Japanese Elections

Yesterday were the elections for the Upper House of the Japanese Diet. They were rather more exciting than usual, because the ruling Liberal Democratic Party did not win. The largest party in the upper house is now the Democratic Party (formed by a merger of the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party a few years ago, and led by a former secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party). It is not entirely clear just how much difference the change will make.

Obviously, I don’t get a vote, but then neither did one of the candidates. She had, apparently, failed to register her residence properly when she came back from the USA, and thus, while she had the right to vote in the abstract, she didn’t actually have the right to cast a vote in any particular place. She was elected, though, so she has the right to vote now…

Anyway, Yuriko had her vote, so we discussed the candidates together and decided what to do. For the upper house, there’s a double vote system. First, each prefecture is a constituency, with a varying number of candidates, depending on the population. Then there is a party list system, although you can also vote for a particular individual on the party list. The constituency votes are first-past-the-post, although for Kanagawa it’s first-three-past-the-post. The voters only get one vote for a constituency candidate, and one vote for the list, though. This makes the constituency vote a bit tricky; the strategy involved is far from clear, especially as each alliance bloc fielded multiple candidates in Kanagawa. (The Democratic Party had two candidates elected, which was presumably the plan.)

As in the UK, the lower house is the more powerful part of the Diet, so the prime minister does not have to resign. However, the upper house does have to agree to bills, as far as I understand it, so this will have a significant impact on politics. Even before that, though, the fact that the ruling party was utterly hammered in the elections is having an impact. It will be interesting to see what happens.

The Origins of Human Society

The Origins of Human Society is part of the Blackwell History of the World. It covers human prehistory from the first emergence of the genus Homo to the first emergence of history. Thus, the end of its discussion varies depending on the part of the world concerned; in the Middle East it ends around 3000BC, in Japan around 600AD, and in North America around 1600AD. Obviously, with such a broad canvas, it cannot cover anything in great depth. Rather, the author concentrates on fitting local phenomena into a broader picture of the development of human society.

I enjoyed it and found it interesting. The parts the overlapped with things I already knew seemed reliable, so I’m inclined to trust the other bits. However, there wasn’t a large overlap, so I could be misled. Blackwell are a generally reliable publisher, though.

Actually, this is a very difficult type of book to write about. It’s a general introduction to a broad field, so its main focus is on providing information. It’s outside my specialist field, so I can’t really criticise the information. So I don’t have a great deal to say.

One thing did strike me, however. The author said that he was working on the assumption that society was shaped by self-interested households. This may be true, but only if “self-interested” covers sacrificing yourself and your family for an abstract ideal. That argument can be made, but it tends to rob “self interest” of any usefulness as an analytical tool. You can redefine “self interest” as “interest in improving one’s own economic standing, either absolutely or relative to the surrounding society”, and that will be useful in explaining a lot of things. It won’t, however, explain the existence of European cathedrals, nor, I suspect, can it explain Stonehenge.

A problem for the prehistorian is that the belief systems that lead to things like cathedrals vary widely between societies, and they don’t get preserved in the archaeological record. Thus, it’s very hard to have evidence for such claims about prehistoric societies. On the other hand, I suspect that it’s even more obviously true that they did exist, in some form, and thus explanations that lead them out can be known, pretty much in advance, to be wrong. Indeed, even in this book the author often talks about religious behaviour, but tends to see it only as a tool used by elites to solidify their power. This is indeed something religion has been used for, but historically it is not the only thing. Making that assumption about prehistory would seem to be unwarranted.

Or, to put it another way, a lot of modern Americans believe in their religion. It seems likely that a lot of prehistoric Americans did, too. Any theories of prehistory that don’t take that into account seem likely to miss things of great importance.

Ash: A Secret History

Mary Gentle’s Ash is a really big book. It’s probably pushing half a million words. It is also very good.

The most useful way to describe it is “historical fantasy”, although it’s probably technically science fiction. But if you think you’re going to read a historical fantasy, you’ll have a pretty good idea of the sort of book you’re going to get, while “science fiction” would be very misleading. The eponymous Ash is a female mercenary captain in Burgundy in the late fifteenth century. Naturally, she is involved in a number of wars, and she gradually gets caught up in bigger and bigger events.

The rest of this article will discuss specific plot elements of the book, and thus probably spoil things for you if you haven’t already read it.
Continue reading

Ultrasound Pictures

We had another trip to the obstetrician today. Fortunately, there don’t seem to be any serious problems. Yuriko just has to get more exercise, and walk quickly. So I should probably go walking with her. This, of course, is to build up her endurance ready for giving birth. The doctor would like her to walk for an hour or two every day, so we’re working on that.

Yuriko isn’t anaemic, but does have to watch it, which is not exactly surprising at this stage of a pregnancy. Yudetamago is right on the average growth curve, at about 1800g, and very lively.

After the regular appointment, we went to a different clinic to try to get a 3D ultrasound video. Unfortunately, this proved to be impossible. It’s a bit too late in the pregnancy, and Yudetamago has her hands crossed in front of her face, and in contact with it. The ultrasound thus cannot make out the difference between arm and face, so when it tries to build up a 3D image… Well, it looked rather like the Predator, without the helmet on. We do have it on video, and it is a strong candidate for the worst photograph that will ever be taken of Yudetamago.

After we got back, I spent the whole evening setting up our new scanner/printer/photocopier, which is now churning away in the corner of the living room as I check that it’s working properly. It certainly seems to be, which is a very good thing. One reason it took so long was that I also had to put together the piece of furniture on which it is currently sitting, and rewire the LAN in the flat a bit. But we can now both use the printer, and Yuriko can use it wireless, and we didn’t have to spent 15,000 yen on a new wireless print hub.

This isn’t actually a change of subject, because one of the things we will use the new machine for is scanning all the ultrasound pictures of Yudetamago.

The Last Harry Potter

So, the last Harry Potter is released tomorrow. I have it on order, and Amazon Japan have apparently already shipped it, so I should get it tomorrow. I will read it fairly quickly, for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s a pretty good series, and I’d like to know how it finishes. I’d like to find out by reading the book, though, which means I’ll have to read it pretty quickly after it comes out; avoiding spoilers is likely to be impossible.

From a different perspective, Harry Potter is fantasy fiction, and that’s the field I work in. It’s not really a good idea to be ignorant of the largest phenomenon in your professional field. Yes, Harry Potter is work, too.

Before it comes out, I’m going to put my speculations on record. J. K. Rowling has said that two important characters die in the book. I reckon it’s Harry and Voldemort.

Second one first. Yes, Voldemort is an important character. What else would you call him? I am pretty sure he’s going to be defeated in the final book.

And then, Harry. There are three reasons for this. First, the sympathetic characters killed off in books four, five, and six have got steadily more central, thus preparing the audience for the death of a truly central character. More central than Dumbledore means one of the three children. Second, the discussion of Horcruxes in the sixth book sets up the possibility that Voldemort cannot truly be killed unless Harry is, because Harry is actually one of Voldemort’s Horcruxes.

Third, Rowling has always emphasised that death is final in the Harry Potter universe, so if she kills him off, she can’t be asked to write sequels. This will allow her to go off and try writing other things, which will almost certainly be criticised as “not as good as Harry Potter”, or to do something else. After all, she doesn’t exactly need to continue working for a living. (I don’t think this will actually work as a way of stopping fans demanding more, though, and I doubt Rowling thinks so, either. It might make refusing easier, though.)

Of course, good authors (and Rowling is a good author, despite some carping from critics) try to set up false leads in their books, as well as genuine ones. That way they can surprise readers. So maybe I’ve just fallen for all of her traps.

So, my alternative prediction: Harry and Ron die, betrayed and killed by Hermione as she turns to evil and joins Lord Voldemort to bring the entire world under the Dark Lord’s sway.

Skinchangers

This book is a supplement for the World of Darkness, and covers shapechangers of various kinds, as you might guess from the title. The WoD contains a whole game about werewolves, so this book is about other shapechangers. The first chapter is about humans who steal the shapes of animals, generally by killing animals and wearing their skins, or something similar. The second is about people possessed by spirits who make the change shape. The third is a grab-bag, ideas that do not really fit into the categories of the WoD setting. The last category is quite important, because in a horror game, it matters that you have the unknown.

The second chapter has a pet peeve. It takes up the Kitsune, shapeshifting foxes from Japanese mythology, and makes the head fox Inari. Inari is not a fox. Foxes are the messengers of Inari, in Shinto. Grrr. (This is standard RPG fan annoyance when the authors get something wrong in a field I happen to know better than they do. It’s something that, wearing my author’s hat, I have to learn to live with.)

Apart from that, it’s a good book. Several bits inspired me with ideas for stories and characters, which is the main point. The Kitsune, in fact, were good apart from that Inari thing. The Serpent Guardians, snake-spirits who hoard knowledge, also had a lot of story potential. The whole first chapter suggested lots of ideas, for various sorts of skinthieves. I’m not sure that I’ll ever get to use these ideas, but they’ll probably help if and when I have to write other books for the line.

It also confirmed my strongest impression of the new World of Darkness; I want to run a mortals campaign in it. I might segue it into a Mage chronicle at some point, but this version of the WoD is set up to work really well as a horror game for ordinary human characters. There are the layers and layers of secrets needed to make such a game work, as well as powers that humans cannot hope to confront head on. This is something that I never felt that the old World of Darkness really managed, so I think this is a significant improvement in the overall setting. It’s more flexible than the old one.

Overall, then, this is a good, solid book for the World of Darkness, with interesting twists to add to any chronicle.

Earthquake not here again

At about a quarter past ten this morning, there was a major earthquake in Niigata Prefecture. Niigata Prefecture is some way north of here, on the Japan Sea coast of Japan, and we didn’t even feel it; I found out from the new headlines on my cell phone. It was an upper 6 on the Japanese scale, which is very strong; if there are no deaths, we will have been very lucky indeed. It seems to have been magnitude 6.8 on the Richter scale.

It’s not been a good weekend, all told. Typhoon 4 was, apparently, the strongest on record for this time of year. It killed at least three people, injured seventy, destroyed or severely damaged a couple of dozen homes, and flooded a lot of areas, causing transport chaos across the whole country.

It’s ironic that this is a holiday weekend. Today is Sea Day, and a national holiday.

Of course, just here we’ve not really had any problems. The earthquake was too far away to have any impact, and the typhoon caused nothing worse than a couple of wet days. It even stopped in time for the summer festival at the local shrine to go ahead.

Rain

Today, it rained all day. Quite heavily. None of this “rain before seven, fine by eleven” rubbish. Now, it is true that we are currently in the middle of rainy season, but that’s not the reason. The reason is typhoon number 4. This is the first major typhoon of this season (which, I think, is a little late), but it’s a really big and strong one, and it’s currently passing over Kyushu. The fact that we are already getting heavy rain is a sign of just how big it is.

The forecast is for it to get here by tomorrow, so we are expecting even more wind and rain tomorrow. The expected rainfall is, apparently, 80mm in the next 24 hours. While this is quite a lot of rain, it won’t be enough to cause any problems beyond making it unpleasant to go out. That’s a shame, because it’s the summer festival at Shirahata Hachiman shrine (our local one) tomorrow, and we’d been hoping to go. Still, it’s hardly a major problem.

Kyushu is in a very different situation. They had heavy rain and major floods a week or so ago, and the ground is still wet. The further rain has thus triggered more flooding, mudslides, and general damage. People have been evacuated from their homes, and I don’t imagine they’ll be able to go back in the immediate future now.

The Analects

I finally got around to reading the Analects of Confucius, in Arthur Waley’s translation. The introduction claims that this is actually a good, fairly literal, translation, which would make it different from his translation of, say, the Tale of Genji, which gets called a paraphrase. I imagine that’s an exaggeration born of scholarly outrage, but it has been clearly superceded by more recent translations.

Anyway, back to the Analects. I have to confess that I wasn’t impressed. Part of this is that I think Confucius is completely wrong in his choice of the ideal form of government; he’s a supporter of divine right monarchy. Another large part of it is that the Analects are irredeemably vague on just what makes right conduct. A great deal is made up of exhortations to behave properly, and with Goodness.

Well, obviously.

To illustrate the point, let us take one, fairly fundamental, issue. Confucius appears to believe that it is Good for the descendant of earlier emperors to rule with absolute loyalty from his subjects. I believe that democracy is basically Good. Now, the issue. I believe that Goodness involves compassion. Does Confucius think that? I have, honestly, no idea. He is so different from me on one point that I have no confidence that he will agree with me on other points. What, then, is his ethical position?

Reading books like the Analects is valuable, because it brings home the fact that the difference between good and evil is very far from being obvious. If you took an historical vote, feminism would come out as evil, even if you let women vote. There’s actually a good chance that it would come out evil if you restricted the vote to people alive now; history would definitely tip the balance. I think that the majority of all people who ever lived are wrong about that; are wrong about a fundamental feature of ethics. The existence of “honour killings” makes it clear that people alive now do not agree over “murder is wrong”. (Strictly, “killing, without juridical authority, someone who poses no immediate or even long term threat to your or anyone else’s physical well-being is wrong”. “Murder” comes loaded with wrongness as part of its meaning.) It’s important to note that the existence of murder doesn’t demonstrate this; people do things that they believe are wrong. The people responsible for “honour killings”, however, believe that they are doing the right thing.

If people can disagree on such fundamental points, a text that merely exhorts people to do the right thing, without being very specific about just what that is, is pretty much useless as an ethical text. And that, in the end, is how the Analects struck me.

Camera-Shy Foetuses

We went to the clinic again yesterday, for the regular checkup on Yudetamago’s progress. There don’t seem to be any problems; she’s getting bigger at an appropriate speed, and Yuriko seems to be doing well. The longest discussion was over the sorts of exercise that Yuriko should do, which boiled down to “it’s difficult”. She should definitely being doing some, because she will need the stamina when it comes to giving birth, but picking a good type and a good amount may be a bit harder. For the moment, we’ll probably stick with walking, as we both like doing that, and it’s not the sort of thing that can cause damage. She’s also going to carefully-monitored maternity exercises at the local sports centre.

We also got some more ultrasound pictures. Yudetamago is now too big to fit on the screen, so we have to look at one bit at a time. She also appears to be camera shy; she has her arms crossed in front of her face, which means that we can’t get good 3D pictures. So we have to make do with the 2D ones of her skeleton. Mind you, the doctor did manage to get one that shows a bit of her face, which is nice. But I guess we will have to wait until she’s born to see what she really looks like.