf: Outliers

What makes people successful? Is there anything to the nature vs. nurture? What other factors impact success?

These are the kind of questions Malcolm Gladwell asks in his book ‘Outliers‘, drawing on anecdotes of people, both well known and no so well known about what had to happen for those people to become famous.

He runs through cases such as Bill Gates, and the factor of being born at the right time and with parents able to afford to buy his school a very expensive computer. Certainly, he had skill and acumen, but he was also in the right time at the right time – other equally ‘smart’ people perhaps were not. Some of the anecdotes are interesting, and follow quite long explanations of historical social rules. Some others, such as the opening chapter, illustrate how arbitrary rules like deciding the cut off dates for being in an ice hockey team can enforce an artificial limitation on some due simply to being born at the ‘wrong’ time of year, rules which are likely actually reducing the overall number of high quality professional players.

Though again he extrapolates from individual cases to show a theory or trend, some are educational; whilst I was aware many Jewish people in Europe became shop owners due to land ownership laws, I didn’t realise that in the early twentieth century, many Jewish immigrants became lawyers when the job paid little and many were pushed into merger and acquisition work as the dirty end of the profession – a part which would stand them in good stead in later years as the area took off.

Of course, this is anecdotal, and some of his ideas begin to stretch theories, such as ‘Asians’ being good at maths due to the kanji system and rice growing. For me personally, his assertion that Japanese are good at math due to long school hours, may or may not be true. Having worked in Japanese schools, I doubt it – it’s likely more that the schools here teach to a test, and little else, and it’s rote learning. That said, the idea that a small generation sandwiched between two larger ones has he benefit of more lower class sizes and so on, is intriguing.

Gladwell also has a decent theory that it takes 10,000 hours to get great at something, and many also fall by the way side by the sheer amount of work it can require in going from good to great. It also seems to equate to about years. In all he sees most of the successful as a crossroad of nurture, nature, timing and endurance.

Quirks aside, it’s a readable and personable book, and the telling of individuals’ stories makes it flow nicely, and will at least leave you asking some questions about the infamous ‘conventional wisdom’.

[Buy the paperback from Amazon.com – affiliate link]
Outliers: The Story of Success

[Buy the Kindle version from Amazon.com – affiliate link]
Outliers: The Story of Success

Nexus 7

So last month I bought my first tablet – a Google/Asus Nexus 7.

Nexus 7
Courtesy of Google Play Store

There hasn’t been much in the way of gadget updates here in a while, due mainly to a lack of necessity and general interest to be honest, but one of my personal situations, is that I have a decent commute to deal with on a daily basis, and I’ve wanted something with a slightly larger screen to watch documentaries than my phone, and read some textbooks on which are mainly .pdf based, and thus a little too complex for my normal Kindle Reader. One thing I have learned from my Kindle though, is that that form factor is great for reading whilst sitting or standing on the train.

The iPad never really grabbed me for this task, just feeling that bit too bulky and heavy, and judging from my fellow commuters, that must have been right as there aren’t many people with them on my JR line.

Previous Android tablets just seemed to lack a certain polish to me, but when the Nexus 7 came out, it piqued my interest, so I put a bit of money aside, and picked up the 32GB version (24,800yen / ~290USD/ ~ 180GBP)  the same weekend the iPad Mini came out – though that was 13,000yen more!

The Tegra 3 based hardware is excellent, and rugged – the rear mounted speaker is surprisingly good for film watching and podcasts, and the sound quality via the headphone socket seems decent. The tablet is snappy, and media playback of even 720p material on the 1280×800 display looked fantastic. There’s no point me going overboard on details here – you can easily pull reviews of this thing off the web. One the hardware side though, note that you don’t get headphones or much else with this – just a USB power adapter and micro USB cable.

My only previous Android experience had been on a phone I borrowed, so I was essentially new to the Android system. It probably took as long to figure out as an iOS device really, from scratch. The Google Play store isn’t bad but it takes a little getting used the scary sounding access rights the apps ask for, but basically this is just putting up front what iOS apps are doing anyway. As for finding the apps, I’m still figuring out some equivalents – all the main social apps are there, but I’m still looking for a podcatcher like Downcast, though I’m currently testing a few out. I have to say though, being able to just install stuff on this thing after plugging it in, and not have to mess around with iTunes feels great, though you now sort-of have to manage the files. Also note you need a special app installed on a Mac to mount it currently (Android File Transfer).

In summary then, the Nexus 7 has exceeded my expectations – it’s very smooth and reliable, has decent battery life, and can survive being the recipe guide during Sunday Dinner preparations and  has survived both kids abusing it. (Note that for novels, I still use the Kindle)

Book shelf – Rendezvous with Rama

It’d been a while since I read some classic science fiction, so I just finished up Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘humanity’s first encounter’ work “Rendezvous with Rama”. Somehow, this is the first of Clarke’s sci-fi books I’ve ever read, which, given the man’s stature in the genre seems almost strange in itself.

The last couple of first encounter books I’ve read have been quite different. I thought ‘The Mote in God’s Eye‘ by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle was well crafted, but somewhat laborious to read, and though interesting, just didn’t quite hit the spot. After that was ‘Blindsight‘ by Peter Watts, which I found far more interesting, both for the aliens and their native habitat, but also for the rather dangerous relationship between the human protagonists, who appear far more of a threat than even the most aggressive alien. It’s also available as a free e-book still I think.

Of course, most first contact novels work along the lines that they act as a mirror to the humans race itself, as we project our own fears onto the unknown.

Rendezvous with Rama‘ takes a different tack, partly focusing on the state of humanity at the time of the event, relaying the politics of the planets, but also playing on the fact that actually, first contact may be, as in Rama’s case, a fleeting bypass where we only get a tiny glimpse of an alien civilization as it speeds through on it’s way somewhere else, in this case, in a giant cylinder which is intercepted by a makeshift commercial crew as the only people who could intercept it in time.

The novel plays up the limited time angle well as you know the book is nearing the end and they just don’t seem to have got to the core of the alien concept, and then it looks like they might, only to be dashed as they have to abandon the mission and head back.

I don’t want to give too many spoilers away, but it’s fair to say it’s more about the idea than the characters, who aren’t too deep, but the pacing it excellent, and you’re always checking how many pages are left, hoping they can crack the clues in time. It’s perhaps not true hard sci-fi, but it isn’t fantastical either, and most of the developments follow a well thought out premise and the world and the potential creatures encountered do seem to obey the rules of the world within the cylinder.

It’s definitely worth the read, if you haven’t read any classic sci-fi lately, or if you’re looking for something that just unfolds for you.

Bookshelf: Wool

It’s always good when you happen upon a book series by an author you don’t know, and it turns out to be very decent indeed. I was actually introduced to the ‘Wool’ series written by Hugh Howey by a friend who happens to be an avid reader. Wool as it currently stands is a 5-part compendium of short stories, and some further prequel reading in ‘Wool – First Shift’.  I picked the 5-part omnibus up for 5 USD on Amazon as a Kindle e-book.

wool

I don’t want to give too many spoilers here, but it’s almost inevitable. Essentially it’s the story of the people of the Silo in the future. The remnants of humanity live in a bunker called the Silo, unable to go outside, and indeed forbidden to even speak of the intent.

The silo – 144 floors going down into the earth – has simple governance, a sheriff, a mayor and groups of levels tasked with functions such as hospitals, mechanics, IT, food production etc., all connected via a massive spiral staircase from top to bottom with porters running messages and goods up and down. On the top floor are massive LCD screens showing the brown apocalyptic view outside, the scene coming from cameras mounted outside which gradually degrade in picture quality from the never ending toxic winds until someone speaks the words that they wish to go outside, at which point they are suited up and sent outside to clean, using wool pads to clean the cameras – and hence the title ‘Wool‘. They always clean, and they never come back.

The stories get progressively longer, with some characters continuing from one short story to the next. The writing is functional but does lend a certain claustrophobic feel to it, and you can feel the author’s development and confidence grow with each of the 5 initial story lines. Much of the drama revolves around the interactions of the Mechanics who keep the generators running, pump oil and live in the bottom floors, and the IT department and it’s somewhat sinister boss. There are a good collection of characters, and fortunately Howey is willing to kill off characters as required which I count as a plus (I’m looking at you, most manga series!), meaning there’s some good weight and consequence to the stories.

Howey also manages to give more depth (so to speak) to his world as he goes on without any of it feeling too reworked (or retconned) to fit the earlier stories. Whilst some of the twists are a bit obvious he still managed to pull a few from nowhere even in the 5th installment.

Again, I can’t go too much into the plot without spoilers, but much of the revelation and plot drive is based on the simple questions we would have in the Silo – why is it there, who made it, what is it’s history?

For 5 dollars it’s worth a download (or buying the print edition) to find out.

Wool

The 2011 Nutshell

I’ve never been one for massive reviews of the year just gone by – it always seemed somewhat redundant if not impossible to squeeze 365 days into a post – but here’s a few observations of 2011, and some things I’m hoping to look into in 2012.

Obviously 2011 was dominated as far as events go by the massive earthquake of March 11th, and the thousands which followed it and the social questions it triggered. Right now it seems we’re back to ‘normal’ levels of earthquakes. It was all quite surreal. For me, the trip to Iwate to help in some of the tsunami clean up re-enforced how resilient people can be in the face of true tragedy, even the though the continued leaking from Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor captured the news headlines.

On a smaller, but also personal note, our family car was written off in July by some person running a red light, but thankfully no one was injured in either vehicle. It also seemed odd that in 2011, hospital staff were complimenting us on having our kids fastened into the appropriate child and baby seat, but it brings home the fact that still in Japan, children are either held by parents (or more usually, grand-parents), or are allowed to wander around the vehicles whilst in motion.

But enough about me.

One thing I have been following was my meagre 25USD Kiva investment, which is now 91% paid back by the Mật Sơn 1- Đông Vệ Group, who I loaned the money to as part of a larger group loan to help their manufacturing business. I’m now going to re-invest that amount into another group, and add another 50USD to my fund and support another group. Right now I’m looking at fishing as well as manufacturing in Asia. I think microloan groups are a worthy investment to help communities grow and support themselves, and since I live in Japan, any money would accrue such tiny interest it’s hardly worth it anyway.

This blog actually hasn’t done too badly this year, going from ~150 to 450 views per month, but it’s a personal thing, so thanks to those people who visit it. Every now and then I think I should spend more time on it, or concentrate on a single vertical, but in truth, I’m interested in a lot of things, so it’s unlikely I could ever settle on one thing. WordPress does let me pull out the five most popular posts of 2011 though, so here they are!

1. Home page
2. Dog Day (犬の日)
3. The Baker and the Bromate
4. Volunteering in Iwate Prefecture
5. New Header Photo: Heads
6. Quakebook

OK, so the home page doesn’t really count I suppose, hence the #6 in there. The Dog Day post I noticed a while ago constantly gets a few views per week, which has convinced me to do a few more articles on perhaps lesser known Japanese cultural traditions. ‘The Baker and the Bromate’ was probably the most researched post I’ve ever done, and I was quite pleased with it; the ‘Volunteering in Iwate’ pretty much wrote itself, and I was pleased to receive a few emails to say it’d helped people prep for their own work there. The new header photo post making the top 5 is probably more of a tribute to Jaume Plensa and his sculpture work – thanks Jaume! Bringing up the top five then was my review of the crowd sourced ‘Quakebook’ which was put together after the quake to get some peoples stories out, and help raise fund for survivors of the tsunami.

I was also quite surprised that two of my posts were mentioned in podcasts – the ‘Baker and the Bromate’ post was on JapanTalk #228, and the slightly more whimsical post about the “City of Ghosts” story was mention by John C. Dvorak on the No Agenda podcast.

Towards the end of the year I decided to give the National Novel Writing Month a go – writing a 50,000 word novel in a month. I’ve written short stories and such over the last five years, but this was a whole new scale of things. As you see from some of the posts, it somewhat took over my life for the month, but I was actually really pleased with what came out, and over the next year I’m hoping to revise it a little bit to make it at least readable and understandable to a third party.

Right at the end of 2011 I stepped in to update the tokyotoyrun.com website at the last minute to upload info for one of our large toy runs, which was the first web coding I’ve done in a very long time – at least it seemed to render OK and no one complained. I think in 2012 I’ll spend a bit more time on the overarching site we’re looking to put these toy runs under, reviewing some old HTML, CSS and JS knowledge, and see how it goes.

So on the whole, 2011 ended a bit more on the upbeat than it was looking at the beginning, but a reminder that the people of Tohoku are going to need support for a very long time, and I hope the Japanese government stop squabbling and mucking about, and actually deals with the issues.

2012 then, should be a good challenge, and I’m looking into new professional qualifications, language tests and whatever else is of interest after the family time and work!

Baby & Child Product Recommendations

This is a bit of a different post for me, as I delve not only into product recommendations, but product recommendations for babies and small children. As some way of qualifying the following, we bought these products, and they worked for us, through two children, both born and raised in Japan, though you’ll quickly notice these are not Japanese products. These weren’t always the cheapest, and often weren’t the most popular, but we found that for our attitudes and lifestyle, they just worked, and they lasted and they endured the punishment two children and parents often put items through.

Obviously things are quite good in Japan in regards to being able to rent almost anything with regards to children, and often the economics work out, though sometimes they don’t, versus buying items. Also, unlike perhaps the UK or other European and North American countries, the culture of passing things on to friends and so on has only just started to grow, so often we couldn’t pick things up from friends, though we have managed to pass some items off to good homes after our second was finished with them. Anyway, here are five things which really worked for us (most of these were bought 2006-2008):

Stokke Tripp Trapp
Basically it’s a baby high chair, except it can be altered and adjusted to fit kids and adults of all ages. It’s incredibly simple, has no moving parts, requires no awkward strap adjustment, and is based on a simple ‘Z’ design. You can get a high chair with a built in, and often swing over table part, but we often heard tales of banged heads, and that the table part actually placed the baby too far from the family table if they were attempting to feed the baby when everyone else was eating too – which is what our two kids definitely preferred. We looked around, we spoke to friends, and we tested in shops, and ultimately went for the Stokke – it meant the kids could be near the table to feed them, was massively adjustable, easy to clean, simple to make and generally fitted the elegant simplicity I kind of like in products. They’re incredibly well built, and can be put together in minutes by pretty much anyone. I notice now there are quite a few look-a-likes, many cheaper, but I’d be willing to bet this is still better value for money.

Airbuggy
The search for a pushchair is a fraught one in Japan – prices just seem to have no ceiling, and much is fashion led. When we bought our Airbuggy in 2006, it was one in a corner of Babies R Us, and I think was the only pneumatic tyre three wheeler in the shop. Everyone else was fondling the MacLarens, and eagerly adding accessories. I played with the MacLaren and other small wheeled ones, and decided that when on smooth concrete and in shopping malls, they’d be great, but we knew we liked ‘off road’ – old paths, the big parks, the beach, the mountains, grass, the fun places for kids. A four mini wheel wouldn’t cut it for us, and we risked the AirBuggy. We never regretted it. In truth we had a problem with the frame after one year – we mailed the company a photo, not expecting anything out of warranty, but they replaced the frame with no questions. Also, they provided much cheaper accessories and support generally. As we glided down small stone and sand paths as solid wheeled Combis dug grooves and were pushed by out-of-breath parents, it became apparent the extra size and weight of an Airbuggy was a small trade off since the weight when pushing it was much less thanks to having real wheels and tyres. One thing though – especially with foreign baby cars – make sure they fit through a Japanese train station ticket gate. Though AirBuggy has Japan based models, ours was an early one, and only fitted through the wider gates. Not a huge issue, but something to remember. (And yes, pretty much every manufacturer now has a 3 wheel version!).

Baby Bjorn Carrier
When baby is tiny of course, you need something secure to hold them in, as you may be a nervous parent yourself. We looked at a whole pile of carriers in several shops, and basically they break down into front carriers (I suppose ‘dakko carriers’ in Japan) and rear carriers (‘onbu’ ones). There are pros and cons to both and many parents have almost fanboy (fan-mothers?) devotion to them. We went for a Baby Bjorn front carrier. We decided the padding and adjusters were good more mother – father – and child (I couldn’t get some carriers on). My wife preferred a front carrier as she was concerned at not being able to see the child behind obviously, but also that her hair would get in the baby’s face.

Flexa Bed
As they get bigger and need a bed over a cot, you want something which will last a few years, but something which will be safe whilst they’re still flailing around at night. Again, we looked and looked, and in the end found a small shop selling these (oddly Flexa don’t seem to mention Japan on their international site at the moment). The Flexa system is, as it’s name implies, designed to be flexible – you can all fences to the bed, then later add stilts to make a bunk-bed, or a study desk space, even add a slide. It’s all thick solid wood too, but easy to home assemble – and disassemble and re-assemble as I found when we moved! Again, you pay for it, but when we looked at ‘kiddie’ beds, they either looked flimsy, as in the case of most themed ones, or just small or impractical.

Macpac Koala
Sometimes you just don’t want to take a buggy, or cant, and want that flexibility of when the child fitted in the front carrier, but now is far too large for that. This then is a child carrier pack – it’s essentially a state of the art hiking backback, but with a child carrier and some storage built in. I really like this, and we’ve done some excursions where even the AirBuggy would have slowed us down. It’s well padded and adjustable, and we added the sunshade and all containing rain cover too. It makes the child feel much, much lighter, and there’s enough space for some nappies, food and such at the bottom. It also has some supports so it can stand up on the ground as a seat though we always tethered it to something like this, so it couldn’t fall over! It was great for snow trips, walking around hills and ruins and such, and kids love being high up and seeing everything, but without the aches for parents of a prolonged piggy-pag.  I haven’t seen too many people with these in Japan, and indeed I bought mine from New Zealand, but they do have similar ones in some hiking shops (Jimbochou has several shops with them), and I’ve actually been asked a few times by curious fathers, who took notes of the brand and model, so there’s definitely interest here.

So there’s five things we found worked for us – again, totally personal requirements. I could go on about the things which didn’t work for us – for example: the ‘oshiri fuki’ (bum wet wipes) warmer we had recommended to us for use in the winter, which did nothing but dry the wipes out – useless. Some people recommended boiling milk bottles over microwave steaming them. That lasted 2 days as I remember before I was dispatched to get the small microwave container. My parents still wonder why we even entertained the boiling option.

We’d be interested to hear any other good hits, or hilarious misses on baby kit. I think Mrs. Nanikore will write a post at some point (in English and Japanese though) on things which worked for her – or didn’t – much closer to the front line.

Bookshelf: The Four Hour Work Week

It’s been a while since I added anything here on the Bookshelf, though rest assured, I’m always reading something! In fact, I’ve just finished reading Tim Ferriss’s book “The Four Hour Work Week” (4HWW) (he just released another ‘The Four Hour Body”).

The book aims to be a guide to ‘lifestyle design’ and has gained an almost cult following around the world. Much of the premise revolves around the 80/20 rule which Ferriss adheres to, more commonly known as Pareto’s Principle which Ferriss does acknowledge further on in the book. Basically – you can get 80% of things done / achieved (good enough), with 20% of the effort, and the question is whether than last 20% is really worth it. He shows how you can create a business (initially on the side) which is self sustaining, and from which you can increasingly step away from thanks to outsourcing and subcontractors. If you had a 9-5 job, then the key is remote working agreements, and then you can travel and do what you want to do with your life whilst building that product and outsourcing the rest. This is how it’s a four hour work week.

The resulting book, is one third potentially useful and interesting, one third useful if you’re Tim Ferriss or like him, and one third is almost silly, but it’s all entertaining and really is best described as ‘career porn’. That’s what this book is – a product which can generate money without much work from Ferriss now, so he can, and does, outsource routine matters and is living what he says – and in the book he tells you how to do that.

When you look at reviews for the book, those people who slammed it are generally against the ethos – that somehow this is cheating: he ‘won’ a martial arts tournament by dehydrating himself for the weigh in, then boosting back again adding kilos of weight against his opponents and then pretty much just bear hugging them and forcing them out of the ring to win (there’s a few clips on YouTube of this). Ferriss makes the point that he exploited a loophole in the tournament’ rules, and didn’t break them. It’s very much up to the reader, but that a book elicits that kind of response is interesting in itself.

The truth is Ferriss is very smart, and puts his money ostensibly where his mouth is – perhaps the tournament push-outs weren’t in the spirit of the event, but he did turn up and get in the ring, and that takes a bit of skill and guts as it is.

The book is full of links and product recommendations – most links in there smell like product placement, and yes the whole thing smells like an infomercial, but at least it’s a readable ‘reality distortion field’ informercial if nothing else, and again, you’re simply holding a sample of what he’s talking about – it’s about sales – there’s a reason Ferriss won a “Greatest Self Promoter” award and why his Wikipedia page is relatively bare for someone so high profile online – it’s all about sales – the tips in the book can be found elsewhere – he’s wrapped it up, added an angle and sold it. It’s about sales, sales sales, and expertly done.

You might wonder whether I actually liked the book, and ultimately I did, but not because I believe so much in the message of the book – it isn’t for me – but viewed as a sample product, and as an example of what Ferriss is selling it’s very good, and there’s are some good tips and reminders in there, many of which you can apply to many aspects of your life and work.

For a different angle on this type of idea though, I would recommend Gary Veynerchuck’s “Crush It“, 37 Signal’sRework” or David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”.

Quakebook, a review.

Out of all the tweets, blog posts, Facebook updates and everything in between, which flew around in the initial couple of weeks following the beginning of the quakes in Japan on March 11th. 2011, something coalesced together – partly intended as a record of note of the event and those affected by it, whether locally or internationally, and partly intended as form of fund-raising effort for those survivors of the tsunami, with the side-effect of raising awareness of what actually happened.

That thing was the #quakebook – “2:46 : Aftershocks : Stories from the Japan Earthquake” brought together by a cadre of essentially Japan based bloggers and Twitter fanatics, led by the most certainly not attention seeking @ourmaninabiko. I say that because even though it’s simple enough to find out who he is, he’s made a keen point with reporters and others not to be named in the media, and largely it seems like they’ve complied.

The book is currently only available as an e-book, for 9.99USD from most versions of Amazon, so I’ve just read mine in a single sitting, taking just a couple of hours.

This has been of interest to me, not just as a form of donation whilst receiving something, but because I myself was in much the same situation as many of the people whose accounts are in there, having been on the 20th floor of an office building in central Tokyo when the quakes began. What @ourmaninabiko and his team has done is capture a cross section of experiences from inside the country and from the outside, looking in. I suspect what I found most interesting were those entries which were not like my experience.

To start off, one of the passages which struck me was that by Andy Heather writing from Kyoto:

“But what hurts is the idea that the earthquakes were like seeing a loved one getting beaten and being unable to stop it.”

One of the topics, certainly in the foreign community, was those who left Japan in the week or two following the M9 quake the – ‘flyjin’ – and one of those was @sandrajapandra / Sandra Barron, who I began to follow on twitter the day after the quake for news and opinion, and who surprised me by announcing she was moving to LA, with obviously mixed emotions. Her account in ‘Aftershocks (’Leaving’) was the first time I realised why she’d left. It’s an interesting and personal debate. (Addendum – I should note she did return to Japan a few weeks later.)

If there’s one thing everyone should know who maybe (fortunately) has not been in that situation where you’re on the fringe of a massive disaster, and with options, is that everyone should do what they feel is right for them. There’s no value in duress or forcing people into a position – things are tense enough as it is.

The book isn’t all Twitter users and bloggers, some of the writers are noted professionals, and it’s worth mentioning their contributions. Truthfully, with Yoko Ono, whilst I appreciate her support, I found her contribution overly self promotional, with little to add.

Jake Adelstein however, a well known true crime writer and reporter in Japan, juxtaposed a case he was reporting on of a (completely not quake related) double suicide in the face of personal debt, against the disaster in Tohoku and the sacrifices people are making there to keep the country safe. For the two debtors, no one in their apartments knew them, no one at work knew them. No one missed them or even claimed their ashes. In Tohoku whole communities sheltering each other in turn. The effect is almost hypnotic, and echoed something I’d wondered about just after the quake – how this would effect Japan’s infamously high suicide rate.That entry, ‘Muenbotoke’ is worth the price of admission.

William Gibson, the cyberpunk freak who probably turned me most on to Tokyo as a brand, contributes something totally Gibson – what is your memory of Tokyo and Japan? A man sitting naked, totally still, on the edge of a table in an open window, as seen by Gibson from a taxi speeding past on a raised expressway. It’s not notably quake related, but perhaps captures the something ‘other’ of Japan.

In all then, it’s a well rounded and a well meaning collection, pulling together many facets of the disaster in one place. In some ways something like this may be worth updating over the years as people look back on the effect the event has had on Japan, and will continue to have.

If there’s a question on the work, it’s that there seems to be few accounts from Japanese in the tsunami hit areas, or from the Fukushima exclusion zone, but given the time frame it was put together, it would’ve been difficult to include these, and still get it out for the world to read I would think. Perhaps in a retrospective in a year or so these will be included.

A paper, and Japanese language version of the book is also in the works.

Overall then, even if you ignore the charitable nature of the work, it’s worth the money and the read to get a feel for what these events do to the people, beyond what the rather dumb and crass mass media has failed to achieve. The brief nature of many accounts actually increases the impact, there’s no time for dwelling, just the basic emotional facts behind an event which took over 20,000 people away in just a few hours, and left a nation digging it’s heels in for years to come.