Passport blues

I have procrastinated for months in getting a new passport, even after my old one expired at the end of June, because the cover came off and it therefore counts as too damaged for a postal renewal. So, I finally found my birth certificate and biked over from my nice new (as of just over a week ago) residence in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn down to the very lovely main Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza in Prospect Park, where the most convenient all-day-long passport application center is located.

Upon arrival, I realize I forgot my printout of the application form at home, but no matter; I can easily fill it out again. After all, it would be silly to go all the way back home for my neatly printed printout of the filled-out-online PDF version of the form. And so I fill out all the forms again, whereupon the agent checks my documentation, She is at first suspicious that my birth certificate is merely a photocopy, and therefore invalid, but I show her—no ma’am, you can see that there is a faint, but genuine raised seal upon the surface—and she acquiesces.

But then a curveball. I am told that because my state ID1 is less than 6 months old, the State Department does not have the updated records and it is therefore not a complete and valid form of identification, necessitating an alternate and more comprehensive approach to the application process. My options are laid out: I need to either go home and find the expired ID card or make an affidavit application.

What is an affidavit passport application you ask? I have heard of affidavit voting, you may think. All you have to do is fill out one extra form attesting that you are not a lying scoundrel, and they will put your vote in the pile that they will look at if they get bored. Surely an affidavit passport application is no more of a burden? In fact, it is.For you see, it is not the applicant who completes the affidavit, but the witness attesting to the applicant’s identity. That is, I would need to bring a relative or long-standing acquaintance with me to the application office, this person would need to present his or her identification, and sign an affidavit swearing to be a relative or long-standing acquaintance of mine, whereupon my application would be accepted.

Having no desire to subject another individual to such a dreary procedure, I cycle back home, stopping only shop at the Duane Reade for sundries I have been delinquent in purchasing, and being a frantic search for the expired card. Having just moved over a week ago I expected the search to be fruitless, but luckily I discovered the card in a matter of minutes, on a table, unexpectedly laying underneath a hat.

And so, the story ends with far more annoyance than drama, yet another example of the seemingly endless procedures to which all we citizens are subjected by the splendiferously tentacled bureaucratic state, and an anecdote which I hope will prove to be of some small amount of education to the reader.

  1. Non-driver’s license state ID. Yes, that is something I never did at all. []

The Commandant’s House in Brooklyn

Last Saturday I was biking around some back streets in Brooklyn down which I had not wandered before and stumbled across what was clearly a very old fashioned mansion of landmark status, but surprisingly labeled as private property rather than a museum or public building, with no descriptive signage whatsoever.

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Poking around on the Google Maps satellite view I was able to locate the mansion (seen above) in the tiny and quaint neighborhood of Vinegar Hill, and a bit of keyword searching led me to discover that, not only is it in fact a registered historical landmark, but was the official residence of Commodore Matthew C. Perry for two years from 1841-1843, when he was first promoted to the rank of Commodore! As I am sure you all know, it was Perry who, a decade later, sailed into Uraga Harbor and began the process of forcing the opening of Japan, ending the Edo Period and leading to the Meiji Restoration.

I found a 2006 New York Times article about the Commondant’s House, formally known as Quarters A of the now defunct Brooklyn Navy Yard, where my grandfather worked during World War II.((The Yard was closed in 1964, but after being vacant for some time is now a city owned industrial park for incubating small and medium businesses.)) The article describes the history of the property as follows.

 The land for what was at first called the New York Navy Yard was bought in 1801. It is not clear whether the first officer in charge of the yard, Jonathan Thorne, was there when the house was built, a time frame traditionally given as 1805 to 1806. The archivist of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Daniella Romano, says that Thorne was later scalped and killed by Indians in 1811 while on a campaign in the Pacific near Vancouver.

The building that Thorne (or a successor) occupied is shown in 19th-century photographs as a clapboard house

four bays wide in front and five bays dee

p. The facade rose to a peaked roof and a rooftop observation deck.

The main doorway, on the right, was in an intricate Federal style with a fanlight. The cornice and roof trim also carried delicate detailing.

Charles Bulfinch, the architect for part of the United States Capitol, is often mentioned as the designer, but Ms. Romano believes that was the wishful invention of a 20th-century writer.

[…]

In fact, the terms of office in the 19th century seemed to run rather short: Perry’s successor, Joshua Sands, was commandant for only a year. The next commandant, Silas Stringham — who fought the slave trade off the African coast and pirates in the West Indies — served from 1844 to 1846.

It was halfway through his occupancy that The Brooklyn Eagle visited Quarters A and wrote that the house, “with its lawns, terraces and teeming gardens, is a conspicuous object.”

An Eagle reporter returned in August 1872 and wrote that, along with its orchard and vegetable garden, Quarters A had “a look that makes one feel that it must be a pleasant thing to be the commandant.” That was during the four-year term of Stephen C. Rowan, a Civil War veteran.

There is a more detailed architectural history of the house in its National Register of Historic Places Inventory — Nomination Form (Quarters A was eventually granted landmark status on May 30, 1974), which cites Perry’s residency as one key reason for its registration, although I think anyone would agree that it would still qualify without the commander of the infamous Black Ships.

 It is unclear who lives there today. The Times says that the house has been “In private ownership since the Navy Yard closed in 1964”, but the aforementioned Nomination Form, dated July 1969, says that “Quarters A is owned by the Navy, privately occupied, and not open to the public.” It also lists the owner as “Adm. Harry L. Horty, Jr., Vice-chairman, U.S. Delegation U.N. Military Staff Committee”, which I suppose may mean that the house is still owned by the Navy and occupied by an admiral, but sadly the only thing I know for sure is that it remains closed to the public.

NYT making fun of Osaka Mayor’s dad

In a recent article about Japan’s idling of all of its nuclear reactors, the reporter made a casual aside about the parentage of Osaka mayor Hashimoto Toru.

Instead, the central government has found itself battling an improbable adversary: Osaka’s mayor, Toru Hashimoto, the young, plain-speaking son of a yakuza gangster who has ridden Japan’s loss of faith in government to become, seemingly overnight, the country’s best-liked politician, according to recent polls.

The Japanese Wikipedia page on Hashimoto, sourced from this article on the website j-cast, mentions that his father was a gangster who committed suicide when Toru was a second grade elementary school student, and that the couple had been divorced since much earlier.

Although it is factually correct that Hashimoto’s father was a gangster, he was apparently no more than a biological parent, out of his son’s life almost immediately, and no longer living just a few years later. The newspaper’s phrasing makes a very strong implication that his “plain-speaking”-ness is derived from his father’s example, but considering that he basically never knew his father, I think the association is just as unfair as the stupid attacks against Obama based on his father being a Muslim, or against both Obama and Romney because they had polygamist grandfathers.

I’m all for making fun of him for his own craziness, of which there is plenty, but don’t bash him for what his absent father may or may not have done.

On the other hand, Hashimoto has recently embarked upon a bizarre crusade against Osaka employees with tattoos, due to the traditional association between tattoos and yakuza. Perhaps he does, after all, have some latent father issues?

Kikuchi Naoko’s sarin, as described by another Aum member

By now everyone knows that Kikuchi Naoko, one of the last members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult wanted for the 1995 sarin gas Tokyo subway attacks, was arrested on Sunday. Although her face had been plastered on posters found in and around pretty much single police and train station in the country, she managed to remain at large for 17 years, until someone reported seeing her in the Tokyo suburb of Sagamihara.

Back in early 2006, Adam and I collaborated on a large job translating material about Aum Shinrikyo into English for some kind of security researcher down in DC doing a report about religious terrorism. The biggest single document in the project was the massive book Aum and I by Ikuo Hayashi, a medical doctor and member of the cult, who participated in the sarin release, which we translated a significant portion of.

I have previously posted a few excerpts from this book, including Hayashi’s description of the actual subway attack itself, the bizarre and stillborn plot to assassinate Ikeda Daisaku, leader of Sokka Gakkai, and a description of the gross practice of how cult members ate their own feces in a weird attempt to emulate the Buddha.

In honor of Kikuchi’s arrest, here is Hayashi’s memoir of his first encounter with sarin, found on pages 271-274 of the tankobon edition of the book.

*     *     *     *     *

The first sarin dispersal experiment

At the end of April there was a phone call from Nakagawa to me at AHI. “Make the same preparations as when you treated Niimi and come to the Seventh Satyam, in Kamiku,” he said. The only treatment I had given Niimi was when he had been poisoned by sarin gas during the Daisaku Ikeda Poa incident, so I loaded up the station wagon with drugs, a respirator, an oxygen cylinder, and the other necessary supplies and went to Kamiku. Nakagawa went into the prefab that it was said Tomomi Tsuchiya had been assigned to, and came out carrying a box.

272

He told me that it had sarin inside it.

In the flask was a triangular flask, protected by a buffering agent. When I saw the liquid at that time, it was a faint fluorescent green. Since Nakagawa had said that it was sarin, I always thought of sarin as being that color a liquid afterwards. “So, Aum has sarin after all,” I thought. However, at this time I still had no confirmation that Tsuchiya was making sarin.

At that juncture, I still had no realization of what degree of chemist this Tsuchiya person was. Nakagawa said that because he and Tsuchiya were performing sarin experiments together, if by any chance one of them was poisoned, that I should come and treat them. I had a feeling that I had learned yet another secret. I myself was not receding, not progressing, being shown the true forms of Aum’s “secret work” one by one. I naturally felt the discomfort, the unsettlement of the treatment that came with it,

Those “sarin experiments” were to discover the volatilization volume of airborne sarin. I thought that this sarin was meant to be one means of defense against the American military and the [Japanese] Self Defense Force when the “war” broke out.

A truck was parked in front of the Seventh Satyam. It was loaded with several canisters, large storage batteries and a converter, plastic bottles and a sprayer that seemed to be the type used for the spraying of agricultural chemicals and pest removal. Driving the truck was a Samana in the Truth Science Research Department.

Nakagawa and Tsuchiya got in the car together saying to me and the young Samana that we should follow them and set off.

273

I had no idea whatsoever where we were going, but when we arrived it looking like a dry riverbed near the mouth of theFujiRiver. The time was night, just before dawn, and in the vicinity were no other people or vehicles. The riverbed was a broad area, and I got the feeling that they had chosen the location in advance, and we had gone to that place.

They used an ultrasonic nebulizer (sprayer) places on top of an electric balance to spray sarin into the air, measured the wind velocity and force at that instant, and checked the amount of sarin consumed based on the change in mass.

When the experiment was over, he sprayed some neutralizing agent from the nebulizer, but because he had been poisoned I gave him two intravenous injections each of two ampoules of PAM and atropine sulfate. When I examined Nakagawa it looked like there was some mild pupil dilation, but I couldn’t really tell. I treated Nakagawa based on his subjective symptoms.

Nakagawa and Tsuchiya didn’t say in what way they were going to use that data. I didn’t ask. The experiment was over, and we went back to Kamiku. Seeing this experiment, I thought that they really were going to use sarin for defense at the time of the “war.”

Thinking about it now, a much greater volume of sarin would be needed for defense and so the question of how they could get such a quantity comes up is raised, but at this time I was not thinking such thoughts very strictly, and only thought loosely about this.

Why was I called at this time? I think that it may be because I was supposed to perform treatment for sarin poisoning later on. At this time I was thinking that it would be fine if Asahara used me to treat sarin poisoning.

274

I supposes that Asahara must have had the intention of making me participate as a member of the medical team in his plans, particularly his plans to use sarin.

Now I think that Asahara had me join the on-site activities with a notion to “acclimate” or “condition” me, and made me participate in that experiment as a first step.

I think that after the Daisaku Ikeda Poa incident, Asahara stepped up the “fumie” [tests of faith] and “narashi”[habituation, conditioning] that he been giving me to the next level.

 

Fukushima media looks back on disaster coverage, one year later

Last month I translated the first half of a very interesting round-table discussion for Nippon.com, consisting of several reporters and editors from local Fukushima media, discussing both the developing situation in the prefecture and the way it has been perceived by the outside world. (The second half, no less worth reading, was translated by an internal staff member.)

I found reading (and translating) the piece to be very interesting, and made me realize that despite all of the attention I had devoted to the unfolding disaster and subsequent recovery efforts, I had never put any significant effort into looking at reporting actually producing by Fukushima residents, rather than national and international reporters sent in to cover the story. And, as the discussion makes clear, there was a lot of difference in tone.

For example, Murakami Masanobu of Fukushima Central Television says,

I remember the impression I had when the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was opened to the press for the first time in November, 2011. The event was organized by the press club attached to the Cabinet Office, with the local media also allowed to take part. But we had been inside the plant several times [prior to the accident], and tended to emphasize aspects likely to be interesting from the local perspective—how things had changed since the explosion, and so on. But the cabinet press club members all took a very predictable line. It was as though they were learning about the high radiation levels for the first time, even though the results of monitoring had already been made public.

He also has a rather (and I must say, justifiably) exasperated take on how foreign media has covered the events.

If they come across a child with a nosebleed, sore throat, or diarrhea, they just go right ahead and run the story without checking to see if there is any scientific basis for attributing these symptoms to radiation. Then we get criticized by people in Japan who have seen these reports in the foreign media and want to know why it is not being covered here. There’s a misunderstanding that the local media is obsessed with conveying the impression that everything is safe. But that’s not true—the reality is that we’re just trying to report the facts accurately. But when irresponsible reporting appears in the foreign or national media, they end up distorting our local coverage. Ultimately, it has the effect of eroding the trust that local residents have in us. It’s a depressing situation that’s been dragging on ever since the disaster happened.

I think all of us, and Americans in particular, will also find the following assessment of Hayakawa Masaya, of the Fukushima Minpou newspaper, familiar on a certain level.

I think the local media has a vital role to play in continuing to broadcast the latest facts and raising the issues. As time passed after the disaster and nuclear accident last year, and especially after the national government announced that the nuclear crisis had been “concluded,” there was a conspicuous drop in the levels of coverage of the situation by the Tokyo-based media. There’s a vague sense that people just want to regard the story as finished and move on. But, as I said earlier, cleanup operations in Fukushima are at a standstill, and the situation is pretty much unchanged from the way it was immediately after the disaster. How can you call this a “conclusion”?

I very strongly suspect that a similar phenomenon occurs whenever a major disaster is concentrated in a less populated and less powerful region of a country rather than a major city, for example the way New Orleans has been largely ignored by the national press since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In part 2 of the discussion, Hayakawa makes explicit comparisons with the long-term national coverage of the Hiroshima atomic bombing, and the Minamata Disease of Kumamoto Prefecture, based on discussions he had with reporters from both of those regions.

These are just a few sections that stood out most to me, but please read the whole thing and let us know what you think.

Expatriating acts

With all the kerfuffle over how Eduardo Saverin, one of the wealthy founders of Facebook, has abandoned his US citizenship on the eve of the IPO in an apparent bid to avoid taxes, on the heels of Michelle Bachman abandoning her Swiss citizenship, we have seen more discussion of dual citizenship in the past week than I can recall ever appearing in the American media.

I have no particular thoughts on the subject now, but I did learn one thing of significance from this “Room for Debate” feature in the NYT:

Active dual citizenship, on the other hand, means acknowledging or applying such a status by, for instance, voting in a foreign election or registering with the foreign government as a citizen. Such actions used to be called “expatriating acts” — engaging in them meant you renounced your U.S. citizenship. The Supreme Court in the 1960s ruled that such acts can no longer automatically lead to the loss of citizenship. But they can still be prohibited by law, as Chief Justice Earl Warren himself wrote.

I had not realized that the Supreme Court has ruled that there are no longer any automatic expatriating acts. That is, that to lose your US citizenship, you must now either formally renounce it, and have that renunciation accepted, or have a court rule that your citizenship was never valid in the first place, for example due to a fraudulent application.

For the curious, here is the actual form that one actually fills out when voluntarily renouncing US citizenship. While I am not qualified to give legal advice in any capacity, as a practical matter I strongly advise against completing this form in a flight of idle whimsy and leaving it around where a prankster might find it.

Incidentally, Saverin was born in Brazil, so presumably retains his Brazilian citizenship. My understanding is that if he was only a citizen of the US, they would reject his application to renounce his citizenship, as it is widely considered illegal for an individual to voluntarily become stateless.

Kabuki alert gets married

As soon as Obama made his big announcement about officially endorsing gay marriage, the comparison was inevitable.

On some level everybody already knows that Obama doesn’t object to gay marriage, so why should he continue to pretend he has reservations or his position is “evolving”? It’s the kabuki charade that would have had a greater chance of dragging him down.

But it would be pretty sweet if Obama did his next speech in kabuki makeup.

Recalling Fang Lizhi as we watch Chen Guangcheng

I’m sure everybody reading this had been following the dramatic and confusing Chen Guangcheng1 story as it develops, and I also trust that all but the most enlightened remain as puzzled as I do regarding exactly what Chen, the United States, and Chinese authorities have negotiated, promised, lied about, achieved, failed, and intend to do regarding the still unfolding situation((Although, as I finalize this post, it does appear that Chen will be allowed to come to the US on a student visa.)).

I had certainly found the story interesting since it began, but had no particular thoughts regarding it until I read this New York Review of Books article comparing the Chen story with that of Fang Lizhi, a prominent Chinese dissident who similarly sought refuge in the US embassy following the Tiananmen Square Massacre and eventually settled in the US following similarly tense diplomacy, written by Perry Link, an American academic who was in Beijing at the time and helped Fang in his escape.

Fang, who died just under a month ago at the age of 76, after spending the latter part of his career as a professor of physics at the University of Arizona in Tucson, was a prominent dissident at the time of the 1989 protests, who sought—and received—protection at the US embassy in Beijing when the subsequent crackdown started. Before the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, he was already well enough known to be profiled in this May, 1988 Atlantic Magazine article.

I strongly recommend reading the entire piece, as well as Fang Lizhi’s “Confession” to Deng Xiaoping, and Fang’s own commentary on writing it, which was published in June of last year, also by the New York Review of Books.

I also found Perry Link’s concluding comparison between the Fang incident and the current situation to be quite interesting.

Today, for Chen Guangcheng, the two governments might agree that exile is the least awkward solution from their points of view, but Chen may not accept it. Chinese dissidents have learned over the past two decades that exile leads to a sharp decline in a person’s ability to make a difference inside China. Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who is now in his third year of an eleven-year prison sentence for “subversion,” made it clear after his arrest that he would not accept exile as an alternative to prison. From what friends of Chen in Beijing have been saying in recent days, it seems that Chen is taking a similar position.

Another important difference between the Chen and Fang cases is that Chen has a broader following among average Chinese people than Fang had. Fang was a hero to university students and some intellectuals. But most Chinese did not know him, and what they did hear of him were highly distorted accounts in the government-controlled press. Even before the 1989 crackdown, government television was broadcasting images of government-orchestrated “protests” in which farmers were burning Fang Lizhi in effigy. Many people, having no other sources on Fang, accepted such accounts. Today, though, with the Internet, far greater numbers of Chinese—millions of people including many outside of the big cities—know the true story of Chen than ever knew the story of Fang. And to judge from the many accounts circulating on microblogs and elsewhere, hardly anyone seems to view Chen with anything but sympathy.

But while it does seem likely that Chen has widespread support, I wonder what good that will do for him in America, other than provide a comfortable life for him and his family.

For example, look at how much support the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei received after his own unjust arrest, almost entirely enabled by the Internet. And in his case, not only did he receive the ephemeral support of Tweets and Facebook “likes”, but enough small donations (which the artist categorized as loans to be repaid in the future) from tens of thousands of donors to cover the Chinese government’s punitive taxes and fines (which Ai and his legal team continues to challenge).

But how contingent is that support on the fact that he is staying to fight? While there is no question that Ai Weiei, by all accounts charming and brilliant, would be a darling of intellectual and artistic as a political exile, he would also lose the ability to use his own ongoing on-and-off imprisonment as fodder for political artwork such as his recent and short-lifed self-surveillance “Weiweicam” project.

While much about the Chen Guangcheng case remains murky and mysterious, he does at least seem to wrestling with such a choice. Will he stay in China, despite the risk to himself and—apparently more importantly—his family, or will he seek exile2, where he would undoubtedly be safer and more comfortable((He certainly has plenty of supporters in the US, since if there is one things that the “Pro-life” and “Pro-choice” camps can agree on wholeheartedly, it’s that forced abortions are a bad thing.)), but also risk damaging his own credibility as an activist and his ability to help others.

The NYT had an article on Friday discussing this very possibility, saying “Based on past experience, China is often all too pleased to see its most nettlesome dissidents go into exile, where they almost invariably lose their ability to grab headlines in the West and to command widespread sympathy both in China and abroad.” The article goes on to mention how “If Mr. Chen receives a green light to depart for the United States, he will arrive to find a fractured tribe of Chinese dissidents and pro-democracy advocates shouting over one another.”

This line in particular made me think of a particular book I read several years ago, which had already been on my mind as I was catching up on the past week of Chen Guangcheng related coverage earlier today, In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture, By Geremie R. Barmé. Despite the bland and vague title, a significant portion, or even a majority of the book is devoted to Chinese counterculture and dissident protest, including quite a bit of discussion of the criticism and failure that prominent Chinese dissidents have faced in exile, including from one another.

Among exiled intellectuals for a time there was also a considerable amount of critical reflection on the events of 1989. Yuan Zhiming was another of the writers of River Elegy, the television series that was branded by the government as part of a wave of “cultural nihilism” that contributed to the protests. In an article published in January 1990, Yuan questioned what would have happened in 1989 if the most famous Chinese public intellectuals — Fang Lizhi, Liu Binyan, Yan Jiaqi, Chen Yizi, and Su Xiaokang, had “courageously stood forward and led the movement.” He continues his speculation in the tone of a guilty survivor:

If we had formulated some mature, rational and feasible plan of action and organized a democratic front incorporating the students and civilians, if we had worked harmoniously together to struggle for dialogue with the authorities, how would it have turned out? Of course, we may still have been vanquished, but at least we could say we had done everything in our power to prevent defeat. 3

Barmé is also unimpressed with the post-exile efforts of dissident intellectuals, writing:

Prominent intellectuals and students had, bu the very fact of their exile, suffered a serious blow to their credibility. This was particularly so, since it was widely perceived on the mainland that many of the key agitators of 1989 had sought refuge with former imperialist powers (that is, France, England, and the United States((And we could add Japan to this list, which not only sheltered some refugees from China, but also applied pressure on the PRC government during the Fang Lizhi incident, using the carrot of development loans.))) and the KMT government in Taiwan. The mainland authorities were well aware of the jealous reaction of its people to reports of dissidents living off the fat of the land overseas, and the official media took delight in portraying them all as traitors to the nation.4

The remainder of the third chapter deals with this issue in greater depth, and I recommend it to anyone wondering how successful an activist Chen might be in exile.

Even though modern communications has greatly improved the ability of activists and supporters to coordinate better and more secretively across borders, it is hard to imagine how Chen Guangcheng, whose activism so far has largely taken the form of legal action that would be impossible to file from abroad, would be able to continue his activism in any substantial way after reaching NYU. Above, I cited speculation by a sympathetic Chinese intellectual over what would have been different had Fang Lizhi and his compatriots “courageously stood forward and led the movement” rather than accepting exile. In America, Fang was very successful in continuing his career as a physicist, but his post-exile activism was a mere footnote to the exile itself. How might Chen’s career develop if he comes to the US, and how might it develop if he does not?

  1. This 2006 NYT story is a good description of his career and legal troubles up to that point. []
  2. Or asylum, or “rest”, or “study abroad”. []
  3. Pages 51-52 []
  4. Page 44 []

Benefits of Bilinguilism

From last weekend’s New York Times:

Bilinguals, for instance, seem to be more adept than monolinguals at solving certain kinds of mental puzzles. In a 2004 study by the psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee, bilingual and monolingual preschoolers were asked to sort blue circles and red squares presented on a computer screen into two digital bins — one marked with a blue square and the other marked with a red circle.

In the first task, the children had to sort the shapes by color, placing blue circles in the bin marked with the blue square and red squares in the bin marked with the red circle. Both groups did this with comparable ease. Next, the children were asked to sort by shape, which was more challenging because it required placing the images in a bin marked with a conflicting color. The bilinguals were quicker at performing this task.

The collective evidence from a number of such studies suggests that the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function — a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks. These processes include ignoring distractions to stay focused, switching attention willfully from one thing to another and holding information in mind — like remembering a sequence of directions while driving.

Over the last couple of years I have seen quite a few such articles, discussing the cognitive advantages that the bilingual brain has over monolingual speakers, in addition to the obvious practical benefits of simply knowing more than one language. However, all of the studies mentioned in this article and all of the ones I can recall study native bilinguals, rather than those who became fluent in a second language as a late adolescent or adult.

This raises the obvious question: how much of the ancillary benefits of bilingualism, i.e. increased cognitive flexibility and prophylactic protection against Alzheimer’s and similar degenerative neural diseases, are seen by mature learners of a foreign language, compared with native bilinguals?

I strongly suspect that such studies have been done, but it is also possible that the entire field is still so new that they have yet to get that far. Does anyone recall seeing anything on this?

Japanese Kindle

Having now moved back and forth several times between my home in the US and Kyoto or Taipei, on the other side of the world in East Asia, it has become clear to me that dealing with books is the biggest pain in the ass. This is exacerbated by the fact that I am both a congenital book hoarder and (although not at this exact moment) a graduate student. After the most recent move home, after graduating from my Masters program in March of last year, I decided that purchasing a Kindle would be the best way to reduce the amount of weight that my future self will be sending across the sea when the need arises.

And I do love the Kindle, and Amazon’s service in general. (I should mention here that my father owns some Amazon stock, which has benefited me, but that the investment is based on enthusiasm for the company’s service, rather than shilling in order to promote the company.) I happen to have the 3G keyboard model, and the e-ink screen is a wonderful replacement for paper books, even if not quite as good. I do also use the Kindle app on my phone when the Kindle device is not with me, and it is surprisingly comfortable to read books the large screen of my Galaxy Nexus. And the service has been fantastic; when I accidentally broke my Kindle’s screen, Amazon customer support sent me a new one no questions asked. This clearly because Amazon’s priority is very different from that of a consumer electronic company whose profit comes from the hardware itself, who would be happier persuading you to pay for a new unit, or at least repair costs, for breaking a non-defective unit; rather than even asking if I had broken it, they seemed more concerned in getting me a new Kindle ASAP, so that I could resume paying them for content.

Unfortunately, however, the Kindle Store does not include Japanese books. However, it was reported a couple of weeks ago that Amazon would be launching the Kindle in Japan later this year, with Japanese language e-books from Japanese publishers. Apparently they will be launching with the current generation of e-ink devices, rather than the Kindle Fire Android tablet, but since I personally prefer both the readability and long battery life of the e-ink devices I don’t think this is a problem. Anyway, Amazon already sells the “International” Kindle in Japan, so the key here is that Japanese e-books will be available in the store, which will then be usable on existing hardware, including the Kindle app on iOS, Android, and OSX or Windows computers.

The big question for me, however, is how the different national stores will interact. Will it be possible to purchase Japanese books from my Amazon.com account, using my American credit card? If not, will it be possible to use, say, a Japanese debit card linked to my Shinsei bank account? Or will I have to resort to the more convoluted maneuvers required for some international online media stores, by purchasing Japanese Kindle books through my Amazon.co.jp account, and then switching the currently logged-in account on my Kindle to that when I want to read a Japanese title? I do know that Amazon has already localized the Kindle for Italian, Spanish, with Brazilian Portuguese also launching later this year, so I am wondering if anybody reading this knows how it currently handles juggling purchases from more than one country store?

Now, despite the fact that the rumored Kindle Japan store will (presumably) not be launched for a few months, there is still one major source of Japanese e-books usable for it today. Many readers are probably already familiar with Aozora Bunko, a repository for public domain Japanese literature, roughly similar to the primarily English language Project Gutenberg. Since the Kindle software—that is, the OS on the Kindle device, not just the app for other platforms—has included support for East Asian text for some time, it can display Aozora Bunko text files with no problem. Well, there is ONE problem. You see, while perfectly readable, the current text file viewer only displays text in the same left-to-right horizontal lines that you are reading this blog in. While it certainly no challenge to read Japanese in this format, it just doesn’t feel right for literature, which is still universally printed in horizontal lines, and read from right-to-left.

Luckily there is a solution: an online utility called Aozora Kindoru, which generates PDFs formatted in literature style vertical columns for the Kindle screen (they will also work great on any other device with PDF support and a similarly sized screen), and even properly formats any furigana present in the original file. I was first alerted to this utility via a Twitter user, and here are two English blogs with instructions, although I imagine that anybody who would be reading any of the old stuff on Aozora Bunko can figure out the Japanese directions with no problem. [Link 1] [Link 2]

As a final note, it appears that the Nook, from Barnes and Noble, is also planning to introduce international versions, including Japanese. While looking for jobs, I ran across a posting for an “International Content Manager” for Nook, the duties of which involve:

The Manager, International Content Acquisition will have previous experience working with publishers around the world and should be familiar with each territory’s publishing industry.  Candidates should be familiar with the latest developments in digital publishing.  Ideal candidates must have business level command, speaking and writing, of English and at least one other language.

and the job requirements for include:

Professional, spoken and written fluency in English as well as one of these languages is required:  German, Italian, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Russian.

This actually surprises me a bit, as one of the reasons I decided to go with Kindle rather than Nook in the first place (aside from my history with the company) was that I expected from that beginning that Amazon, a country with a strong presence in Japan, would eventually introduce a Japanese language store, while I was doubtful that Barnes and Noble, a company with no history that I am aware of operating in foreign language markets, would do likewise. I am happy to be proven wrong. Incidentally, I have yet to see this move by B&N reported anywhere, but I think the job posting is pretty clear evidence, although if they are currently recruiting for these positions it would seem likely that they are not as close as Amazon to opening their Japanese store.