Wednesday, April 23, 2008

James Lovelock and the Fermi Paradox

I got this idea from John's essay on Southern politics and education, and because I was just listening to "The Dawn of Correction", by the Spokesmen, from 1965.

James Lovelock is the author of The Gaia Hypothesis, also from 1965. The Gaia Hypothesis states that the Earth is a complex, and ultimately self-correcting, interconnected ecosystem. According to some interpretations of this hypothesis, mankind represents a pathogen impacting the longterm health of the Earth, and ultimately the Earth will reject humanity, resulting in our extinction.

The Fermi Paradox is a counterpoint to the Drake Equation. The Drake Equation says that, based on the age of the universe, the potential (we could probably now say likely) number of possible habitable planets, and the process and potential for evolution of intelligent life, that there should be many thousands of intelligent civilizations out there in the cosmos.

The Fermi Paradox says "If the Drake Equation is true, then, based on the age and size of the universe, and the potential speed of space travel, why aren't all those space aliens here on Earth?"

It is a compelling argument. Even spotting the Klingons several billion years, they still have little or no excuse for their lack of appearance in our backyards.

But Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis offers a possible explanation for the Klingon's truancy. If other, extraterrestrial, civilizations evolve and develop similarly to humanity, it might be that they destroy their habitats and become extinct before developing interstellar travel. Certainly that looks like the way we're going.

Serious readers of my old blog may remember my rants about the lack of progress in aeronautical and aerospace engineering since the 1960s. For those who missed it: We, as a species, have not flown higher, farther, faster, or lifted more payload, since the 1960s. The Saturn V, the 747, the C-5, the Concorde, the X-15, the SR-71, the XB-70, etc etc etc etc etc, were all 1960s technology. Since then, we've improved fuel economy, reliability, and navigation technologies, but we have only actually done LESS in real terms of aviation accomplishment. An objective alien observer, basing his evaluation of our potential as a species on our progress towards expanding our horizons beyond our own planet, would logically conclude we've peaked, and are on the way out, without having made it out of the orbit of our own moon.

So what if our experience is typical? What if other intelligent life forms throughout the universe have a similar experience? They develop, become sentient, build civilizations, then destroy their environment and eventually become extinct without ever moving beyond their own planet? That would explain the Fermi Paradox.

Perhaps we're a little more successful than most: we've at least launched tiny unmanned probes outside our solar system, along with some electromagnetic radiation. But it's a big universe, and it would take a very sensitive ear, and a lot of luck, for some distant civilization to receive the signals we've sent. It seems extremely likely, based on the work of the SETI Institute, and others, that there are not a lot of alien civilizations out there broadcasting a lot of radio, at least not where we can hear it.

Associated with Lovelock's theories and the Gaia Hypothesis is the current "global warming" fad. I use the word "fad" to express my scepticism with the whole concept. While there is no question that the earth's mean temperatures have shown apparent increases in the last few years, I always tend to want to put such increases into paleoclimatological context. That context reveals vastly greater swings in the earth's mean temperatures in much shorter periods of time - in both directions, warmer and colder - in previous eras when there was no question of any human impact on the climate. So while I do not rule out the possibility that humans have had some impact on the earth's climate, the evidence presented seems pretty unconvincing (and often blantantly politically manipulated) regarding the causes of recent climate trends. (I guess I should now make the disclaimer that I think the so-called science behind claims of global warming is heinous crud, although I remain agnostic about the underlying climatic trends.)

So now there is some evidence that global warming may soon be a pleasant memory. Several observers have noted that mean temperatures in the last year have shown the most rapid cooling in the climatic record. The current story is that solar activity has rapidly entered a low period, where there is a substantially smaller number and intensity of solar flares. Such "solar quiet periods" are known to have a substantial impact on planetary climatology.

Of course, one year's worth of data does not a climatological trend make. The last year could be a statistical anomaly, which happens routinely. The next year's data might return to the overall warming trend.

But my, very unscientific, observation recently has been that spring this year has come later than any year I can remember. I notice the amounts of foliage, and the temperatures at different points in the year, and this April has seemed more like March. Likewise I've noticed colder-than-usual ocean temperatures the last couple of years. These are not scientific observations, but I've often found that unscientific-but-experience-based observations can often be very revealing.

So what does it mean? To sum it up: it might be that the explanation for the Fermi Paradox is the Gaia Hypothesis. Alien civilizations might never get around to colonizing the galaxy because they usually destroy their own habitats before developing interplanetary travel. We might be doing the same thing to ourselves. Certainly we appear to be making more progress at destroying the environment than exploring the stars. But "global warming" might not be a good gauge of our impending demise, because larger-scale forces, like the sun for example, have a greater impact on our climate than our own abuse of the ecosystem.

What should we be doing about the situation? It seems obvious: We should greatly reduce our production of greenhouse gases, whether or not they cause global warming, because there's no question that we're destroying our environment in many other ways. We should redirect a lot of our energy and resources away from unsustainable development here on earth and towards exploration of the universe around us. Being alert to the potential arrival of the Klingons probably isn't a terrible idea, although that's a subject for another post. Mainly, however, I think we should be aware that it is entirely possible, and perhaps likely or even inevitable, that we will destroy our ability to continue as a species on this planet, and we should try to figure out, as a group of 6 billion, what we can do about it.

The Joys of Perl

I've been studying perl, so as to be more able to use it for a variety of computing tasks.

So I came upon a bit of perl script that generates random sentences in English. The code can be found here.

I downloaded and ran the script, and this was the sentence that was produced:

i had the greatest confusion imaginable

I assume this is truly random chance, although I would believe that it might be a little bit of a joke on me as well.

The script also produced this sentence:

i began with all possible wariness

It only seems appropriate.

Running the script again produced this:

as soon as you know he was going to say i did the doctor and me there for some time in some other way and did not want the money is a fool as to say he suddenly turned round in his pocket book i had to tell her i thought they were a few more inheritances

There's nothing like computer generated randomness for a little cheap entertainment. Incidentally, the script uses the texts of Crime and Punishment, Great Expectations, Robinson Crusoe, and Around the World in 80 Days to seed the random phrase generator.

Edumacation and the Southern Man

I promised Janiece some thoughts on the ABW article on education, so here goes. I noted that the article was dripping with condescension. Here’s what I mean:

People from rural, poor communities have been virtually programmed for generations to listen not to their own reasoning, but to whoever speaks loudest and most authoritatively on any subject. They respond to simple, emotionally charged messages — even when the the issues that the messages involve are complex and nuanced. They resent, and therefore distrust, those Americans who had greater access to education, or who were taught to question as they were not; Bageant believes this is less about anti-intellectualism/anti-elitism than it is simple schadenfreude towards the more fortunate.

OK, we hicks are emotional intellectual cripples who don’t know what’s good for us. And we resent those people who do know what’s good for us. What’s that lead to?

As Bageant notes, poor rural and small-town whites have consistently voted against their own interests for several decades now. They’ve voted against measures that might’ve increased access to college for the poor; they’ve voted in favor of measures that gave credit card companies greater power to set exhorbitant rates and exploit the poor; they’ve voted against a welfare system that — despite Pat Buchanan’s implication — mostly benefitted them; they’ve voted against labor union-sponsored efforts that might’ve saved their jobs and/or salaries.

The logical flaws in the assumption that people were voting against their own interests because of racism and religion alone here are huge. Do certain blocks of Southern voters move that way? Of course. Do most? No. We don’t vote plebiscite on most issues in this country, and on no issues at the national level. We vote for representative government. Most of us hold our nose and vote for the least offensive candidate, but find them all distasteful. In general, white Southerners vote heavily Democratic at the local and state levels. Why the reverse in the national elections? Because despite the lack of good education, Southerners are a practical people with a lot of common sense.

I’ve discussed a few of the issues in that article with some of my relatives and friends with a decidedly darker shade of red under the collar than I have. Let’s take my conversation with a UAW member about minimum wage for example. His attitude was: “Why raise the minimum wage? All the hard working people I know make well more than the minimum already. If we make the teenager sweeping the floor too expensive for management to afford, they’ll just outsource all our jobs to India. If you’re making minimum past the age of 20, there’s something wrong with you.” My people understand the nuances of the issues you Yankee condescending liberal snots. They just don’t believe you when you claim to be working in their interests.

Let’s take another issue, the welfare system. Read “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Who was the only character on public assistance? Bob Ewell. I grew up around a lot of white trash Bob Ewells sucking on the public teat. When I see how short the term of unemployment insurance is offered to hard-working people, how my 40 years of manual labor blue-collar uncle with heart failure has to use up all his savings before he’s eligible for Medicaid, while people who haven’t worked a lick in their lives get on right away, well hell, I don’t believe that the systems liberals hold so dear were set up to reward hard working people. And I won’t vote for more of that.

It’s not the slogans of the loudest politicians who convince me to shift Republican, it’s my own observations. So no, even if some small benefit from them might accrue to me and mine, I’m not all that well disposed towards the greater harm I see most social welfare programs doing. And no politician wanting to expand those programs without addressing their flaws is going to get my vote, no matter how much you promise me and mine, because as Jim Wright said :"you ain’t getting’ the soda machine".

I noted in another post that most issues have complex roots. You need to build a mental model with a lot of terms and properly weight those terms in order to solve a problem. So here’s a word of advice for Democrats looking to woo swing voters like me: quit with the simplistic “you’re racist and stupid” stuff. We understand you. We truly do. Figure out all the things that move us and you might find some common ground.

Democrats, ask yourselves: why is your party dominated at the national level by rich old money like Pelosi and Kennedy? Why do they expect so much out of the middle class in terms of wealth distribution while giving so little of their own money away? Why do they support the death tax that hits middle class ranchers, farmers and small businessmen so hard? Because, as Duke said in the Doonsbury strip about him getting replaced as ambassador to China by Leonard Woodcock: “Of course they’re sensitive to the plight of the working class. That’s how they avoid belonging to it.” They’ve got their own money locked up in untouchable trusts and untaxable bonds (note how little Theresa Heinz paid in taxes because of the latter) and they want to guide all the wealth redistribution programs in such a way so that their money is never touched.

We poor Southerners don’t trust those people. We see Democrats in the mid ranks who genuinely want to help us at the local level, and we vote for them. Rich Yankees who call us stupid on the one hand and then tell us they want to help us? Can kiss our hairy, white...

And when they start spitting on the military that our sons and daughters serve in so disproportionately relative to upper class liberals? Well, we don’t forget or forgive young John Kerry’s distortions before Congress in 1971. So, you want to bring conservative Southerners into the fold? I can see a common ground. Quit playing to the wildly liberal fringe of your party. Quit demonizing us. Is there a component of racism in the way some folks down there vote? YOU BETCHA. But, as I said, make a mental model. Go down and talk to (not at) those people and you’ll find some very shrewd, if not so polished and articulate, minds. The racial component in my model of why Southern white democrats vote Republican on the national level is about 30%. The other stuff that makes up the rest of the 70% of the reasons can overcome the racial divide in most people. Are there some incorrigible racists down there? Again you betcha. But they are not the majority.

Now I see the same thing for the party I officially belong to. I make no bones about the fact that I’m a small “L” libertarian, but I vote Republican because I agree with them more on economics than I agree with the Democrats, and economics is the single most important issue for me.

But in order to get enough votes to swing elections, the Republicans cater to the religious right – the white religious right - and I don’t blame black people who look at that and say “no way am I voting for them”. That’s why I whack the YEC with a big ol’ rational stick whenever I find them on the political stage. I am a scientist. I am a child of the enlightenment. My Ph.D. can be traced in a direct line back to the lab of Antoine Lavoisier, and to allow people like the YEC to run amok in my own party just to win elections would make me a hypocrite. So I’ve got to beat on them to remain true to myself even if it’s seen as scoring points for the other side.

I see some, but not nearly enough of that willingness to whack on the fringe on my side of the aisle. There has to be more of us doing that before the Republicans can truly become a centrist party. I despair of it ever happening, but voting for the Ayn Rand fan club that constitutes the modern Libertarian Party is a) pissing my vote away and b) lying down with dogs that have a lot of fleas. So I hold my nose and cast my vote elsewhere. But here’s the thing – I see almost NO willingness on the Democratic side to pull their fringe element in line. Until I do, I’m not crossing the aisle again. But I did in the last election for one candidate. And I’ll do it again for him.
Want my vote? Treat me like my concerns are valid. Don’t promise my poorer family members goodies without talking about the consequences. Despite my distaste for the man’s moral character, you know who did treat me like my concerns were real? Bill Clinton. I don’t think a Republican could have pushed through the 1996 Welfare Reform bill, just as I don’t think a Republican or a Northern Democrat (and that includes JFK) could have pushed though the 1964 Civil Rights bill. But Bill and LBJ were true centrists Bill too much so, in that he moved whichever way the polls were blowing, but at least the man listened.

Southerners don’t vote the way they do because they’re brainwashed. The educational system in this country was not set up to brainwash people. Never ascribe to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence. You can not BS me on this issue. I lived in the USSR. I've seen a system that was designed to brainwash people up close and personal. I talked at great length with people who were products of that system. I lived in Japan and watched that educational system, which is the closest the free world comes to brainwashing. And the US system is not even close. It's not a great system, either, and I have plenty of complaints about it, but it's not a brainwashing system.

The US educational system was set up to cram facts down throats before kids dropped out in 8th grade. It evolved from that in the 50s with the push after Sputnik, but only slightly. In point of fact, the educational system has been dominated by liberal progressive thinkers since Thomas Dewey started preaching child-centered education and denigrating content knowledge back in 1916. Businesses have been calling for better educated workers for most of the 20th Century, and never more so than now. To claim that the Dewey-inspired system of today with its emphasis on self-esteem and lack of emphasis on content is designed by business to create docile factory workers flies in the face of evidence. In fact it’s a level of thinking akin to that of conspiracy theorists. We have a term where I’m from for people who create mental models based on stuff they read in books and never question with real observations: “educated beyond your intelligence”.

Monday, April 21, 2008

More Notes From Asia

Japanese beer is awesome. But if you’ve heard an ex-pat rave about it and then tried and Asahi or Kirin at your local sushi place, you’ve likely wondered what kind of government mind control in Asia makes people think they are drinking great beer. The reason is that the big Japanese breweries don’t export, they contract with local breweries to produce the brands under license. The big brands in North America contract their beer: Kirin to Anheuser Busch and Asahi to Molson, so the Japanese beer here tastes pretty much like Busch or Molson. AB is a tool of Satan, and Canadian beer is OK beer, but it’s not great beer. If I want a Molson or a LaBatts, I’ll give the maple tree huggers my money directly.

On a related note, Taiwan Beer is watered down piss from diabetic horses. I drank two liters and couldn’t catch even the beginning of a buzz. Might as well have been drinking Coors Light. So I gave up and switched to Kirin, hoping that it was exported from Japan. Nope. Brewed under license by … Taiwan Beer.

I hadn’t realized how much of an improvement the new 757s, 767s, and 777s are until I flew to Asia on a 747 recently.

Your first trip to Asia will be primarily an olfactory experience.

My wife and I have similar charitable instincts. We want to give money to people who work hard for a living. Overfed monks with begging bowls? Not so much. We bought scallion pancakes from one elderly man every day, even when we really didn't want scallion pancakes.

Chinese people eat bao tz and fried dumplings for breakfast. Perfect for the jet-lagged traveler whose stomach thinks it’s dinner time at 6:00 AM.

Black Pine Sarsaparilla is the best carbonated soft drink on the planet.

If you are ever in Taipei and want a little idea of what Taiwan was like 30 years ago, take a tip up to Keelung (pronounced Jee – LUNG, with the “U” being somewhat between the English “u” and “o” – don’t get me started on transliteration systems from Chinese to English – they all suck). I recommend staying at the Harbor View Hotel , which is very reasonable* and taking in the Miaokou Night Market (open pretty much 24 /7) at the Denji Temple for a great taste of the second world.

* ~$75 US per night for a small room that - unlike many Asian hotels in this price range - does not smell like an ashtray, has 2 beds and a fridge and a view of the harbor, with a real breakfast included

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Back when Airlines had Standards

Check out this cool photo-blog with a special on Stewardesses...

I was just thinking about this, and what seems to have been lost is the glamour of aviation. When aviation itself was considered to be glamourous, then flight attendants were expected, by both the airlines and the flying public, to be glamourous as well.

Today aviation has the opposite reputation: a very unglamourous utility, 1/2 notch above the subway. This is probably a tribute to Juan Trippe's success in making air travel accessible to ordinary people, but it certainly is a lot less fun.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Notes From Asia

I recently lost 6 pounds in less than 2 weeks, on a regimen of exactly zero exercise. Unfortunately, this was the Giardia lamblia weight loss plan, and I don’t recommend it. One strange side effect, is that giardia block the absorption of fats. The fat comes out the only way it can, since by the time it’s in the colon, you can’t throw it back up. This leads to loss of vitamins and carotenes that are fat soluble, which was the whole problem with Olestra. Carotenes are the orange and red colorants in orange and red veggies, so another side effect of this weight loss plan is that if you’ve been eating orange vegetables, your stools will be a bright, neon orange.

Taiwan is getting more prosperous every time I visit – it looks more and more like Japan. But there is still a lot of Peasants R Us construction left, even in the big cities.

A note for all you second and third world taxi drivers: it’s probably a good idea, when waiting in line at a taxi stand, to keep your pants zipped. A glimpse of pubic hair is more likely than not to cause a fare to look elsewhere for transportation. It’s almost certain to scare off female passengers, but it squicks the male ones the hell out, too. Just Sayin’.

Juan Trippe's Globe, In Person

As they say in the Army: Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF): The globe is just as large as I thought it was, which means that either the globe in the movie was not really the authentic globe, or Alec Baldwin is freakishly huge.

To back up a little: recently I visited the new "America by Air" exhibit at the Smithsonian. The new exhibit takes up one of the halls at the main National Air and Space Museum on the Mall.

The exhibit gets two out of a possible five "Pan Am Globes" overall, and one out of five Globes for Pan Am content. Ultimately I think the web site is better than the actual exhibition.

There are lots of stewardess uniforms, and a few cutaway engines, etc, but overall it is unimpressive, except for Juan Trippe's globe. More specifics on the globe later...

One of the things I really noticed was the strong racial content. There was a lot of space and effort devoted to the message that not many minorities flew on American air carriers prior to desegregation and the civil rights movement. I thought this was kind of a racist non-sequitur, because the airlines themselves did not discriminate against paying passengers. What discrimination that did exist was mainly the policies of the airports, not the airlines. And before Pan Am inaugurated air travel for the masses, which occurred around the same time as desegregation and the civil rights movement, only the wealthiest elites, regardless of ethnic origin, engaged in commercial air travel.

But the exhibit doesn't devote any space at all, other than the displays on discrimination, to the classic art-deco airports of the 30s and 40s. There's nothing on La Guardia, or Dinner Key, or Treasure Island. There is only one small illustration of experimental airport designs, hidden in the corner by the emergency exit.

There were a few small Pan Am items besides the globe, such as these 377 and Connie models:

The DC-7 fuselage, which I assume was sponsored by American Airlines, is pretty cool, and there is a huge front fuselage section of a 747, which I didn't bother with because I didn't want to stand in line, and it appeared it was only a tour of the cockpit. If it had included an upstairs lounge, I might have been willing to stand in line.

But back to our main subject:

The globe is displayed with a pretty good B-314 model, and a little bit of Pan Am history in the diorama.

Here's a close up of th 314 model:

The globe itself was made by the "Malby's Terrestrial Globe Company", AKA Thomas Malby & Sons of London. There is a date on the label, which appeared to be '18*4'. The third digit in the date was obscured by damage, which I thought was kind of strangely coincidental. I had heard the globe dated to 1844, but looking at it I suspect it was 1884 or 1894, not 1844. I plan to email the lady at the Smithsonian to see if she has a good idea. The "Malby's Terrestrial Globe" company made globes as early as 1848, as far as I can tell, and made a similar large globe like this one in the 1880s - I think.

I looked closely at Pan Am's pioneering routes for evidence of Juan Trippe's measurings. There was little evidence of wear or damage, other than normal aging, anywhere other than the Pacific. There were a number of worn spots, stains, etc, near Pan Am's Pacific routes, especially around Hawaii:

Note that Hawaii is labeled "The Sandwich Islands". This dates the globe to before 1900 or so, but we knew that already.

Here is a shot of the plaque that says "Presented to the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences by J.T. Trippe":

There is no date on the plaque. The "Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences" is now the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). The name dates the donation to before 1958. Later AIAA gave their entire historical collection to the Smithsonian and the National Archives, which I would assume is how the Smithsonian got the globe. I'm planning to email Ms. Szczepanowska about that as well. The Smithsonian Magazine says the Pan Am Historical Foundation had the globe, but that seems to contradict the plaque.

For a little more fun reading on Juan Trippe, check out this excellent rebuttal from the Wall Street Journal to how Trippe was portrayed in "The Aviator", or this cool anecdote.

Overall impressions: The globe is large, as big as I had thought, and very well preserved. It is an amazing piece of history. I'm glad the Smithsonian has it on display, but I think the National Air and Space Museum really missed the flying boat, as it were, in their "America by Air" exhibition. Also - and I was very surprised by this - the main NASM facility is simply not well kept. It is dirty, dusty, and in almost shocking disrepair. I understand that there is an awful lot of tourist traffic at the main NASM building, but that doesn't explain why most of the exhibits look like they haven't been dusted in several years. A lot of the museum was simply filthy. There are a lot of "interactive exhibits", where visitors can observe how various principles of aeronautics work, and it seemed that at least 75% of those were broken. Also, many of the other sections of the museum are very dated, and are not in good condition. I understand it is a _museum_, full of old stuff, but many of the displays and descriptions of modern aerospace technology simply need to be updated or fixed.

Overall, the Udvar-Hazy Facility of the NASM has more and better history of commercial air travel than this exhibit at the main building on the mall, such as the marvellous Clipper Flying Cloud:

I guess that last Pan Am shot could be called gratuitous :). But if you're trying to decide what to do with your aerospace museum visiting time and effort, skip the main NASM building and go to Udvar Hazy, unless you especially just want to see Juan Trippe's Globe. If it were up to me, I would move the globe and all the rest of the Pan Am stuff out to Dulles and have a real Pan Am exhibit out there. They have plenty of room, and lots more good stuff.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Art Deco from Aviation's Golden Age

John had some good photos so I thought I'd post some too...

The other day I wasn't in Japan (although my brother-in-law was - he flew all the way to Tokyo from Boston for the Red Sox' opener), but I was in the old main terminal hall at (Ronald Reagan) National Airport.

The Main Terminal hall (now called Terminal A) is open, following lengthy renovation, but isn't being used. It's just "on the way" between the parking garage and the new terminals where all the flights are.

It has a lot of history, though. It was completed in 1940, as part of the New Deal airport construction that produced many glorious Art Deco edifices, including La Guardia, and the now-demolished Tampa Airport terminal at Peter O. Knight field.

Here's a close up of the plaque:

National, like most of the other terminals, was built by the Works Progress Administration, who were serious about their Art Deco. Although I am no Rooseveltian Socialist, I'm all in favor of government bureaucrasy that is serious about Art Deco.

Here's some more:

That photo doesn't do the architecture justice...

By the way - for those who are following the subject: the presentation about Juan Trippe's globe has been rescheduled from April 9 to April 30. This is bad for me because I'm afraid I'll miss it. It is only a 15 minute event, however, so I think I'm going to go down to the Smithsonian sometime in the next week and check out the new exhibit, and maybe try to talk to the Conservatrix Of The Globe personally.

Friday, April 4, 2008

My Japan

Most people have a highly skewed view of Asia in general, and Japan in particular. For many, Shibuya is Japan – and enormous sea of neon and giant plasma screens with Harajuku girls thrown in for good measure. And quite honestly, I saw some weird-ass people hanging around the entrance to Yoyogi Koen on the Meiji Jingu side, and I can direct you to some really good restaurants in Shibyua that you’d miss for all the neon – and the neon certainly is part of the Japanese experience.

The other Western ideal of Japan is the Zen monastery. Anyone who’s actually been to Asia and carries that particular brand of baggage with them is struck by the cognitive dissonance generated by the contrast of all the arts and religion we see from Asia over here and the reality over there. The emphasis we see is on tranquility, harmony, and natural beauty. In reality Asia is crowded, noisy, and outside of Japan, dirty and smelly. The smell of Bangkok, for example, has to be experienced to be believed. Incense, savory food, and perfume mix in an olfactory quilt that also includes a river that smells like an open sewer, diesel fumes, and rotting garbage.

The Westerner often forgets that a.) art and religion are often a reaction to an actual living situation that is the exact opposite from the aspirations of the humanist or theologian, and b.) that the arts and religion we see comes from the upper class who could escape to the country without having to actually do anything as messy as slop the hogs.

Japanese adults live in a very small mental box. Bullying and conformism often dominate their lives. To compensate for this, they tend to let their kids run wilder than one would expect from a strict semi-Confucian society. But by 40 those kids will be corporate drones, or have carved out a more pleasant niche as a small businessperson – but still traditional in form.

As an adult, some of the escape hatches in Japan actually do have to do with art and nature, and Tokyo is surprising in its ability to smack you with a quiet park right around the corner from a bustling street. That is one of the attributes I love about the place.

I lived there for 2 years around the turn of the millennium, and this photo essay is a look back at the old neighborhood. I had a day to relax in Tokyo, and I spent it revisiting old haunts. It was an extremely pleasant way to spend an early spring day.

When I lived in Japan, I consciously decided not to live in the Gaijin ghetto. My train station was one of those random platforms that the tourist would pass at high speed in the Romance Car on the way to Hakone. I took the Odakyu line into work, and if I got on the train after about 7:30, I was pushed into an already over-crowded car by guys with white gloves and paramilitary uniforms. The car doors would open at the station, and there would be a hiss as of someone opening a soda bottle as everyone in the car exhaled and gulped a breath of fresh air, while the people whose faces were smashed into the door stumbled out before getting pushed back in again.

Obviously, I was an early riser, as having my nose pressed into some salaryman’s armpit while being forced to stare at some other, seated salaryman reading a pornographic version of Sailor Moon Manga is not my idea of a good time. I hate Manga.

Guys often copped a feel in that situation, in fact there were anti-Chikan (pervert) posters in all the train stations when I lived there. There were wild rumors that Japanese girls sometimes felt up foreigners in such situations, but I only knew one guy who had that happen to him. When he told the story to his (Japanese) wife she said: “you know that was a guy, don’t you”?

My station was a 3-level deal. The top level was the tracks and platform. The second level was ticketing and a few restaurants. The street level was shops and bicycle racks, with a big open terrace where kids skateboarded in the evening. They’ve put in an elevator since I was there – in 1999 the Japanese attitude to the handicapped was “suck it up”.

This is the view of the train station that I had every morning:

My neighborhood had a few foreigners in it, but it was about 90% Japanese. I certainly didn’t know any of the foreigners by name. I felt no need to pay twice as much for a crappy apartment in Roppongi or Hiroo so I could be close to the consulates and the groceries that specialized in foreign foods. I already spoke some Japanese, my wife reads Chinese, so between us we were almost a literate person. We took advantage of that and lived in an area that was not crawling with sailors and Marines on leave from Yokosuka (sorry Jim and Janiece*, but there are a lot of Goobers on that base, and the first place the Goobers with a weekend pass in hand head for is Gas Panic).

That meant shopping was done Japanese-style. This is Marusho, the local grocery about 50 meters from the back entrance to my station:

Yes, space limitations usually make for 3 and 4 story grocery stores in Japan. They have big box stores, it’s just that the boxes are tall, not wide.

The streets in the neighborhood were quite narrow, and there were retaining walls one to two meters high all over the place, so street signs were always accompanied by mirrors:

See what I mean about narrow streets:

The majority of people lived in 3 – 5 story apartment buildings:

However, there were still single-family dwellings in the neighborhood, too:

Unfortunately, many of those were torn down since I lived there, and construction continues apace:

This is my place, Maison Nagai (owned by an old Samurai family, the Nagais, natch):

They say everyone is equal in Japan. Society is supposed to be homogenously middle-class. Bullshit. There is a Japanese proverb: “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”. Stores like Tiffany’s abounded when I was there. Looking at average salaries and expenses, if everyone was middle class, Tiffany’s should have gone out of business in about 15 seconds.

So what was up? Well, everyone in Japan is expected to work, so salaries are pretty middle class for the majority of people. There aren’t many entrepreneurs – that heyday was in the 40s, 50s, and early 60s, before the new Keiretsu completely re-instituted the old Zaibatsu system under a different name. Morita would not have gotten Sony off of the ground in the 1970s.

But income isn’t wealth. Let’s say you were in an minor Samurai family under the Tokugawas. Meiji came along and made you get a real job instead of swinging a sword, so you got a degree and became a bureaucrat. Your kids became salarymen and so on. But, neither Meiji nor his son Taisho confiscated the family homestead. So you have 40 acres in some backwater part of Edo. Your family hangs on through the war years, and goes back to work in the Occupation. Now developers start coming in. Your 40 acres in some rice field known as Shinjuku sits right on the place where Yodobashi Camera wants to build their new store. You have them sign a 50 year lease, and bingo, you’re getting 20 million dollars a year in rent.

That’s how rich Japanese are made. But they don’t flaunt it. The signs are subtle. Classy diamond rings, the quality of their clothes, but not in the sleazy Hollywood way. Oh no. You’d never know they were really rich unless you followed them home and found that they have A PRIVATE FREAKING PARK as big as two American football fields right in the middle of an extremely developed Tokyo neighborhood:

Even in Feudal times it was dangerous to conspicuously consume. Hence the wall. Yeah, I snuck in there one night. It was right around the corner from my place. It was pretty nice.

I lived technically in Shibuya Ward. As I said, say the word Shibya to most people, and they think of this. But Shibuya Ward is big, and I lived in the area where it borders with decidedly blue-collar Setagaya Ward and the quiet part of Meguro Ward. Setagaya was about a 5 minute walk from the house, Meguro was about 10 minutes away.

The street on the way to Meguro Ward was lovely. It wound its way past Higashi Kitazawa Station, a local stop on the Odakyu line (my stop was an Express Stop). It was lined with small shops that spoke of 1950s reconstruction. Yakitori restaurants that held about 10 people:

Udon places about the same size:

Ceramics stores:

And liquor stores:

Tokyo University has a branch with a nice park in the area:

You can still see real 1950s construction here and there to get a feel of what Occupied Japan looked like. I’m sure some developer will be tearing this down soon:

There used to be a traditional Chinese Pharmacy in the area, but it has since closed, so no pictures of deer peni for you.

Now Marusho was all well and good, but I’m a cheap bastard, and in Japan you pay through the nose for convenience. So I got on the internet and found the nearest Daiei, which was a Wal-Mart like chain. It happened to be one express stop from me in Setagaya Ward (remember what I said about blue-collar Setagaya) in Shimo Kitazawa, which is a part of Setagaya Ward that is not so much blue collar as overrun with hipsters on a budget. The rich kids hang out in Harajuku, the working class weirdos hang out in Shimo Kitazawa.

But my Daiei is now closed, being transformed under corporate restructuring imposed by bankruptcy:

I love the Shimo Kitazawa area, because there is still a lot of stuff left over from the 50s. Café Masako, for example:

The Occupation ended in 1955. I wonder how many GIs drank coffee and tried to pick up local girls in there?

Behind the station there is a small roofed neighborhood that was probably built in the late 40s, but evokes an even older Japan. Most tourists would walk right by the entrance:

Inside you feel like you have walked into one of the flashback sets for Riding the Metro (a movie I highly recommend, BTW, despite the bad reviews in English ). Need a massage?

Wooden stalls and steel sinks:

Japanese pickles for sale:

And a metaphorical view from the 1940s to the 2000s:

When I was taking these pictures, I grabbed lunch there in a Japanese Udon / Katsu place. It was full of construction workers on lunch break and families taking a rest from shopping. There was just one waitress and one cook in the place, and every table had a button to call the waitress over when you were ready to order. I could see the panic in her eyes when the white guy walked in, because she was running around and had no time to pantomime an order with some gaijin. Her relief was clearly visible when I asked for a seat for one person in Japanese. I had a great lunch and a huge Asahi Super Dry (about 2 US beers in the mug) for under $12. Japan is not as expensive as people make it out to be. But you have to have a sense of adventure and look for places with no Caucasian faces.

Finally, I took the Odakyu express one more stop to Umegaoka. “Ume” is Japanese for “Japanese Plum” which is not a plum, but a small apricot. The Japanese make a disgustingly sweet liqueur out of them, and it is often homemade. During the harvest season, Japanese grocery stores carry Umeshu home-brew kits.

Umegaoka has a famous park with nearly 1000 ume trees. Ume bloom in late February. I prefer Ume season to Sakura season. The celebrations are much more sedate because it’s too cold in February to get drunk and neck under the ume blooms, whereas Cherry Blossom season is one of the few times you’ll see PDAs in Japan.

At the back of the station is the flagship store of one of the most famous Sushi chains in Japan, Midori Zushi. There is always a line there, even at lunch. They specialize in fugu. Only in Japan would people flock to eat in a place with a highly poisonous creature featured prominently on the front of the store:

The park is just lovely, even when the blossoms are just about gone:

It is also thoroughly Japanese, with the obligatory holy rock:

And unpilfered bicycles neatly parked in a row without chains or locks:

I spent the rest of the afternoon there, watching the kids play in the park and drinking milk tea dispensed hot from a vending machine. I miss Japan.

*Jim and Janiece, if you have personally been to Gas Panic, please don't ruin my high opinion of you by telling me.