We’re almost certainly moving flat in the near future.

This has come about rather suddenly; the leaflet about it appeared in our mailbox a couple of weeks ago, we went to see it a little more than a week ago, and we did the contracts on Saturday. The flat in question is in a danchi, one of the complexes of flats built in the 70s to accommodate all the Japanese people moving to the cities as the economy took off. Thus, it’s rather older than our current place, but it’s also rather larger, with an extra room. That’s the important thing; we need another room so that Mayuki can have her own room when she gets a bit older.

The other key point is that selling this flat should cover the cost of buying the new (old?) one. We do need to apply for a mortgage to cover the interim, but the estate agents, after consulting with the banks, didn’t anticipate any problems with that, even though I don’t have permanent residence yet. That did cut down on the options a bit, as many places will not lend that much to resident foreigners without permanent residence. So, it could still all fall through, if, on the actual investigation, the bank decides not to lend us the money. But, on the balance of probabilities, it looks like it’s going to happen.

We aren’t moving far, incidentally. You can see the new place from outside our front door. That’s another important factor; it means that I won’t lose my students.

This morning, another leaflet arrived, advertising a flat equally close, slightly larger, much newer, with a better view. And two and a half times the price. That’s really not practical…

Gamers Help Haiti

It is unlikely that anyone reading this blog is both interested and does not already know, but just in case I will mention it.

DriveThruRPG is running an appeal to help Haiti. If you donate $20, which all goes to Doctors Without Borders, you get over 100 PDF gaming products, worth well over $1000. This offer will run until January 31st.

You don’t get to choose which products you get, so some are probably rubbish, and others will be of no interest, but if there isn’t at least $20 worth in that bundle, I’d be astonished. There are at least three games that I wanted to look at (Chronica Feudalis, Three Sixteen, and Serenity), plus piles of other things that look interesting enough to take a peek at now I’ve got them free. It was popular enough to crash their servers on the first day, although they have sorted that out now.

Right now, the total raised is over $95,000, so it looks likely that they’ll break $100,000. This is something that I found very easy to support.

A Mystery

If you read blogs and websites by foreigners (or former foreigners) living in Japan, there is one experience that you come across repeatedly. People who do not look Asian find that Japanese people will not speak Japanese to them, and insist on speaking English, even when the foreigner has displayed Japanese ability. If the foreigner does speak some Japanese, this is met with amazement and disbelief — “It speaks!” — but followed by a relapse into speaking English. You can see examples here and here.

OK, so what’s the mystery? Here it is:

This has never happened to me. Not once.

Well, I suppose it might have happened once, but if so I’ve forgotten it. It’s true that Japanese people occasionally address me in English to start with, but they always shift to Japanese quickly, and most shop assistants start off in Japanese. There was one occasion when the young man serving me wanted to practise his English, so he tried doing the order and such in English, but broke it up by asking me in Japanese how to study a foreign language. (Get lots of practice.)

How to explain this difference in experience? Here are some hypotheses.

1. I was Japanese in my former lives, so I have a Japanese aura. When I suggested this to my wife, she said she thought it was a possibility, but I’m  a bit more sceptical.

2. There are two different Japans. I live in the nice, welcoming Japan, and they live in the nasty, racist Japan. While it sometimes feels like this while reading, I think there’s actually only one Japan.

However, regional differences are a possibility. I live in Kawasaki, which has a pretty high foreign population (about 3%), so maybe people around here are more used to people who don’t look Japanese, but can speak it. However, I’ve not had the experience anywhere in Japan, even up in Akita, where most non-Japanese are almost certainly tourists. Still, that could just be luck; my experience is rather limited.

Another real possibility is changes over time. The number of people of apparent (or obvious) foreign origin who speak Japanese has been increasing recently, so the average Japanese person might be getting used to the idea. It’s also possible that the idea that this annoys foreigners has seeped into customer service training, but that seems rather unlikely; most places wouldn’t have enough foreign customers to make covering this topic a priority.

3. My Japanese is much, much better than theirs. Not in all cases, certainly. And, in any event, this fails to explain the fact that people almost always start out by addressing me in Japanese. I can’t see any way I could conceivably look fluent in Japanese. (Well, apart from in a bookshop, where the fact that I have chosen a Japanese book all by myself might be a hint.)

Again, though, a variant on this may be a partial explanation. Japanese is not an easy language for English-speakers to learn (and vice versa). Thus, a lot of foreigners in Japan may not be as good at Japanese as they think. Thus, when they speak Japanese, the Japanese person’s response is to think “this person cannot really speak Japanese; better to try English”. However, Japanese people are subject to the same illusion about the quality of their English (see “Funny Engrish” blogs, passim). And so, the foreigner is faced by a Japanese person addressing him in largely incomprehensible English, and can’t understand why the Japanese person doesn’t just try Japanese.

(I’ve recently passed an important milestone here: Japanese people have stopped praising my Japanese, and started correcting it. (At least, I assume he or she is Japanese.) The next milestone is when they stop. The one after that is the Akutagawa Prize.)

4. It’s a matter of attitude. I just don’t see things as a problem. This may well be part of it. For example, I don’t have a problem with people initially addressing me in English, or handing me the English leaflet. It is, statistically, the sensible assumption. Most white people in Japan do not speak Japanese, and can make a stab at English, at least. I don’t even have a problem with people who want to practise their English, as long as they don’t let it get in the way of whatever we’re supposed to be doing. Thus, I may have had experiences that other people count as the Japanese not accepting that they can speak Japanese, but I don’t classify them that way.

On the other hand, whether someone is insisting on speaking to you in English is not just a matter of perception. This can’t cover all the cases.

5. They’re all lying. When I initially thought of this hypothesis, my reaction was “why would they lie about this?”, but then I thought of some reasons. People do lie about trivial experiences in conversation, for various reasons such as to make themselves sound more interesting, or to assert membership of a particular group. So, actually, it seems likely that some of the reported experiences of this never happened. But all of them? That doesn’t seem plausible. If it wasn’t somewhat common, you’d get a lot more people popping up and saying “that never happens to me”.

6. “I was treated normally” is not an exciting story. This is a selection bias. People don’t normally post to the internet about being treated normally in Japan. (This article is obviously an exception, but it’s a reaction.) Only the unexpected, problematic, or particularly good is newsworthy. Japanese people refusing to accept your linguistic competence on the basis of your race is noteworthy; shop assistants casually speaking Japanese to you is, generally, not. I’m pretty sure that this is at least part of it.

While none of the hypotheses can convincingly solve the mystery alone, combining all of them (except, perhaps, number 1) might do it. Each, individually, can plausibly reduce the frequency a bit, so all of them together could make the difference between “The Japanese never accept that white people can speak their language” and “it never happens to me”.

Still, if anyone has other suggestions, I’m interested.

Fossil Viruses in the Human Genome

There is a commonly-heard idea that Japanese science is not creative, although they are very good at refining other people’s ideas. This idea is commonly heard even in Japan; I’ve had to disabuse quite a few of my students of the idea. Including some of the ones working as research scientists. It is true that Japan has yet to produce a Newton, Darwin, or Einstein, but then there really haven’t been very many of them in history. Japan does produce high-quality original research, so I’m going to introduce a bit of it on my blog.

My standard is simple: I will introduce articles published in Nature, with an accompanying News and Views analysis, that were produced by researchers working in Japan, possibly in collaboration with other nations. Because I don’t have time to check every article’s origin, there is, at least for now, another practical requirement: the first author needs to have a Japanese-looking name, or the News and Views article needs to mention where the research was done. This would be bad if I was trying to be systematic, but I’m not.

The other two conditions are meaningful. Nature is the most influential science journal in the world, just about beating Science, the main competition. This means that any articles published in it are important research. The News and Views articles are written about a small proportion of the articles (normally called “letters”, for historical reasons), with the editors choosing the ones of most general interest and importance. Thus, getting an article in Nature, with a News and Views commentary, means that your research is of the highest normal global quality. Realistically, this is the best you can aim for.

I will link to the articles on the Nature site, but while the editorial summary can be read for free, the actual articles need a paid-for subscription. If you’re at a university, your university probably has one; otherwise, you need a personal subscription to Nature. If you’re interested in science, I think it’s well worth it, but it’s not cheap.

Obviously, these articles will be a bit irregular, depending on when appropriate papers appear in Nature.

Anyway, on to this time’s paper. The research was mainly done by a group at BIKEN, in Osaka, by Masayuki Horie and Tomoyuki Honda, with assistance from a lot of people (the author list is in the freely-accessible information).

It is well-known to biologists that a large proportion of the human genome (about 8%) comes from viruses. Bits of the viral genome get incorporated in chromosomes, and then reproduced with the rest of human DNA. All the previously known examples were from retroviruses. Retroviruses are so-called because they reproduce by first converting their RNA genome into DNA, and then using the machinery of the infected cell to make more RNA from the DNA template. Integration of this DNA into the host genome is relatively common, and may, actually, be a normal part of the process; as this article isn’t about retroviruses I’m working from memory.

This paper reports the discovery of DNA elements derived from Borna viruses, a different class. These viruses have RNA genomes, but do not normally integrate any DNA into the host genome. However, they do carry out their entire life cycle within the cell nucleus, the part that contains the host DNA. Further, they naturally infect neurons, cells that do not normally die, and so the infection can be extremely persistent.

The researchers started by searching the databases of genome sequences for sections that matched sequences from the Borna virus genome. They found plenty. There were several in humans, some of which appear to still function as genes; that is, the DNA could be transcribed to messenger RNA and then made into proteins, and in one case there is already evidence that it is. Most of the insertions, however, have lost bits over time, and can no longer be used to make proteins; these are called pseudogenes or fossil genes. By looking at the presence of similar sequences in related primates, the authors determine that the virus must have been integrated into the genome about 40 million years ago, because it is in all the primates that split off from the lineage that leads to humans after that time, but not in the ones that split off before that.

They also found evidence for the virus genes in other animals, with varying dates for integration.

For the viral genes to be inherited, they have to be incorporated in the germ line; that is, in the eggs and sperm that go on to make the next generation. Since the virus normally infects neurons, a different class of cells, this might be relatively rare, so the authors looked to see whether the viral genes get incorporated into the DNA of neurons. It turns out that they do, and that this seems to be quite frequent.

The incorporation of the DNA is blamed on so-called L1 elements, elements of DNA found in mammalian genomes that reproduce themselves throughout the genome. Their machinery seems prone to picking up a particular gene from Borna viruses, and incorporating it instead. (All of the insertions were derived from one of the Borna virus genes, a gene for the protein shell that encapsulates the virus when it leaves the cell.)

So, what’s the significance of this?

From a pure science perspective, it’s the first evidence for contributions from a virus other than a retrovirus to the human genome, which is interesting in itself.

The 40 million year age is also interesting, because so-called RNA clock methods for measuring the age of Borna viruses suggest that they are much younger than that. (An RNA clock works by measuring the rate of mutation in the genome, and then looking at changes, or at how long the virus could be stable.) This suggests that the RNA clock doesn’t work very well for viruses.

Finally, incorporating bits of DNA into the genome in random places can disrupt the cell’s function. It can cause cancer, but also have other effects. There is, apparently, some (disputed) evidence associating Borna-virus infection with mental illness, and this provides a mechanism by which the virus could have that effect. Disruptions to neural functioning could, of course, cause mental illness of various kinds.

Viral ‘fossils’ in the genome (Editor’s summary)

Virology: Bornavirus enters the genome (News and Views article: Nature 463, 39-40 (7 January 2010) | doi:10.1038/463039a; Published online 6 January 2010)

Endogenous non-retroviral RNA virus elements in mammalian genomes (Original paper: Nature 463, 84-87 (7 January 2010) | doi:10.1038/nature08695)

Ōyama Kaidō: From Akasaka to the Tama River

The remains of the gate to Edo Castle in Akasaka

The starting point of the Ōyama Kaidō, the old Akasaka gate of Edo Castle

For my birthday last year, my sister bought me a book describing the course of the ÅŒyama Kaidō, with directions for walking it. The ÅŒyama Kaidō was one of the Edo-period roads of Japan (the Edo period is 1603-1868; the time when the Tokugawa shoguns ruled Japan from Edo, the city that later became Tokyo), and led from Edo to ÅŒyama, a mountain in what is now Kanagawa prefecture. ÅŒyama was a pilgrimage centre, hosting a shugendo temple complex, but the road was also used for trade. It was, however, a relatively minor road, certainly compared to such famous routes as the Tōkaidō or Nakasendō, both of which ran from Edo to Kyoto, the former along the coast and the latter through the mountains. (“Tōkaidō” means “east sea road” and “Nakasendō” means “middle mountains road”.) However, I decided that I wanted to walk along the ÅŒyama Kaidō for two reasons. First, it’s relatively short, making the goal practical. I expect to be able to do it this year. Second, it runs very close to our home; it’s our local historic road.

Aoyama streetscape

A view of the Ōyama Kaidō in Aoyama

So, on Monday, when I had a day off, I started the walk. The road starts in central Tokyo, at one of the old gates to Edo Castle, the Akasaka gate. From there, it heads west, and for most of the distance the modern 246 main road follows the old ÅŒyama Kaidō route. This means that the first part of the walk, at least, is very urban, and not overly blessed with clean air. However, it is still interesting to see different areas of Tokyo. Another point of interest for me is that the Den’entoshi line and Hanzōmon line, the train lines I use to get into Tokyo most of the time, also stick close to the route of the ÅŒyama Kaidō, albeit underground in this section. Thus, I got to see what the bits of Tokyo above the line look like. Having gone under all of these areas countless times, it was nice to finally see them above ground.

Along the way, I passed a fair number of Shinto shrines, and went into most of them. However, I want to give each shrine its own article, so this article will concentrate on the road.

Shibuya streetscape

The Ōyama Kaidō in Shibuya, on Dōgenzaka

The first part, from Akasaka to, roughly, Omotesandō, was quite open, with a lot of modern buildings lining the road, and even parks. This is still, I believe, quite an expensive area of Tokyo, with high-class shops. From Omotesandō, however, you are approaching Shibuya, where the buildings are much more crammed together and chaotic, with a much wider variety of shops. I took a small detour in Shibuya, to pick up the deposit on the kimono I rented for last year’s tea ceremony, and found that it took me through Shibuya’s red light district. Given that the area is just off an old road, it could have a longer tradition as such than you might think.

Sangenjaya streetscape

The Ōyama Kaidō at Sangenjaya, where I stopped for lunch

The main road continues to follow the ÅŒyama Kaidō for a while from that point, and elevated expressways follow the same route, so that there are three layers of road for quite a long distance. This makes the street quite dark, so the route recommended in the book dodges off the main road wherever the ÅŒyama Kaidō seems to have taken a slightly different route. Unfortunately, even this isn’t very much. The mid-point of the walk came around here, so I stopped at Sangenjaya, which is also one of the stops for the express trains, to have lunch.

Seta Streetscape

The view from the footbridge where the Ōyama Kaidō crosses over the main roads

Some way beyond Sangenjaya, at Komazawa University, the Ōyama Kaidō finally breaks away from the route of the main road, and things get a lot quieter. The area becomes residential, and almost suburban, with much lower buildings and even a street dedicated to a very famous anime series (Sazae-san), because the creator lived in that area. The route of the Ōyama Kaidō crosses the main road again, but then plunges back into residential areas, and quiet backstreets that barely seem urban, as it approaches the Tama River, the current border of Tokyo prefecture.

In the Edo period, there was no bridge, and the river was crossed by ferry. According to the book, there was a marker stone at the site of the ferry, but I couldn’t find it; there is a lot of development going on by the river at the moment, so the map and directions were not as useful as they should be. It may, in fact, have been removed, because the river itself is having flood-prevention work done.

I set off walking at about 10am, and arrived at the river shortly after 4pm. My legs were getting quite tired by that point; in the whole day, I think I walked over 25km. Fortunately, my legs didn’t feel too bad the next day, so I think I’ll be able to cope with the following segments of the road. I hope to walk the next section next month.

The Tama River

The Tama River

The Fox and the Jewel

This book, subtitled “Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship”, is the product of extensive research into the Inari cult in contemporary (early 1990s) Japan. The author spent a year at Fushimi Inari Taisha, the oldest Inari shrine and still, in some sense, the centre of the cult, and a further year at Toyokawa Inari, a Buddhist temple.

The choice of research centres highlights the first way in which the Inari cult complicates the standard picture of Japanese religions, because Inari is normally thought of as a Shinto kami. Indeed, I’ve classified this post under Shinto on my blog. However, before the Meiji Restoration, when Shinto and Buddhism were closely intertwined, Inari had very close ties to Shingon Buddhism, and when the Meiji government forced all religious institutions to choose whether they were Shinto or Buddhist, a few Inari centres chose to be Buddhist, although most decided to be Shinto.

The main message of the book, however, is that things are much more complicated and less unified than they look. There is a mountain behind Fushimi Inari Taisha, and the mountain is covered with red torii and small stone shrines. These small shrines started to appear in the mid nineteenth century, and the shrine initially opposed them, before giving in and authorising them. However, the shrine exerts virtually no control over worship at them; they are scattered all over the mountain, so supervising them would be impractical if the shrine even wanted to do it. What’s more, the shrine does not, in fact, own the whole mountain, so some of the small shrines are on land over which the shrine has no authority to start with. The author of the book, Karen Smyers, got to know several of the groups who worshipped on the mountain, and learned quite a lot about their beliefs and practices.

What she discovered was that every group was different. Even though most paid for ceremonies at the main shrine, they generally placed greater importance on the rituals they carried out on the mountain, in front of the minor shrines. These rituals, and the meaning attributed to them, differed significantly from group to group. Even the name of the kami varied, although it usually ended in “Inari”. While this is, in some ways, similar to Western phenomena such as “the Virgin of Lourdes”, it goes deeper, because there is no consensus on which kami Inari actually is. There is a common one, Uganomitama no Kami, but this was largely a Meiji imposition. Fushimi Inari enshrines five kami, including Uganomitama, and different places enshrine other groups. Toyokawa Inari, naturally, enshrines a Buddhist deity instead, Dakiniten. Even if the kami were agreed on, there are few general legends; Inari seems to be a very personalised deity.

One thing that all the priests and monks agree on is that Inari is not a fox. There may be fox images at virtually every Inari shrine, and the fox may be closely associated with the kami, but the kami is not, they insist, a fox. However, popular belief is much less clear about this. Some people agree that the fox is a messenger or servant of Inari, but others believe that Inari him or herself (Inari’s gender is not constant from one group to another) is a fox. Who’s to say which group is “right”, or “orthodox”.

Smyers also devotes some space to discussing the strategies used for avoiding conflict between groups of Inari worshippers. In essence, there are a number of ways to avoid talking about the issues over which they are likely to disagree, such as “which kami is Inari?”, “how should one worship Inari?”, or “what is the proper way for a follower of Inari to live?”. Obviously, this leaves conversations between representatives of Inari groups at quite a superficial level; Smyers reports that some of her informants tried to get her to tell them what other of her informants actually believed.

This is entirely consistent with the impression I’ve picked up of Shinto. There’s an emphasis on creating a surface image of unity, with torii at almost all shrines, fixed vestments for the priests, and a standard framework for rituals and festivals. However, underneath that surface, every shrine is different. As Smyer’s research shows, even when the shrines all fall into the same cult, such as Inari, they can all be different, and I suspect that that is true far beyond Inari. I’ve not done the formal research to back that intuition up, but it would be surprising to discover that all shrines were the same. Of course, because shrine priests do not preach, the beliefs and practices of the worshippers are also likely to vary widely.

Smyers suggests that this may, in fact, be a broader feature of Japanese society. The apparent conformity is a mere surface, below which there are countless small groups, all different. That is also consistent with my experience of Japan, but too large a claim to make on the basis of the evidence I have.

In any case, this is a very interesting book, and one I would recommend to anyone with an interest in Japanese culture, particularly if they were interested in religion, or Shinto specifically.

Tamao Post Mortem

As I mentioned on the Tamao page, the story has now finished, and I’m not currently planning to write a sequel. This is because I have lost money on the project; I have spent more on advertising it than I have received from readers, even leaving aside the fact that I would like to be paid for writing it, as well. So, the question becomes, why was it a commercial failure? There are several possible explanations.

1. It’s just not that good. Clearly ridiculous. It’s true that it isn’t a deathless work of literature; it doesn’t measure up to Middlemarch or even Tigana. However, being a deathless work of literature is not a necessary condition for commercial success; witness the popularity of The Da Vinci Code, or even the Harry Potter books. The Harry Potter books are good, in my opinion, but not great literature. The Da Vinci Code isn’t even well-written. On an artistic and technical level, I would claim that Tamao is better than The Da Vinci Code. (I wouldn’t make that claim with any confidence for the Harry Potter books; I could hope for “not significantly worse”, however. But then, I think The Da Vinci Code is very badly written, which is why I’m not linking to it on Amazon.) It is, of course, very possible that I’m vastly inflating the quality of my own work, but people I have never met like it enough to give me money, so it can’t be that bad. I strongly suspect that it’s good enough to be popular.

2. It doesn’t contain enough kinky sex between teenagers. Well, most of the popular web serials seem to centre on this sort of activity, and Tamao doesn’t. Kazumi has almost certainly had kinky sex in her time, even if you don’t count being paid to do it as intrinsically kinky, but it all happened off stage. This point can be generalised. The problem may be that there was nothing about the story to make people deeply passionate about it, to the point of wearing t-shirts proclaiming their allegiance. If you’re a teenager discovering a sexual identity that involves BDSM, a story centering on BDSM teenagers might well do just that. However, I’m not sure how I could deliberately write a story with that sort of resonance, even in another field. (My lack of personal interest in BDSM would almost certainly make it utterly impossible for me to do it in that context.) If this is the problem, it it probably something I can’t deliberately address.

3. It’s too alien. While the story draws heavily on legends that date back well over a thousand years, those legends are all Japanese. What’s more, they’re not even the ones that get the most publicity in Japan. People who know a bit about Japanese legends have probably noticed that none of the famous kami appear in the story. (That’s not quite true; one does, very briefly, but is not named. Brownie points for people who know where.) Thus, since it’s written in English and directed largely to a non-Japanese audience, people don’t have immediate reference points. I suspect that this is a real problem, and I might try to make future fiction more accessible to people who speak the language it’s written in. This may mean writing a sequel to Tamao in Japanese.

4. Luck. I think this has a lot to do with it. Had Stephen Fry tweeted that he liked the story, I think it would have been a commercial success, given where my standards for success were set. Of course, that would have been a stupendous piece of good luck, and the problems mentioned above may have increased the amount of luck required for it to be a success. However, I think that luck does play a large part in these matters. If you’re good, and persist, you are extremely likely to achieve some degree of success eventually. But then, I already have achieved some degree of success. Just not with this book.

Writing better books is a matter of practice. Finding something that resonates with people requires writing more books. Similarly, I need to write more books to write ones that are more accessible. And, of course, the more I write, the more chance I have to get lucky.

I guess I have to keep writing.

Christmas in America

As I mentioned, we spent Christmas in California with my father. This was Mayuki’s first trip to the USA, although she went to the UK in summer 2008, and met most of the US family then. One thing we discovered is that it really is rather easier to travel with a very small baby than with a toddler; Mayuki complained a bit on the flight out, even though she did sleep, and she was sick just as the plane was coming in to land. Fortunately, we had a change of clothes for her in out hand luggage (that was my idea, by the way), so we were able to get her into something clean before we had to queue to go through immigration.

That took as long as ever, but there were no problems, and when we emerged into the arrivals area, Dad and Joy were waiting for us. Mayuki saw them and, shouting “Grandad!”, ran to him with open arms for a hug. I imagine that he was pleased, not that he’d ever show it. We attribute this to the weekly iChats with them, so that Mayuki was already quite comfortable with him. Indeed, it didn’t take her long to get comfortable with everyone, and start calling Joy’s mother “Bestermor”, just like all the other great-grandchildren.

It took us quite a while to get over jet-lag, something that becomes harder with a two-year-old. Mayuki kept waking up around midnight and not sleeping again until three, which was not quite what we had in mind. Still, we recovered enough to go shopping, and I went to see Avatar, in 3D, with Dad. (I quite enjoyed it, by the way.) I spent a whole day in bed on the 23rd, and I’m still not sure whether I was actually ill, or just completely exhausted. There was a cold going around (Dad and Joy both had it), but I didn’t really have any cold symptoms, so it may have been just tiredness.

Mayuki enjoyed meeting her cousin John, who is four months younger than her, and they actually played fairly well together, with only occasional “Mine!” or “Mayuki no!” (Japanese for “mine’, as said by Mayuki) problems. She also met her older cousins a little later in the break, and that seemed to go well, too. However, she didn’t speak much English; she got as far as “again”, and “popsicle”. Her understanding of English was on display, however, and even included understanding, and acting on “one more time”, which was quite impressive.

Christmas Day was interesting. Mayuki got utterly involved in her first present, a colouring book, and we had to open the rest of her parcels for her. She did get interested in the other presents later, but she didn’t want to do anything but colour for quite a while. She’s showing more understanding of Christmas than she did in 2008 year, but she still hasn’t quite grasped the whole thing. Maybe this year she’ll be as crazy as small children are supposed to be.

We’d planned to get back for New Year, so we left on the 29th. It was only two weeks, and they went really quickly. Mayuki seemed to enjoy herself, and when we got back, she said “Mayuki’s Grandma Joy has gone, hasn’t she?”. I think she missed everyone.

Talking of Mayuki’s presents, Joy made her a Very Hungry Caterpillar puppet to go with the book that Silver bought for her. The puppet turns inside-out to turn into a butterfly. Now, when we read the book, Mayuki insists on getting the puppet, which she says is the same as the pictures on the pages, and when the caterpillar metamorphoses, I have to turn the puppet into a butterfly as well. I think those were a very successful pair of presents.

I did realise that Mayuki needs longer in an English environment to draw her talking out, so I’m thinking about ways to get her to the US or the UK for a bit longer. It’s a little tricky, however, because I can’t afford to take too long off work.

But this was such a good trip that we would like to repeat it quite soon. It won’t, I think, be this year, unfortunately.

Liquid Web

This website, and all my blogs, are hosted by Liquid Web, a US web hosting company. They were recommended on an industry mailing list about six years ago, and so when I decided to switch to a host independent of my connection ISP, I signed up with them. They aren’t the cheapest option available (with the discounts, the basic package works out to about $12.50/month), but they’re also not ridiculously expensive. One reason I’ve stuck with them for about five and a half years is inertia, of course.

The other reason is that, most of the time, everything just works. I get very little downtime (in fact, I don’t think I’ve noticed any), and I can install the latest version of WordPress, run dozens of low-volume mailing lists, and do just about anything else I might want to do.

More important, when something does go wrong, the email support system is extremely effective. The technicians the emails go to actually fix the problems. Most recently, I needed a newer version of MySQL to keep WordPress up to date, so they migrated my account to a newer server, which had a sufficiently new version. When there was a problem with one of the blogs (Tamao), they worked out how to fix it with no intervention on my part. It took less than 36 hours to go from my reporting the initial problem to everything being fixed. Bear in mind that 24 of those 36 were New Year’s Day, and that there was quite a lot of them waiting for me to confirm things or spot problems. If I ever had a problem that needed to be fixed now, I’m confident that they would manage it, although I’d probably have to phone. I suppose I could also hover over the keyboard.

So, if you’re looking for a reliable web hosting provider, my experience of them has been entirely positive, even though Japan is a very long way from their location.

Server Change

All my blogs have just been moved to a new server, to get access to newer underlying software. This should have made no visible difference, but people may have noticed the gibberish characters replacing quotation marks in Tamao. I’m working on getting that fixed as soon as possible, but if you spot any more problems, please let me know.

This blog and my Japanese blog seem to be fine, so I’m not sure what the problem with Tamao was.