Loco in Japan

A while back, when I wrote an article about racial categories in Japan, I got a response from Baye McNeil, the author of the Loco in Yokohama blog, and the two books that I will be reviewing in this blog post. That response led to me reading his books, which are primarily about his experiences as a teacher of English in Japan. This is a topic about which I also have quite a lot of direct knowledge. In fact, we have been in Japan for very similar lengths of time, and we live close to one another; Yokohama and Kawasaki are adjacent, in the west of the Tokyo sprawl.

I can definitely recommend both books to anyone with an interest in what it is like for someone from overseas to live in Japan long-term. They are engaging, memorable, and thought-provoking. However, I would caution against assuming that this is what it is like for all foreigners who live in Japan. Despite the similarities in our situations, we seem to live in different worlds. How to sum that up?

One of his students invited him to a brothel; one of mine invited me to see the Emperor officially open the Diet.
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2:46: Aftershocks

I just found out about this book via the Guardian, and I’ve already bought my copy. As the page will tell you, it’s a collection of personal reactions to the March 11th quake from people across the world with some connection to Japan. Most of them were in Japan at the time, and a fair few of them are Japanese, although, as the book is in English, the majority are foreigners in the country. All of the money from it is going to the Red Cross for earthquake relief; even Amazon has agreed not to take its cut.

I’ve read about half of the book, and it’s an interesting window into people’s reactions in the immediate aftermath. I found myself sympathising with the person who said he was in a very modern building and so didn’t feel much; there are also accounts from people who were much closer to the epicentre, making me very glad I wasn’t. Most of the book was written between one and two weeks after the quake, and a number of people comment on the continuing aftershocks. They still haven’t stopped; according to my student in Fukushima, they can hear the earth grumbling almost all the time, even when they can’t feel anything.

From what I’ve read, this book is a good way to both contribute to the recovery and find out more about what it was like, from multiple perspectives.

The link is an associate link, because that’s the easiest way for me to link to an Amazon book. I think that means I’ll get an Associate commission if people buy the book through the link. If it rises to a significant amount, so that it makes sense to do so, I’ll specifically donate it to the Japanese Red Cross. (They won’t take less than Â¥2,000, so that’s the lower limit.) If not, I’ve donated and will donate a lot more than that, so all my profits from it will also, in effect, be donated to the effort. If someone knows of an automatic way to channel my commission to the book’s fund raising, please let me know.

Complete Adventurer

This is another Dungeons and Dragons book, containing new classes, prestige classes, feats, skills, equipment, and spells. The book is aimed at characters who have lots of skills, so primarily rogues, with a few sidelights on rangers, bards, and, slightly oddly, druids. It does its job well.

The scout, which is a base class, is essentially what the ranger should have been; a wilderness-oriented version of the rogue. It would make much more sense for the scout to be in the Player’s Handbook and the ranger to be in this one, but that’s not the way the game developed historically. The scout also looks to be well-designed; it does, at least, look like an appealing class to me.

Among the prestige classes, the tempest, which makes two-weapon fighting a wholly viable option, and the daggerspell mage and shaper stood out for me. The latter two classes are based around spellcasters who fight with two daggers, and seem to do a good job of making an interesting and stylish concept viable in mechanical terms.

The other sections might not have grabbed me, but there’s plenty of solid material there, and I can see the feats, items, and spells getting plenty of use in games. In fact, some of the spells looked like they could be very useful to certain sorts of characters, but I would need to think rather harder than I plan to in the immediate future to work out exactly what their impact would be.

Reading this book, however, confirmed my opinion of D&D, as stated before. It’s just not quite what I want out of an RPG. Close, but not quite there. I really am going to have to write my own.

Law in Everyday Japan

This book is a serious legal/anthropological study of the effects of the legal system on various aspects of Japanese society. It was very interesting, in part because I learned a few more details of what the law in Japan actually is. It made me think that I need to find a basic “introduction to Japanese law for people living here” book, but quick checks around bookshops and on Amazon didn’t yield anything particularly useful. I’ll have to have another look at some point.

Anyway, back to this book. It starts off with a chapter about the lost and found laws, and an experiment involving dropping wallets and cell phones in both Tokyo and New York. In Tokyo, he got 85% of the wallets back, all with the money inside. In New York, he got 40% back, and 25% of those (10% of the total) were missing the cash. His argument is that the Japanese system makes it easy to return lost goods, thanks to the ubiquitous police boxes, and specifies a reward for those who do so, and penalties for those who don’t (picking up and keeping lost property in Japan is embezzlement, and it is sometimes prosecuted). In this case, he says that the system and social expectations all work together smoothly to produce a very positive outcome.

Some of his other examples were less successful. The most spectacular example was that the law passed to regulate and restrict love hotels seems to have had the effect of massively expanding the business. (A love hotel is a hotel that rents rooms by the hour for the purposes of sex. At some hotels, married couples are the largest single group of customers; this, apparently, does not apply when the hotel is next door to a night club.) This, he argues, was because the law defined quite precisely what a love hotel was. It was therefore a relatively simple matter to avoid the definitions and not be a love hotel, while still serving that function. The presence of the definitions forced the hotels to be a bit less tacky, and the existence of regulation made them seem somewhat accepted. So their image improved, and they became more popular. Given the soundproofing of the typical Japanese apartment, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s certainly not what was intended.

He also discusses the structure of the governing body of sumo, changes to bankruptcy legislation, and other topics, making the book rather miscellaneous. As a result, it doesn’t really have an overall conclusion, beyond “the law makes a difference to the way Japanese people behave”. That would seem extremely obvious, were it not for the fact that some people have, apparently, denied it. The point is made very convincingly, however, and the case studies along the way are extremely informative. A recommended book.

I Was Right

A while ago, when writing about the Conan book I had read, I said “Oh my god, it’s Dungeons and Dragons.”

A week ago, Wired had an article about Gary Gygax, which included the sentence: “[Gygax] was a fan of the Conan the Barbarian books by Robert E. Howard and wanted to try to capture that sort of swashbuckling action in a war game.”

I also said “D&D is often described as “Tolkienesque”, but the basic narrative structure is not very much like Tokien at all.” The Wired article continues: “Interestingly, he loathed the major fantasy touchstone of the time, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. It was so dull. I mean, there was no action in it,” Gygax says. “I’d like to throttle Frodo.””

So yes, I’m just gloating about being perceptive. Mind you, I write these games for a living; I’d really better be perceptive about them.

Spell Compendium

Spell Compendium is a book for D&D 3.5. It does what it says on the cover: it’s a big collection of spells, from lots of previous D&D books, revised and updated to deal with problems found after publication. There are a lot of interesting ideas in it.

A couple of things struck me. The first, entirely internal to the game, was that druids got a fair number of useful attack spells at the same level as wizards and sorcerers. However, druids also get better attacks, better saves, better hit dice, and cool powers; their spells should be consistently weaker than those of wizards and sorcerers, or the game is unbalanced. This is most likely something that will be fully addressed in D&D 4; it would be rather difficult to do it retroactively for third edition.

The other is more general. D&D is very good at what it does. What it does is also pretty close to something I’m interested in seeing done, and done well. I really like a number of D&D settings, for example, and there are many things about the rules that I also like. However, it just misses being what I would really like to see, and does so on a fundamental level. I occasionally toy with revising the rules (with the Open Game License, you can do that for D&D 3), but the number of revisions it would need builds up and up, and I realise that I would be better off just writing another game. Of course, if I do that, I have to make it very different from D&D, or why bother?

So, D&D is rather irritating. It’s very close to something I would like to play, but not quite there. It’s close enough that I keep going back to it and fiddling with it, but far enough away that the fiddling never quite works. I have no doubt that I’ll continue fiddling with it for quite some time. After all, I enjoy myself while I’m doing that.

Oh yes, this book. If you want a big book of spells for D&D 3.5, this is the book for you. As far as I could tell, it does that job well.

Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda is George Eliot’s last novel. Middlemarch, also by Eliot, is a strong candidate for my favourite novel, and it’s certainly in the top five. It’s generally agreed to be the best of her works, and I think I agree. Nevertheless, Daniel Deronda was very good.

There are two main stories, both concerned primarily with the aristocracy of nineteenth century England. This is a world in which “poverty” means “might not always be able to afford a servant”, or even “needs to work for a living”. Most nineteenth century novelists seem to have written about this world, even Dickens, although he spent rather more time dipping into the life of the poor than most of his contemporaries. It makes for a slightly strange reading experience from a modern perspective.

One story concerns a beautiful girl who has just reached the age at which she is expected to marry, and her misadventures in that direction. The other concerns an attractive young man, the eponymous Daniel Deronda, and the process by which he finds his purpose in life.

This book is set apart from the other novels of the period I’ve read by the involvement of Jewish characters. They are sympathetic, and Deronda spends some time deeply involved with them. The first thing I noticed was that anti-semitism is much less serious now than it was then; Eliot is on the pro-semitic side, but some of her comments would count as anti-semitic these days, and the opinions of some of the characters, even sympathetic ones, are positively shocking by modern standards. This, in fact, is something I notice a lot in reading nineteenth century literature. Racism, sexism, and anti-semitism are all far, far less serious now than they were a century and half ago. That doesn’t mean that there are no problems, but anyone claiming that there has been no progress is completely lacking in historical perspective.

The other thing is that the Holocaust shadows everything, particularly the Jew Deronda goes to meet in Mainz, talking contentedly of how integrated they are into German society, and how much they enjoy their freedom. I don’t think it would be possible to write that scene now; knowing that the author knew what was coming would freight it with too much meaning.

According to the introduction, the critical consensus is that the storyline about the girl, Gwendolen Harleth, is a success, while the Deronda’s storyline is not. I disagree; I think that they are both successful. However, they are somewhat different types of story. The Deronda storyline is touched with the numinous, while a large part of the point of Gwendolen’s story, I think, is that it is not. For critics for whom any touch of the fantastic, of, indeed, any thing that goes outside the circle of their own experience, is a blemish in a novel to be gently deplored, this may be enough, but I feel that is a rather narrow way to assess literature. There is also the fact that Gwendolen’s story has its share of tragedy, while the tragedies that threaten Deronda’s story are not, in the end, quite as tragic as might be expected. Many critics seem to believe that books that are positive must be shallow, a belief that is quite shallow itself.

I may be slightly biased in that I very much liked the character of Deronda; from comments reported in the introduction, I gather that this is not a universal reaction. I can understand why he would react in the way that he does, because he struck me as very similar to me. That doesn’t mean that anyone else would agree, of course, but it did put me in sympathy with him, and thus dispose me to enjoy his half of the story.

At any rate, I would definitely recommend this book, probably to be read after Middlemarch. I think it is my second favourite of the Eliot novels I’ve read.

Changeling: The Lost

Changeling was the 2007 game for White Wolf’s World of Darkness. It was, I gather, a rather larger hit than the publishers expected, which is always nice when it happens. This is a contrast to their last attempt at Changelings. Changeling: The Dreaming could be (slightly unfairly) described as “hippies fight librarians”. Changeling: The Lost is, rather, “abuse survivors try to rebuild some kind of life”. Rather darker, and much more effective as a game.

The player characters are people who were abducted by the fairies, and then managed to escape. Fairies are not nice, so their experiences in Arcadia were dreadful, and transformed them into something no longer entirely human. What’s worse, in most cases their abductors left fetches behind in their places, so that their family and friends do not even realise that they were gone. They normally find themselves near the place from which they were abducted, as it is their desire for home, family, or a particular person that allows them to get out of Arcadia. However, home is no longer their home, so they have to create a new life.

The background is good, and there are a lot of nice mechanical touches. For example, the supernatural powers of the Changelings are based on contracts made with the world, and each contract has a catch, which allows the Changeling to use it at no cost if she performs some appropriate action. This is a good way to get players to have their characters do suitable things, as well as reinforcing the mood. In all, this is a very good game, with flashes of inspiration setting off the solid work around them.

It seems to be best suited to fairly long, open-ended campaigns, unlike Promethean, which would work best in a chronicle with a fixed goal (becoming human). This is why I’ll probably never play it; I don’t have time for multiple long-term campaigns, and I’d rather play Mage, or Ars Magica. However, if I was playing a WoD chronicle, I’d definitely want to work the Changelings in. The ideas are too good to waste.

The Happiness Hypothesis

This book is about happiness. It’s based in psychology, and draws on both ancient philosophies and modern empirical findings to discuss what makes people happy. Most of what the author comes up with are things I already do, which might explain why I’m happy. It’s a very interesting book, with a couple of things that were new to me.

The evidence currently suggests that everyone has a happiness range, and that this varies considerably from person to person. Events and circumstances move you up and down in the range, but how happy a particular event makes you depends on your natural range. There are two ways to make people happier within this. The first is to move them up in their natural range. This is what meditation, cognitive therapy, and changes to lifestyle do. The second is to move the range up. This is what Prozac does.

If this is right, then Prozac isn’t a crutch, it’s a treatment for a disability. My range seems to be fairly high, so I don’t need it, but that makes it very easy for me to say that no-one does. That’s wrong, of course. If you have perfect eyesight you don’t need glasses, but that doesn’t mean that, if I just tried harder, I could function without them. On the other hand, Prozac isn’t the whole solution, either. It might move the range up, but if you’re still functioning at the bottom of the range, that might not make you terribly happy. (Of course, if you had a very low range and functioned near the top of it, Prozac would make you very happy all of a sudden.)

The things you should do to be happy are fairly easy to explain. Relationships with other people are important, as is having something that you really enjoy doing, something that involves a good amount of skill and concentration. Involvement in something larger than yourself is also a major positive factor; religious belief tends to make people happy (and that’s the bit I hadn’t come across before).

Money is a bit more complex. Broadly, money doesn’t make you happy, but lack of money does make you miserable. The level at which increasing income stops making you happier varies from one society to another; as I recall it was about $40,000/year in the USA. On the other hand, if you use money to buy experiences, particularly with friends or family, then that can make you happier. Spending money on a holiday probably will make you happier, assuming that you have fairly good relationships with the people you go with. What’s more, the happiness tends to last, unlike money spent on things.

That raises an obvious question: is a book a thing or an experience? (It’s obvious to me.) Obviously, it is a thing, but the physical object is not what you buy. Rather, you buy the experience of reading it. In these terms, books might be experiences, but only if you read them. Similar considerations presumably apply to DVDs and CDs, and they should apply to RPGs in spades.

These results suggest that contemporary Western society is set up badly wrong. People try to get things, rather than building relationships or skills, and are surprised when it doesn’t make them happy. Japanese society may be slightly better off; Japanese consumerism is rather more focused on experiences, such as holidays and trips to famous hot springs, which are, apparently, better at making you happy. Still, the tendency towards individualism is visible here, and bad from a general perspective.

However, the nice thing about the results is that they suggest that making people happy could be good for society. If most people were involved in several deep, positive relationships with others, involved in a skillful activity and some projects aiming at larger things than personal goals, and were not constantly trying to get new toys, I think you’d have a fairly pleasant place to live. A bit of conscious design would be needed, but you should be able to be completely upfront about that. In short, I think that there may be the makings of a political program here, in addition to the recommendations for personal life. Definitely an interesting and useful read.

The Third Chimpanzee

The Third Chimpanzee was Jared Diamond’s first book. It’s all about the human animal, and the likely evolutionary background to some of our behaviour, and the likely consequences of some of the rest of it. It’s well written, entertaining, and as far as I can tell would have been accurate when it was written, so it isn’t too badly wrong even now.

Diamond has a good attitude to evolutionary explanations of human behaviour. If a certain kind of behaviour is found in all societies, or very close to all, and particularly if it is not found in the other two species of chimpanzee, then it almost certainly evolved during the development of humans as humans. Thus our long lifespans and penises were probably part of the changes that made us human. The long lifespan has a plausible explanation available; the continued existence of old people, who remembered how everyone survived the last disaster seventy years ago, meant that the whole group could survive the next disaster. In effect, it provided insurance against disasters that were likely to occur only a couple of times in a human lifetime. There is, apparently, still no good explanation for why human penises are so big, however. (We have smaller testicles than chimpanzees, though, and there is an explanation for that. Go on, read the book.)

He also does a good job of tracing animal precursors to human behaviour. Genocide is found in other mammals, but on a much smaller scale, because they do not have the resources we have. Thus, genocide looks like the manifestation, in large, organised states, of the standard hostility to members of other groups found in small groups of people and groups of animals. Ecological destruction is also found in both the human past, and in other species.

Diamond does mention the native people who lived in harmony with their environment. However, there is a strong implication that they did that after trashing it when they first did that. We know that the Polynesians wiped out many species on the islands they found, before, in many cases, learning to live within their ecological means. The first Native Americans seem to have wiped out the large mammals (this is controversial, but I’m inclined to agree with Diamond; it looks like a bit too much of a coincidence), before learning to live in balance. In some cases, they didn’t. The inhabitants of Easter Island trashed the place completely, and the Anasazi of North America deforested themselves into oblivion.

It’s not just humans who do this, either. Rats introduced to islands tend to drive species to extinction by eating them. Sometimes those rats have stowed away on human ships, but even then it’s the rats, not the humans, who do the wiping out.

The general conclusion is that animals that can prey on more than one species, if introduced to a new region or provided with new capabilities, tend to drive other species to extinction, before either reaching a new equilibrium or going extinct themselves. Thus, if humans continue to behave in a natural way, like any other species would, we are likely to completely trash the planet. Personally, I think that humans as a species will survive, pretty much whatever we do. Civilisation could go down, though, and the deaths of billions from war, plague, and famine could easily be part of the process. So I think that avoiding environmental destruction is a good idea.

The unique thing about humans, of course, is that we can look at the past and try to avoid making those mistakes. We are actually doing that, right now. It’s not clear whether we are doing enough to avoid disaster, but at least we are thinking about it. This book won’t tell you how to save the planet, but it will give you a much clearer idea of why people might consistently make the sorts of decisions that would destroy it.