Sunday, January 27, 2008

Critical Mass 1

Last night we did the first critical mass in Osaka in a few years. There were only about 20 riders in the beginning and it quickly dropped off to about 10.

We had a route planned and mostly stuck to it, despite some protests that we should ride on the major roads.

Here's most of the group in the beginning. We never did the northern part of the route because it was really cold and by the that time there were only six of us left. So we pulled off at a bar between Shinsaibashi (心斎橋) and Hommachi (本町).

Friday, January 25, 2008


Today, I had my first definite Yakuza sighting. Their girlfriends are a lot easier to identify. They wear almost nothing at all and teeter around on super high-heels, covered in tatoos - they're the only hot girls on the street that the nampa guys don't say a word to. The guys, however, are usually a bit more discrete. Actually, this guy was probably pretty low down in the chain, because he was dressed like a thug.

When I was doing my shopping in an old shoutengai, I saw this tough looking dude in his 40 wearing a track suit and a huge down jacket. Then, I noticed he was missing the ends of two of the fingers on his right hand. The damage was new, because his hand was still bandaged, but it was clear that the fingers had been chopped. I guess I was a bit obvious, because when he saw me looking at his hand, he shoved it into the pocket of his jacket. He was reading the adds for rental places posted outside of one of the ubiquitous rental agencies, and after shooting me a glare he went back to reading.

Imagine trying to rent a place in Japan with two fingers missing.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Critical Mass, Osaka

Because there's no critical mass in Osaka, my friend Maisie and I are trying to start one. Apparently, they used to have one here and there's still an old website for it, but it died out some years ago.

Maisie made up some fliers and we've been handing them out and trying to generate some interest for this Friday's ride. Somehow, independently, we both got into contact with a guy named Takuya, who used to organize the rides in Kyoto and Osaka. Takuya told me on the phone that doing a critical mass in Japan is way different than anywhere else and then he sent me a long email full of advice. There's some great stuff in it, so I'll quote some excerpts:
Here's some advice from a bitter old man...

Make a strong outline. Once somebody said, "We should ride on the sidewalk." We took a majority vote and she won....

Someone else said, "We should make a single line. Let's not ride side by side." We took a vote and he won...

"Let's not take over a whole lane... Let's not play music while we ride... let's be courteous to drivers..." Things like that appeal to many people here.

"Let's ride in a park so we don't bother driver's" didn't win, but many people thought it was a good idea.

Help them understand what C.M. is and what it's not.

Recruit beginners. They are not committed but they have good vibration. Most newbies have good ideas about bikes, and they use commonsense. But they will follow like ducklings... teach them how to ride safe before you go into the street... You ride through a yellow light and they will ride through a red light without looking.

Watch out for bike geeks. Some bike geeks will put people off by trying to pick up girls by talking about the newest bike parts... Or by trying to make everyone ride the same kind of bikes as them... Bike geeks are welcome at C.M. but don't let them overrun it.

Watch out for bike shops. They will bring people to C.M. but really they're there for selling bikes. They will make C.M. into something that it is not.

(Well actually, I'm a bike geek and a bike shop owner and I like picking up girls, but for C.M. forget all that.)

There's a lot more detailed advice and then at the end he says, "Sounds hopeless? That's exactly why we need a Critical Mass."

We decided that we're gonna have to do things differently here, at least at the beginning, and so we planned a route. There are two reasons for this, one cultural and one logistical. Japan is not a place were people get together to do random unplanned events, so having some structure will reassure everyone that we know what we're doing, and Osaka is not a city where you can just ride on any street you want. Some streets are major auto thoroughfares and others are mobbed with pedestrians. In order to navigate a group of bikers through the city, you kind of have to think ahead so that you don't end up stuck on a street that wont work. The simplest way to do this is just to plan the route.

Tomorrow me and Maisie are going to do a test run of the route.

In other bike news, since Jackie sent me the Campy seat post off her Veloche, I finished building the Nagasawa. I want a different seat, but for now I had a yellow one sitting around that will do.

Here it is leaning up against one of the outer walls of Osaka Castle on it's debut ride.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Elephant in Japan

Every week I meet with Takanori and we read Arabic together in his office. Takanori reminds me of some of my best teachers. We read slowly and carefully and at the end of every session we have raised more questions than we have answered.

He has this poster on the wall above his desk. I don't think the colors came through well, but it's printed on a deep yellow. It was made by a geriatrics association in Rhode Island for some campaign to encourage the elderly to continue reading. But that's not just some random old man studiously scribbling in a notebook. That's Otto Neugebauer.

My doktorvater has an original print of that same photo in his office above his desk. Actually, although Takanori is older, he and Alex were students together at Brown when Negebauer was still there. Even here in Japan I feel the presence of his tradition.

Mathematicians love these traditions that have to do with intellectual lineage - the transmission of knowledge and methods from one generation to the next, the development and preservation of schools of thought and styles of scholarship. They are much more interested in this intellectual transmission than in bloodlines. Once Deborah and I were talking about the Mathematics Genealogy project with a colleague who works in the history of biology and had never heard of it before. He started half joking that the mathematicians were going to mix this project up in with some kind of eugenics and try to breed a race of super mathematicians. When we realized he was half serious, we looked at each other, a little surprised that he had no idea how completely banal mathematicians would find this idea. I recently noticed that my doktorvater is included in the Genealogy project, and so is Takanori.

Over the holidays I made a few changes in the way I'm studying Japanese and by applying them consistently for the last three weeks, I'm starting to have a real break through. I've got a basic grasp of Japanese grammar now, and can read stuff that's not too Kanji heavy, but my biggest difficulty is in understanding natural Japanese and speaking at a normal pace. The sounds are just too unfamiliar and the vocalizations too foreign.

I realized that the only way out of this is exposure and drill. I've begun to do what's called shadowing, which is speaking what you are hearing at the same time that you hear it and trying to imitate the sounds exactly. I have some text and sound files on my computer and everyday I do a half hour or so. This is just blind repetition, over and over until I can say each sentence in the same way and at the same speed as the speaker. Meaning and understanding is secondary. On top of this I'm also drilling vocab with a program I downloaded that analyzes what words you know well and what you need to be drilled in and paces the ordering of the vocab based on this analysis. Then, almost every evening I go out and talk Japanese - use the words I just studied and phrases I repeated over and over again.

Even a few of my English speaking friends have agreed to do some Japanese only time. Jon has agreed to teach me Japanese in Japanese and when we're hanging out together, the people around us are totally mystified. Japanese people don't expect foreigners to know any Japanese, much less for one of them to be correcting another's mistakes followed by various example sentences of good usage.

The other night we went down this festival for Ebassan, a god of prosperity in business. I didn't get all the details but we were funneled into a big temple structure where people piled these bouquet like things in a huge pile and then threw money at one of the temple buildings and got a bamboo branch. I through my money clean over the roof of the building, at which Jon said, "ma ma."

In the crowd, there was much carousing and drunkenness. We gave the temple people some money and drew our fortunes from a big urn. I got the number one fortune. I couldn't read it but when I asked a nearby girl she said that if I worked hard good things would happen. She couldn't read much of it ether, but she said that was the main drift.