Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Charlton Heston, 84

April 6th, 2008 Comments off

I was going to post that they can take his gun away now, but I see that thousands of others have already seen the obvious joke there and beaten me to it.

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McCain’s Response to Lobbyist Story: Political Smear?

February 22nd, 2008 Comments off

Read the report:

“It is a shame that The New York Times has lowered its standards to engage in a hit and run smear campaign,” McCain spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said in a statement.

“McCain has a 24-year record of serving our country with honor and integrity. He has never violated the public trust, never done favors for special interests or lobbyists, and he will not allow a smear campaign to distract from the issues at stake in this election.

“Americans are sick and tired at this kind of gutter politics, and there is nothing in this story to suggest that John McCain has ever violated the principles that have guided his career,” the statement said.

So, according to McCain, the New York Times is out to politically assassinate him with a smear campaign, playing gutter politics? That’s a bit of a stretch. But maybe that’s the only thing McCain can say right now. Denying the affair is easy: unless there’s a confession or some visual record, there’s slim to no chance that an affair will be proved. But the really damning stuff would be the simple association with a lobbyist, and the public record that McCain indeed intervened on her behalf.

Notice that McCain does not address that point. They just issue a general denial, claiming that the story shows nothing to suggest that he violated his principles. Really? Intervening on behalf of a lobbyist in such a brazen act of engendering political patronage that he was publicly rebuked by the commission he tried to sway in her favor:

In late 1999, Ms. Iseman asked Mr. McCain’s staff to send a letter to the commission to help Paxson, now Ion Media Networks, on another matter. Mr. Paxson was impatient for F.C.C. approval of a television deal, and Ms. Iseman acknowledged in an e-mail message to The Times that she had sent to Mr. McCain’s staff information for drafting a letter urging a swift decision.

Mr. McCain complied. He sent two letters to the commission, drawing a rare rebuke for interference from its chairman. In an embarrassing turn for the campaign, news reports invoked the Keating scandal, once again raising questions about intervening for a patron.

For a man who sells himself as the champion of campaign finance reform and a bane to lobbyist, this hard evidence certainly does sound like it’s a betrayal of some principle or another.

Original Candy

January 22nd, 2008 5 comments

One of the problems with some of the flavors of Christianity is that, to a thinking person, they include rather clear absurdities that make it difficult to accept the religion as a whole. I remember one of these being pitched to me by a coworker at a job I had while in college (the same fundamentalist coworker who so easily “disproved” evolution). She explained to me that I was in debt to Jesus Christ. How come, I asked; she answered, because he died for my sins. When I asked how he could die for my sins thousands of years before I was born, and more to the point, asked the theoretical question, what if I had no sins, she explained about the concept of original sin.

Original sin has always seemed to me to be a coercive element of Christianity. The idea is that we are born with sin, and that is used to put us in instant debt with the church. No matter who you are, you are born with sin because, according to Christian mythology, Adam and Eve took a bite from an apple from the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden, and that is added to a ledger of your own sins when you are born. Having sin, you must go to the church for redemption or else burn in hell. The idea here is that you owe the church, the religion; you must ask for forgiveness, you must repent, and receive the blessings of eternal life. Thus there is a built-in debt and feeling of obligation, even ownership by the church, in a sense.

And for what? The tale of Adam and Eve, when looked at critically, is rather absurd. God supposedly creates two innocent beings without the ability to distinguish right from wrong. More than anything else, he wants to deny them knowledge (why?), and keep them in eternal ignorance. But then he puts the source of this forbidden knowledge in the center of their abode, and further stacks the deck by making this knowledge accessible as a sweet and tempting fruit. Then he puts, or allows to exist, a serpent in the garden, in the tree itself, which will wheedle and tempt the innocents to eat the fruit of the tree. Then he goes off and disappears for a while. Talk about stacking the deck!

Translate the situation into something more relative to our experience. A parent doesn’t want a child to read. They command the child never to touch a book. But then they dress up a book in chocolate bars, leave it out in the middle of the child’s playroom. Then the parent brings into the room a stranger who will spend his time trying to get the child to eat the chocolate. The parent then leaves the house, and later returns to find that the child actually ate the chocolate!!! Well, of course the child ate the chocolate.

This is an ultimate sin that places the entire human race in peril from birth? It strikes me as not just a manufactured mechanism of debt, but a rather poorly manufactured one at that. In setting up the situation with the chocolate book, either the parent was stupid to an extreme extent, or they were trying to engineer a situation where the child would disobey and thus deserve punishment. This story makes the parent either an idiot or a sadistic schemer. And then there is a paradox: if the children are innocent and have no knowledge of what is right or wrong, then how can they be blamed for breaking the rules? They were innocent, they didn’t know.

I can understand the story from a point of allegory, a way of explaining human consciousness, our awareness relative to animals in retrospect. Someone must have asked, why are we different from the animals? Why do we have speech, knowledge, certain awarenesses, moral structures, and they do not? OK, someone answered, here’s a story telling why. But in the story are themes of growth and sacrifice. In attaining more knowledge, we pay a price for that awareness; we know moral bounds, and cannot simply do what we like for we know the consequences this may have in harming others. There is even recognition that the increased brain mass that facilitates greater knowledge will cause a mother pain in childbirth. If one does not accept the story as actually having happened, but instead sees it as a vehicle of explaining certain differences and developments in humans relative to other creatures, the story holds more meaning.

But, as a literal story, as many Christians see it, it comes across as nonsense. Even if you accept the idea that god wanted his children to be eternally innocent and free from worries and responsibilities, why would god then set up the situation so that it was virtually certain that his children would disobey him and thus lose their innocence? Not to mention that if god is omniscient as many Christians say, and knows everyone’s fate before they are even born, they how come god was surprised when Adam and Eve did what they did?

I know there are rationalizations. I’m just saying that trying to rationalize all of that stuff in a literalist interpretation is absurd to anyone who bothers to sit down and think critically. Unless I’m missing something, and someone would like to discuss the point in comments.

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Are Mac Users Better People?

December 31st, 2007 6 comments

This is somewhat of a weird idea, almost disturbing–kind of like saying that rich people are more hard-working, or Asian people are naturally better at math. But there have been some stories floating around the web recently that would have you believe that the title statement is true. Note: I don’t believe a bit of it–just wanted to let you know that before you formed an opinion of this Mac fanboy’s leanings on this issue, which you may have done already just from the title. Anyway:

Apple Bullet  This ZDNet article suggests that Mac users are more honest, though their data is a bit one-sided and weak: it is based on the fact that nearly a third of all Leopard sales were in the form of the Family Pack–a purchase that would be unnecessary for anyone wishing to install Leopard on multiple computers, should they wish to do so by buying the cheaper single-install disc, which is not copy-protected (it does not even require a serial number to be input). The only data on the Windows users’ side is paper-thin: no reports of relative software piracy, just a note that Microsoft goes to extreme lengths to copy-protect their software, which in itself suggests that Microsoft doesn’t trust its user base like Apple does.

This whole idea here does have some rather notable holes; Apple makes its money with hardware more than software, so it does not have the imperative that Microsoft does to protect its software as much (Apple does copy protect its more expensive software). Also, buying a Family Pack does not mean that you are being completely honest–it may just be a way for five people who do not live in the same household to pay $40 per person for Leopard instead of $120. Not as bad as stealing it outright, but not exactly angelic either. Not to mention that the article makes no measure whatsoever of actual piracy levels on the Windows side, so it is useless as an actual comparison of OS piracy amongst the two user groups.

Apple Bullet  Harder data comes from this study, which found that “consumers who own Apple Mac computers are much more likely than PC users to pay to download music.” It reported that while about half of all Mac users paid for their music downloads, only about one-sixth of all PC users paid for theirs. It also reported slightly higher CD purchases among Mac owners.

While these numbers are a bit harder to dismiss outright, there are several chinks in the armor. For instance, the numbers may be based upon inaccurately low estimates on the number of Mac users, or perhaps that PC users simply consume less music overall. But the difference shown in the survey is a bit high to be completely explained away by just these two potential flaws.

It could be that Mac users are simply hand-led to a more legal avenue–with iTunes pre-installed, it is simply easier to buy legally on the Mac, while on the PC there is much more software available to download music illegally. Perhaps the average income of Mac users is somewhat higher, leading to a higher “what’s my threshold for dishonest behavior” effect. But again, these are somewhat weak. Nevertheless, it is kind of hard to suggest that Mac users as a group are somehow more intrinsically honest than PC users, even by a slim margin. Perhaps all of the above circumstances combine toward a greater data-altering effect.

Apple Bullet  Finally, there’s this rather non-scientific survey which found that Mac users at Starbucks were bigger tippers than PC users–twice as big, in fact. Again, it might be more about the median income of Mac users, but then again, PC users are supposed to be businesspeople, and going to Starbucks is not exactly slumming, either. In the end, this “evidence” is more easily dismissed as apocryphal, isolated, and ultimately non-scientific to the extreme.

Now, despite what you might think about me being a rabid Mac fanboy (which I am), I seriously don’t buy into the “Mac users are better people” idea. Something skews data & perceptions about this, and much of the data, as I’ve shown, is rather weak. Mac users are no better than PC users, I have no doubt about that.

Nevertheless, despite not taking it seriously, it does <evil grin=”on”>rather tickle me</evil> to see stories like this floating around the web.

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Coming to America

December 15th, 2007 3 comments

So here we go, yet another trip across the lake. As usual, there was the usual forgetting-of-random-items (the zoom mag lens for my S1-IS, and my glasses prescription) and last-minutes delays and rushes.

One included an insufferable UA phone “assistance” operator, whom I called to ask about wither or not I could carry on board a small (44ml) bottle of saline nasal spray to irrigate my nasal passages on the long, dry flight over. A few years ago, I had a cold, then flew, and then suffered from a massive nosebleed which lasted a few weeks and destroyed most of my vacation. Since then I’ve been paranoid of any bleeding or possible factors leading up to nosebleeds.

So I called the UA number, and got some guy who either was incompetent, or his English was far worse than it sounded like. I asked him, “The dry air on the airplane is very bad for my nose; I had a bad nose bleed a few years ago because of the dry airplane air. I have a small plastic bottle with water, a saline solution, to spray in my nose. Is that OK to bring on the airplane?” The operator then asked, “Is it an inhaler?” I said, “No, just a small plastic bottle with water, I squeeze it into my nose to keep it wet.” Then he put me on hold for five minutes. He came back and asked about inhalers again, so I explained again. On hold for another five minutes. He then said that since we were talking about inhalers… I corrected him; he put me on hold again. He came back, asking if my medicine had an electric motor. Quickly becoming frustrated, I corrected him yet again. Again, I was put on hold.

This continued until he had wasted half an hour of my time, and he eventually pronounced that I could bring it on the flight… only if I had a “medical certificate.” For a small plastic bottle of saline solution? I had asked him several times if there were a simple maximum limit, like 50 ml or 100 ml, but he completely ignored that question. I ended the call having no idea what I could or could not do, and had lost a half hour when I planned to use that time to do stuff, like leave some nice flowers and a note for Sachi, fill up the fridge with her favorite drink, clean up the house a bit, and so on. I was able to do it anyway, but had to rush a bit. There always seems to be someone in a “service” position ready to give you a hard time in one way or another. That call should have taken one minute (“You can take this or that but not that, up to x ml of this but not that.” “Thanks!”). As it turns out, I was allowed to take the bottle on board; the agent at the check-in counter recognized that immediately and told me so.

Apart from that, everything went smoothly. I guess after a few dozen international flights you get into the swing of things. Left on time with the apartment fully locked up and shut down, took a $6 taxi ride to the station, had ample time to wait for the Narita Express, smooth train ride, almost no line at the check-in counter, the E-Ticket system worked this time, smooth sailing all the way.

Here’s a question: when they let the passengers on a plane, why do they have passengers board from front to back? I know they don’t do that every time, but it’s been that way on almost every flight I’ve taken. Today’s patter was typical: First-class and Business passengers first, then people in the rows behind them, then the rows behind them, etc. Sometimes it’s rows 1-10, 11-20, 21-30, and so on. Okay, so I understand loading the higher-fare passengers first. But once you get to Economy, it seems stupid to load front to back: the people in the forward rows just clog up the aisles as they load their baggage and mill around their seats. It always creates traffic jams and slows things down. It would make much more sense to load the back rows first, and then move forward.

At least, on international flights, they treat you well. No chickenshit stuff like charging you for headphones or drinks. You get all you want to drink, for free, and headphones are in your seat when you board. You can tell the people new to trans-Pacific flights, asking how much for another beer.

One weakness I have: no matter what I try, I cannot sleep on a plane. I can close my eyes and partially doze, perhaps, but the passenger in the next seat moving his/her arm, someone banging my elbow as they walk down the aisle, or even slight patches of turbulence always wake me up. Frustrating, especially when I see so many other passengers dozing. I’ve got a protruding-arm neighbor on this flight, and half the ride so far has been turbulence, so no rest for me. Another gripe: I know it’s subjective, but I cannot remember the last flight I took, or any flight I ever took, where the person in front of me did not take the first opportunity to recline back fully and stay that way the whole flight. I see other passengers not doing that, but am never the lucky beneficiary. Although I have flown on sparsely-populated flights where no one was in front of me.

I must say, it is so much nicer to travel from the center of the city. In Inagi, I would have to order a taxi to come to my apartment–none drove by reliably enough to flag one down–take a longer ride to the station, then travel 30 minutes into Shinjuku, where I would have to walk my luggage up and down stairs and through narrow passages to get to the Narita Express platform. From Ikebukuro, it’s just a quick ride to the station and up a short flight of stairs and that’s it. Coming back will be even easier–the Limousine Bus from the airport direct to the Prince Hotel, which is a one-minute stroll from our front door. Cool.

Post-flight edit: Too bad the United flights have no WiFi yet. I don’t know when they will–I have noticed no additions to the airplanes I’ve flown in the past ten years–no backseat LCD screens, nothing. Actually, I’ve been home more than a day now. Gotten a lot of ordering done (the Canon Digital Rebel XTi with 70-300mm IS lens and the 28-105mm non-kit standard lens are on their way, along with some other items). Getting an early start, but still fighting jet lag. 6pm on my body clock, past bedtime here. G’nite.

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Arts Day 2007

November 5th, 2007 2 comments

Well, the video was a big hit; people seemed to enjoy it a lot. As before, the live house we’re using has a WiFi connection, allowing me to connect and blog directly from the festival site.

One of our students graced us with a wonderful demonstration of “Iai,” a kendo-like art of sword-drawing. This after the Martial Arts Club gave a demonstration complete with sparring and wood-plank-breaking.

So far, it’s been a great display and a lot of fun!

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Tokyo Bay Fireworks

August 11th, 2007 4 comments

0808-Bay Fireworks1-450

One of the advantages of the view we enjoy from the 21st floor in Ikebukuro is the fireworks displays that can be seen during July and August. Today there were fireworks in Harumi, on Tokyo Bay. We were able to see them, but were hindered by the disadvantage of the 21st floor: it’s not quite high enough to see over some buildings. As you can see in the image above and in some of the ones below, there was some tall building right along the path of the view for today’s display. About 80% of the show was hidden behind the building, which Sachi and I dubbed “Jama Tower” (“Nuisance Tower”). Often we only saw the glow of the display, other times we could make out its edges. But for the bigger fireworks, they cleared the building altogether and we got a very nice view.

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Hopefully, the next show will be better: on Thursday, August 16th, there’s one final show, at Jingu Gyoen, which we believe will be just visible beyond the Prince Hotel to the south. It should be closer, and if it’s visible at all, it should be unblocked by any buildings along the way.

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Tokyo Thunderstorm

July 29th, 2007 Comments off

We’re having our first major thunderstorm after moving in to our new place. In case I didn’t mention it before, I love thunderstorms. Got some good audio on this one, too, just haven’t processed it yet. To get the audio, I used my Canon S1-IS, which only records audio if there’s a pre-existing photo image. So I took some photos so I could fill in the audio.

Now, I did not even try to catch a lightning bolt. If it were dark, I could have–set the camera to take a 15-second exposure, and then take enough exposures, eventually you’ll get a few shots, like I did here, here, and here (I told you I loved these things–even after I was struck by lightning once.) But in daylight, forget it–you have to catch the lightning bolt within a split-second shot, and you have to be facing just the right direction to boot.

So imagine my surprise when I caught exactly that lucky break. I took a photo just as lightning flashed (it only did so once every few minutes), and even then I didn’t think I had gotten it; the little picture screen on the camera didn’t show it. But when I looked at it after I came inside, this is what I found:


If you look at the unreduced crop of where it hit, you see this:


So you can see, pretty sharply, the one place in Tokyo where you would not have wanted to be right at that moment.

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Rainy Ikebukuro

July 14th, 2007 Comments off

Just a few shots from the pre-typhoon nighttime. This first is the top of the Sunshine 60, lost in the low rainclouds.


The second is the orange lighting of Kasuga Boulevard.


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July 10th, 2007 6 comments

One thing about the new apartment’s view is that you get a look at city life from a height. Earlier this morning, I heard a crunch that most people with driving experience would unmistakably identify as the sound of a vehicular collision. I went to the balcony and saw this scene:


It was actually more dramatic when I first saw it, as the scooter driver (in a light blue t-shirt, wearing the white helmet) was laying prone on the ground about where he is in the photo above. I also felt a little guilty getting my camera, but as the taxi driver was clearly on his keitai calling for emergency vehicles, it wouldn’t make much difference what I did.


The scooter was crunched a little, but not apparently too badly; nothing was broken off in the collision. That’s not necessarily a good thing for the driver, though; he still could have been thrown down to the asphalt pretty hard.

A few minutes later, an ambulance could be heard. Pretty fast reaction, one would think, until you realized two things: one, there’s a fire station around the corner, and two… the ambulance sped by without stopping, apparently on its way to a bigger emergency somewhere else.


A few minutes later, though, another ambulance came and stopped for this accident.


Just yet another incident in the city. It is of note, perhaps, that the accident was between a scooter and a taxi. One can only guess who was at fault. The position of the scooter does not help, as it could have twisted and fallen any which way.

And that’s one of the problems of views like this: you usually don’t get to find out what happened. Like this shot I took the day before:


What the heck is that? Looks like a pretty big fire somewhere, as it’s pretty far off in the distance… but I didn’t see anything on the news on the web about a fire in Tokyo that day.

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Can’t.. Resist… Urge…

July 4th, 2007 4 comments

Okay, I was wrong. There is a lot more to say about the Libby commutation, especially after reading more news reports. I go on for a bit here, but still there is so much more out there on this case that it’s hard to believe. One of the main conclusions is that Bush did not give Libby clemency to please his base–that would have merited a full pardon–but he did so to shut Libby up. The reasoning is that a full pardon would have erased Libby’s Fifth Amendment right to not testify on certain matters that could incriminate Cheney or the president. Not doing anything would have given Libby the choice of a prison cell or testifying. One can only imagine the communication between Libby and the Bush White House in brokering this deal–or perhaps it was all settled long ago, and Libby agreed to take the fall if he would be granted clemency before having to serve time in jail. Whatever the case, Bush’s actions clearly point to far more than “fairness” or even appealing to his base.

DailyKos has the goods on how Bush twisted the truth in his rationalization of commuting Libby’s sentence: he said that the judge “rejected the advice of the probation office, which recommended a lesser sentence and the consideration of factors that could have led to a sentence of home confinement or probation.” Except that the probation office recommended 15 to 21 months in prison rather than two years. But such a downward departure would only be warranted if the judge ruled completely in Libby’s favor, accepting every single argument on his behalf. In other words, Bush was faulting the judge for not swinging every single point of judgment fully in Libby’s favor. And Bush criticized the judge for being “excessive.”

What’s more, this judge is one that Bush appointed himself, and one could hardly make the claim that he’s been appointing anything but hardcore right-wingers.

People are also talking about how Libby deserved a lesser sentence because his career was “damaged,” “destroyed,” or “devastated.” Bullcrap. If anything, his career is now enhanced. Libby is now a conservative hero, and say what you want about conservatives, they take care of their own. Look at Ollie North and G. Gordon Libby; neither are wanting for anything due to their “damaged” careers. If Libby does not get a lucrative talk-radio gig or book deal, he’ll at the very least get a cushy job at a lobbying firm or a major corporation. Libby will live in the lap of luxury, and now that the prison term has been commuted, his penalty will be that he’ll have to visit a probation officer monthly for a few years. The financial hit is temporary, and will be more than offset by the goodies certain to come his way.

At the very least, Libby is still a felon. Normally I would hope for the right-wingers who support Libby to be at least a little embarrassed about all the slams about liberals and felons in elections… but we’re talking about right-wingers here, and so double standards are the norm.

Here’s one prime example: the right-wing blog PowerLine said,

The problem is that there are no formal or informally agreed upon standards with which to evaluate a president’s decision in these cases. One can look at the practices of past presidents, but it’s a very imperfect guide. For example, we wouldn’t want our presidents to emulate President Clinton’s practice of pardoning those whose family members contributed to his presidential library.

In the Libby case, there are several factors that militated in favor of commuting the sentence (and made out an arguable, though less compelling, case for a pardon). The two most important factors are Libby’s public service and the fact that, at the time Libby made the false statements in question, the prosecutor already knew the answer to the question he had come to Washington to investigate. Indeed, it seems likely that but for the high profile and political context of the investigation, the prosecutor would not have asked Libby these questions. In addition, it may also be relevenat that Bill Clinton was never prosecuted for committing perjury with respect to matters where, unlike here, the facts were not yet known.

Talk about revisionist history! First, they bring up the favorite right-wing cliche, “Clinton did it and worse!” Then they argue that Libby’s case was entrapment, unlike Clinton, where “the facts were not yet known.” Bull. Starr got tapes from Linda Tripp on January 12, 1998, in which Lewinski made references to an affair with Clinton; the next day, Starr had Tripp meet with Lewinski wearing a wiretap to get as much from her surreptitiously as was possible. Starr had fully half a year to develop that evidence before Clinton gave the denial under oath that he was impeached for–on August 17, 1998.

In short, the right wing justifies its double-standard by flat-out lying. Inadvertently, the wingnut just defended Bill Clinton while trying to attack him. And I would have to check out the suggestion that Fitz knew the answer to the questions Libby lied about, or asked them in an attempt to solicit perjury, as was so clearly the case with Clinton.

But in the case of the Plame leak, it’s not just the right-wing bloggers who are full of it. When the leak was first announced, Bush said, “There are too many leaks of classified information in Washington. There’s leaks at the executive branch; there’s leaks in the legislative branch. There’s just too many leaks. And if there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is. And if the person has violated law, the person will be taken care of. … we’ll take the appropriate action.” Um, yeah, right.

Again, some liberals are calling for impeachment; the downside, of course, would be the “Quayle Effect” of putting Cheney into office (which is really just a formal distinction anyway). Can Congress impeach both the president and vice president at the same time? That would do nicely.

So far, conservatives have been mute on the issue. If they agree with Bush’s action, they align themselves with him on an unpopular action which stinks of corruption and cronyism, thus damaging their credibility with the all-important independent voters; if they criticize it, then they risk alienating the Republican base, and thus harm their chances in the primary process. Look for statements issued after a longish wait to see how the wind is blowing, and even then statements which will be as lukewarm, vague, and noncommittal as is possible.

Except for Fred Thompson, who released this statement:

I am very happy for Scooter Libby. I know that this is a great relief to him, his wife and children. While for a long time I have urged a pardon for Scooter, I respect the President’s decision. This will allow a good American, who has done a lot for his country, to resume his life.

It would seem that Thompson is trying to be Reaganesque: folksy, warm, decisive, and unabashedly loyalist, even if it contradicts reason, morality, or plain common sense. Not very hard to see his game plan as being one of the Second Coming.

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Melodious Laughing Thrush

May 1st, 2007 Comments off

I have to admit, this one had me stumped. It’s the first time I have spotted a bird in Japan which is not in any of the Japanese bird guides I have. Actually, Sachi spotted it–we were taking a walk in the hills near my home station, via a local shrine. We heard a lot of Japanese Bush Warblers (aka Japanese Nightingales), Long-tailed Tits, and Meadow Buntings (but did not see any), and even did manage to spot a pair of Chinese Bamboo Partridges. But on the way down the many stairs leading to the shrine, Sachi saw a bird in the brush which then hopped along the stairs. I was able to follow it up the stairs and get a lot of photos–but because of the very low light, I was limited to mostly-blurry 1/15th-second exposures, and even then the exposures were dark. But even then, even with the tiny thumbnails on the camera’s display, I could see the markings around its eyes, and knew I had something unusual.

About two years ago, I was exploring a hilly path not too far from where we were today, and came across a birder who was excited about seeing some species that I had never heard about. Neither of us spotted the bird, but when I got back home, I looked it up, and noted the facial markings. That’s what I recognized today.

When I got home and got a better look at the photos, I looked through my field guides, and it wasn’t there. Not remembering the name I had been told a few years back, I did searches on the Internet for “bird white ring line eye China” (I recalled that it was a Chinese bird). Nothing came up. So I went to the Bird Forum, where there is a bird ID area; you don’t know about a bird you spotted, they’ll help you out. And in an hour or less, I had my answer.

The bird, as it turns out, is the Melodious Laughing Thrush, or “Gabi-chou” in Japanese. It’s a Chinese bird (Chinese name: Hwamei) which has been accidentally introduced into Japan and Hawaii, and is considered an invasive species which threatens other thrushes and even perhaps the Bush Warblers. Apparently, it is prized for its song (which it did not display for us today), and is one of many species banned for import by the Japanese government. There is a 2004 study of it here, with maps of its ranges and expansion.

As I mentioned, I did not get very good shots, but this is what I have. You can see what I mean by the facial markings. For clearer shots, look here.



Note the white swirl markings on its belly; I haven’t seen that elsewhere.

These last two images show the color better; it was definitely more reddish-brown than appears in the first two images. Better lighting brought that out.

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The Hamura Trail

April 26th, 2007 Comments off

Today I went birdwatching up near Yokota Air Base, in a small town called Hamura, along the Tama River. In a birding book I bought a while back, it described the walk as having the potential to see an incredible variety of birds in April and May, so I decided to check it out. And while there was some good birding to be done, it was not nearly as good as advertised–at least not today. Still, the birding trail (really a hiking trail up to Hamura Shrine) was very pretty, and relaxing as well, as evidenced by the photo below.

Forest Wallpaper-450

Actually, they should have called the place “Bulbul Forest,” as the place was teeming with them. Brown-eared Bulbuls, native to Japan, are the bane of birding here. They are ugly birds, your typical “brown” bird with sometimes-spiky head feathers. They also have loud, shrieking calls with enough variety to fool you into thinking that they’re another kind of bird, until you get used to them. And they are everywhere. Especially in this forest, just loads of them; you get tired of them really fast, because when you’re birding, you react to any movement or sound, and when 9 times out of 10 it’s a Bulbul, you start to resent them.

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In the forest, I was able to photograph little else. There was this bird, which was either a Black-Faced Bunting, or a Grey Bunting–hard to tell, the lighting was poor:


Then there was this mystery bird, which sang prettily but proved highly elusive visually; I was only able to snap a few images, at extreme zoom. It appears to be a blue-black bird with either a white rump or a white spot on its wing feathers; the closest I can come to identifying it as would be a Blue-and-white Flycatcher:


If the two above are the Grey Bunting and the Blue-and-white Flycatcher, then that’s two new Life Birds, but I can;t’ty for sure if they are.

Also in the forest, I encountered a flock of Long-tailed Tits. Unlike before, I was able to center them in my camera view several times, and had ample time to shoot them. But in a frustrating turn of events, every time I had one in frame, the damn camera refused to focus, even when it should have had no problem doing so. Incredibly aggravating, that was.

However, after I got back down to the river, I was able to get some nice shots. Surprisingly, there were tons of Grey Wagtails around; I had only spotted one before in the past few years, but there was no end to them in Hamura. Pretty birds.

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Also pleasingly, there were a good number of Bull-headed Shrikes, with interesting calls no less. Once, I found myself by chance just six feet away from one resting in a tree–and again, the damned camera refused to focus despite having loads of time. I am going to have to get a new camera, I think. Still, I had lots of other chances, and got these images:

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As I was chasing one of the Shrikes from tree to tree, I started down a slight embankment, and got startled: apparently, a Japanese Green Pheasant was just a few feet away and suddenly took off in a loud flapping rush. They are fairly big birds, and so they make a lot of noise when they do that; quite surprising. The pheasants have a habit of ducking down and holding perfectly still when they see you coming; you won’t know they’re there until you get too close, and then they’re off and flying–quite a sight, considering the size of the bird and those long tail feathers. No pictures, though.

Finally, I’ll close with a relatively pedestrian, but still nice catch: a Meadow Bunting:

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To round off the list of birds spotted: Great Egret, Grey Heron, Carrion Crow, Tree Sparrow, Japanese Bush Warbler (Nightingale; heard, not seen), Mallard, Japanese White-eye, Black Kite, and Barn Swallow.

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Yacho no Mori, Karuizawa

April 21st, 2007 Comments off

“Yacho no Mori” is Japanese for “Birds’ Forest.” I’ve seen the name applied to various areas in the Japanese countryside where the birding is good in a wooded area. Today, Sachi and I are in Nagano, and as we had a few hours to kill and a rental car to get us around, we went to Karuizawa’s Bird Forest–something which pleased me, because we didn’t get the chance to stop there when we bicycled through the city last August.

The forest was nice, and we spotted some interesting birds, including one I’d never seen before. But we wound up hearing a lot more birds than we saw–normal for birdwatching, of course. At least three or four times today, I got foiled by what I call “psychic birds,” where the birds just sit there nicely until just before you snap the photo, which they seem to sense psychically as they choose that split second to fly away.

Nevertheless, here are some of the birds we got today:



The above is an Enaga, or Long-tailed Tit. These little guys are as cute as the dickens, but hard as hell to photograph as they flit around so much. There were at least half a dozen flying around in the trees and shooting down to puddles for a bath. These were the best shots I could get–though at one point, one flew within just four or five feet of Sachi and me, settling down for a 2-second bath in the stream right in front of us, before flying off again.

The next bird I’ll show is the last we caught for the day before heading back. It’s a Kakesu, or Eurasian Jay. I got one of these once before in Kasai Rinkai Park, but only then. It’s a pretty bird, with a striking head and pretty blue-barred wings. Sachi and I saw two of them rise up into the trees as we approached, and though one led us on a futile chase, the other happened to be preening just above us, and stayed for long enough to get some nice shots–even if they are from too low an angle. The first of these can be clicked for a larger image:

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Taking on a very lion-ish pose…

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…from an angle which was too much backlit, but this shows the wing detail very nicely.

The last I’ll introduce is the bird I have never seen before: The Misosazai, or Winter Wren. This was a bird that we heard before we saw. It has a beautiful song (listen to it here as a WAV file, or as an MP3), and did not seem skittish or shy at all: we followed the bird upstream for maybe 100 feet, and it did not seem the least bit disturbed by our presence. The little guy was charming, being a tiny bird with a short, wagging tail and a cheerful song every so often. Though other birder on the trail seemed politely surprised that we got a glimpse of this bird, I have the feeling that it is quite common–after all, we saw the same bird three times along the trail. The first and last of these images have enlargements when clicked on:




Want to listen to the song it’s singing in that last image? Here it is, in WAV or MP3. (In case the sound files don’t open in your browser, try either downloading the link target, or using another browser.)

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Plum Festival

March 6th, 2007 3 comments

On Sunday, Sachi and I went to the Ume (Plum Blossom) Festival, which is being celebrated in many places around the Tokyo area. Good thing we did it then–the weather was beautiful on Sunday, warm and sunny–and Monday we got violent winds and rain, which probably have destroyed most of what’s on the tree right now.

We went to Mogusa-en, a park in Hino City, one station down from Seiseki-Sakuragaoka. It’s a really steep climb up San Francisco-grade roads (grade-wise), a half kilometer from the station. But it’s a nice park once you get there. Tons of people were there to enjoy the flowers, food, and music. There were even some interesting birds to be seen. A Black Kite was constantly circling, while in the brush and the trees there were Great and Varied Tits, Nightingales, Japanese White-Eyes, Black-faced Buntings, and Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers, along with the more normal complement of Bulbuls, Starlings, Crows, Turtledoves, and Sparrows. There were some birds we never got to see but heard, and one bird which was scratching in the brush behind a fence which I could only see had green-brown coloring.

Here are some images from the day. The ones with an asterisk on the right side can be blown up to 1200×800 size by clicking on them.

A view from the heights of the park.

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The Black Kite circling.


A cat with striking black face markings enjoying the weather in the park.

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A tree on the Mogusa-en grounds.







Various blossoms from around the park.

A neat-looking old guy we saw throughout the day, who Sachi dubbed “the Japanese Santa Claus.”

Trees in bondage…

And then there were the birds in the park:

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A Black-Faced Bunting

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A Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker

One of the Mejiro, quickly glimpsed

And then, a better catch:

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A Varied Tit, not commonly seen.

We tried to get a nightingale, as it was popping around in a tree, visible for brief instances–but none of the shots came out.

Later, however, I got the full moon rising–not the eclipse, though; the redness was because it was still low in the sky. The eclipse was not visible from Japan.


Not a bad day at all.

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Happy Bank Day

March 2nd, 2007 3 comments


Where’s my cake?

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Red-flanked Bluetail

February 25th, 2007 Comments off

Just two years and thirteen days ago, I spotted a nice Red-flanked Bluetail in my neighborhood park:

It was nice, but it was also the less-colorful female. Today, I asked Sachi to go on a walk through that park again to see if we could spot one–and indeed we did. Or, I should say, Sachi did–she’s got sharp eyes. After a minute of her pointing out its location, I took a large number of shots–95% of which I couldn’t use because the bird was hiding in the shade, and most of the images (at only 1/15th of a second exposure) we too blurry. However, a few were good enough to print, and shows that we got a beautiful blue male in good color:

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But here’s the best shot before it flew off:

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Nice little birdie!

The interesting thing is that we saw Great Tits, a Red-flanked Bluetail, crows, bulbuls, a Dusky Thrush, Tree Sparrows, and a few Black Kites. That was the whole roster–and looking at my post from two years ago, that was exactly the list of birds I saw back then.

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February 24th, 2007 Comments off

I went to Tokyo Port Wild Bird Park a little bit ago. I don’t know about the claim that December to February are the best birding months. I’ve heard people say that, and I did miss the first two months of that… but if February is any indication, I haven’t been missing much. Though I am focusing more on waterfowl, and maybe I should be looking for passerines much more. But there were a few birds there which provided interesting shots.

A Mejiro (Japanese White-Eye) in flight.

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Common Buzzards at a distance. The second one is to the left of the first, very hard to see. Can you pick it out?

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A Common Sandpiper came close.

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An Oriental Turtledove, even closer. A beautiful bird, the Turtledove. Lovely plumage.

This photo just struck me as funny. The Cormorant drying off, the ducks on one foot, and the gull ducking. A lot of little stuff in a small arc.

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And a Little Egret posing among the ducks.

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Cormorant 0, Fish 1

February 4th, 2007 3 comments

Cormorants are pretty common birds in this area. You see them all over the rivers and bay areas. You may even have seen them on TV, in some documentary about Japan: they are the birds used by fisherman to collect fish in the rivers at special times of the year. The fishermen tie a rope around the neck of the bird so it can’t swallow the fish, and collect the catch when the bird comes back up.

Ironically, this particular cormorant I saw today could have used that kind of help.

It was just past 11:30 am when I saw other bird watchers snapping images excitedly: a cormorant had caught a fish.


I took a few pictures, like the one above, and then figured that the excitement was over; the bird would swallow the fish, and that would be that. However, a few minutes later, I caught these images:




Apparently this cormorant had bitten off more than he could chew. Most of the fish was in his gullet, but the tail was still sticking out his bill. The poor bird was having trouble swallowing the fish, and to make matters worse, the other cormorants were ganging up on their beleaguered acquaintance and were fighting to get the fish for themselves.

Five minutes after the bird first caught the fish, it was still struggling:



The cormorant was still trying to get the fish down, and now it was ducking its head underwater more often than it stayed up, either in an attempt to maneuver the fish into a better position to swallow, or to keep it away from the other birds, or possibly both.

The bird was getting more and more tired. It would struggle, and then come up and try to swallow again, fighting off its competitors. The image just below was taken eight minutes after the initial catch, and it almost seems like the fish is going to come out:


Just after this shot, the cormorant was coming up less and less frequently. One complication may have been that cormorants’ feathers aren’t waterproof; this guy was probably getting soaked and heavy just as he was also likely struggling for air. By this time, he would stay with his head underwater for a fair amount of time, and every so often would muster strength in his wings and come back up for a moment… but each time he came up, he stayed up for less time and seemed to have less energy than the time before.

The other cormorants stayed by him, sometimes going underwater in what seemed like another attempt to steal the fish. In the image below, it’s almost as if the remaining fellow cormorant was trying to figure out what was with his cousin.


Eventually, however, the poor cormorant stopped moving. A little more than ten minutes after the whole drama started, it was over. I can’t tell you the fate of the fish, but the fate of the cormorant was pretty clear. The other birds just left, and the still body just drifted with the tide waters until it went out of sight.


A sad little drama of life and death in nature. It might or might not be so unusual, but it was certainly not something that you see every day as a birdwatcher.

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New Bird, Cute Bird, Strange Bird

February 4th, 2007 Comments off

I went birding today at the Tokyo Minato Wild Bird Park and at Kasai Rinkai. I intended to do more birding in the December-to-Febriuary period, but have been too busy on the weekends to get around to it. However, seeing as how there were hardly any birds around except huge flocks of ducks–all of which are standard varieties–I wonder if I’ve really been missing out on much.

I did, however, get a new species today: a Bullfinch.


Pretty little guy. I wish I could have gotten more images–there were actually four of them in a tree, posing quite nicely, when a bicyclist raced by, scaring them all off.

Not a new bird by any means, this White Wagtail was nevertheless very close and posed quite nicely as well:


Those two images have 1000-pixel versions available if you click on them, by the way.

Finally, there was something strange in the park: what appeared to be a homeless man who strayed into the closed-off bird sanctuary and started to settle down for a nice afternoon. I’d never seen that before…



There were a few other feathered variety of creatures I got images of, but nothing much else worthy of printing. Except, of course, for a sequence of photos of an otherwise normal bird playing out a rather startling drama.

… In the next blog post.

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