Saturday, September 19, 2009

Lords Of The Samurai

We finally got round to visiting the Lords of The Samurai exhibition this weekend, still running at the Asian Art museum in San Francisco. Spread over three rooms and featuring some 160 artifacts, this is as much as anything a history of the Hosokawa family whose personal inventory of objects forms part of the Eisei-Bunko Hosokawa collection in Tokyo, the primary source for this exhibition.

Overall I'd rank is as "interesting" rather than "must see" largely because of its narrow focus and hence limited ability to address any one aspect of samurai history and culture thoroughly. Personally, I'd have liked to see more of a logical progression of artifacts through either a time line or else more of a grouping of objects around different aspects of samurai life. (I'd also ding them for less-than-perfect presentation of the swords in this display, especially the tachi that were poorly lit and shown edge down, making it hard to study the hamon properly.)

For me, the most interesting section featured items relating to Musashi, the legendary master of the two-sword fighting technique and the best known codifier of the samurai Bushido through his (originally scroll-based) "A book of 5 Rings".

However, don't rush round to see any of it until you check the date. Tomorrow is the last day, and that of course assumes you are reading this on Saturday 19th September! And just to heap even more disappointment upon you, photography is banned, hence the photo above is of another artifact from the permanent collection in the same museum and not even something Japanese in origin. Bummer.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

How Big's The Internet?

Right off the bat, let me start by saying a) I don't know and b) depends anyway on how you want to measure it. Regardless, if you believe what's written here then the answer is about "10 Empire State buildings".

The source of this was trying to answer the question of what it would take to print out the Internet, and as a by product to produce some very nifty graphics to represent the answer. Without knowing the basis for the analysis it's hard to argue one way or the other but let's assume it's correct. For me, this begs another question: how does that compare with the number of discrete books held in libraries around the world?

According to a recent Guardian article, the British Library alone has 650 km of shelf space holding some 150m items. (Which, according to the writer also poses a severe security challenge. Amongst over 9,000 items listed as "MIA" are such diverse tomes as a luxury edition of Mein Kampf, produced to mark Hitler's 50th birthday in 1939, and a medieval text on astronomy. Probably wasn't the same borrower who swiped both, mind ....)

Given , therefore, that just the books in the British Library already consume almost 200x what a printed version of the Internet supposedly would, it seems the printed word still has the upper hand despite the obvious rapid rise of the Internet as a new form of information distribution & storage.

How big's the Internet? "Small when compared to books", I suppose, but apparently growing much faster than any other form of human communication ever devised!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Fate Worse Than Death

From A Silicon Valley Life

There was an interesting segment on the BBC World Service I caught on the way to the office today. Triggered perhaps by the election of a new and more liberal government in Japan, the BBC ran a piece on the death penalty in that country and how it manages to be one of the most inhumane instances of a practice that is itself already deemed inhumane in much of the developed world.

As documented in a recent Amnesty International report, Japanese prisoners on death row suffer an number of additional deprivations above and beyond merely being confined and under sentence of death. Prisoners are, for example, forbidden to move around their cells except to use the toilet; they are not allowed to talk to their jailers - indeed, they are not even allowed to make eye contact with their captors. But perhaps the worst thing of all is that they do not know when they will be executed. The BBC reported that prisoners are only told on the morning of the day the sentence is to be applied that this will in fact be their last day on earth. Imagine what that must be like. Every day you wake up waiting to hear if this is it or if you have another day to live. Every morning, day in and day out, you face the uncertainty all over again as to whether or not you have a future that stretches out beyond lunch time.

It's hardly surprising, therefore, that Amnesty concludes that prisoners are basically being driven nuts by this approach, and I quote "The mental anguish of not knowing whether each day is to be your last on Earth is terrible enough. But Japan's justice system also sees fit to bury its death row prisoners in the most punitive regime of silence, isolation and a sheer non-existence imaginable."

The BBC interviewed a local writer as to how the Japanese people could allow this state of affairs to exist? His take was that a) it was literally a one-in-a-million group of individuals (120 inmates from a population of around 120 million) and hence largely ignored, b) these individuals had to had committed multiple murders and not just one and hence by definition seen as being the "worst of the worst", and c) that their crimes automatically proved that they were so far outside of society that they were beyond any such thing as inalienable human rights.

Historically, there's been no political will whatsoever to change this practice. However, it turns out that the change of government may well usher in a more open-minded approach. One of the new cabinet ministers has been an outspoken critic of the Japanese approach to handling death row prisoners, offering an opening to effect some much needed change.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

McLaren vs. Ferrari

Despite the headline, we're not talking F1 (though with all that's going on in that world then perhaps we should be) but rather road cars. After having developed the iconic McLaren F1, still one of the most desirable cars ever produced, McLaren focused its energies instead on an increasing collaboration with Mercedes, ultimately resulting in the MB SLR McLaren. By this stage the road car partnership was going less than well with sales falling short of target and McLaren less than thrilled about the design limitations applied by Mercedes who wanted more of a GT sort of vehicle while McLaren were all hard-core sports car.

Now the divorce has been agreed, the two parties are off doing their respective things which, in the case of McLaren, looks to be very interesting indeed. With the specifications listed here, and given that the indicated price is indeed correct, then Ferrari had better watch out. The two companies have been locked in combat on the track for many years; looks like the fight will now be spilling out onto the road as well!

Update: Here's Jay Leno's take!

(BTW, apologies for the extended absence. Too much going on and too little time to try and get it all done. Work continues to be the curse of the drinking-and-otherwise-leisured classes.)