Carrying the Action Potential

I had the amount of nuclear activity in my body recorded today. For the record, I have 4,217 bekurules in my system; the average 60kg person has 4,000. A little high, but the guy said it was probably cos I had lots of musclez! Gotta love the Japanese and their propensity to compliment... (By comparison, Asuka had 3,093 bekurules but obviously weighs a lot less.) This is a photo of the machine that measures the level of activity that radiates from your body after a period of five minutes. Interesting side note: Brazilians have a much higher baseline level of nuclear energy in their system than any other nationality. At least, that's what I thought the science bod said, but my Japanese hasn't quite reached nuclear physics level yet.


Originally uploaded by upstairsforthinking.
Went to Tokyo Technology University today for their annual open day festival and was completely taken aback at how civil it all was. The fact I can't even remember what I got up to at my own university steins says a lot. Now as it did then. The biggest disappointment was the music. It wasn't much chop. Whatever happened to student bands such as The 3Ds, which would turn mild-mannered student space cadets into thronging masses with the slightest touch of the D chord? This photo's taken from Ookayama Bridge on the way back home.


The Dog Ate My Homework

Quickeze (links of interest)
The Excuse.


Growing Up

Quickeze (links of interest)
Being an adult. (It's possible.)


Think (Let Tomorrow Bee)

Muse (a trip down memory lane)
Spent much of the morning listening to some old Sebadoh albums. Had quite forgot how sublime Smash Your Head on Punk Rock, Bubble & Scrape, III and even the more commercially successful Bakesale sound when you feel like a little grind first thing on a sunny Sunday.


Countdown to Certainty

Quickeze (links of interest)
Fashionable Consciousness. What's in a Name? North Korea Described. Nutty Professors.


Fuji at Twilight

Fuji at Twilight
Originally uploaded by upstairsforthinking.
I just spent the weekend at a music festival called Asagiri Jam, which is held every year at the base of Mount Fuji in early October. I tried to take a few photos of interesting people doing interesting things (of which there were many) but the mountain that towered over us throughout the event kept catching my attention. I wish I had the power to recreate what the summit looked like once the sunlight completely disappeared and the full moon came out in all its glory, but you'll have to just try and use your imaginations on that one. The images below appear in reverse to the order they were taken. See you there next year...

Fuji at Sunset

Fuji at Sunset
Originally uploaded by upstairsforthinking.
Asagiri Jam, Yamanashi

Fuji in the Late Afternoon

Asagiri Jam, Yamanashi

View of Fuji with Crowd

Asagiri Jam, Yamanashi

Fire Surround Me

Fire Surround Me
Originally uploaded by upstairsforthinking.
Jiyugaoka, Tokyo


1980s Japanese Manners

Point (read all about it!)

A new freezine hit the streets in Tokyo this week called Japan Scope. I'm not going to comment on the content other than to say it's pretty dire and half the information seems to have come from the 1988 version of Lonely Planet. Take the following advice, for example, on how to conduct business in Japan. (My comments follow the quoted text in brown; I meant to put more links in but I kinda ran out of time.)

1. Those who dress according to their status or position impress the Japanese. Dress to impress. In other words, buy the same bag from Louis Vuitton.

2. Men should wear dark conservative suits. Business suits are most suitable. As opposed to furry animal suits.

3. Casual dress is never appropriate in a business setting. But you can wear your pyjamas down to the 24-hour convenience store (provided you remember to wear some shoes).

4. Women’s dress should be conservative. Little emphasis should be placed on accessories. They should minimal. This simply isn't true. See here.

5. Women should not wear pants in a business situation. Japanese men tend to find it offensive. Ditto.

6. Women should only wear low-heeled shoes to avoid towering over men. Rubbish. I have yet to see a Japanese women wear non-heeled shoes in a strictly business situation.

7. Remember the Japanese phrase, “The nail that sticks up gets hit with the hammer” when considering your choices for attire in Japan. So don't wear any Eraserhead masks.

8. Avoid using large hand gestures, unusual facial expressions and any dramatic movements. The Japanese do not talk with their hands and to do so could distract your host. Use small gestures instead.

9. Avoid the OK sign; in Japan it means money. Actually, everything means money.

10. Pointing is not acceptable. Australian cricket captain Ricky Ponting is though.

11. Do not blow your nose in public.
Sniff throughout the entire train journey and cough all over someone instead.

12. A smile can have a double meaning. It can express joy or displeasure. Use caution with your facial expressions. They can easily be misunderstood. Smile and you could be taken two ways; scowl and be taken one way – I know which I'd choose.

13. The Japanese are not uncomfortable with silence. They use it to their advantage in many situations. Allow your host to sit in silence. No comment.

For the record, I thought I'd offer a bit of practical adice of things you should remember when "doing business" in Japan, although the suggestions can really apply in many situations:

1. When you meet someone for the first time, remember their name.

2. It can often take two or three weeks to make appointments with some people (owing to their busy schedule), so take this into account when arranging your schedule.

3. Make sure you know exactly how to get to your intended destination before you leave home; make sure you take the phone number of the person you are going to meet; and, most importantly, call if you are going to be late for whatever reason.

4. Make sure to remove coats, hats, scarfs etc before being in the situation where you have to meet the person you're supposed to meet. It's often best to remove these items in the lobby before introducing yourself to the receptionist. Once you meet the person you want to meet you may not get much of a chance to remove excessive clothing items.

5. On that note, make sure to have some business cards at the ready so that you can present them without having to fish around in your bag for five minutes when meeting a person for the first time.

That's my two cents' worth but I' be keen to hear from others such as SG who have been in this country for longer and, thus, are far more experienced in this subject matter than myself.

Let's Event (coming soon to a space near you)
It's been raining cats and dogs but I'm really looking forward to this. Will keep you posted...


Driving on Wine

Point (read all about it!)
The police in Japan have embarked on a nationwide drink driving campaign after an intoxicated driver killed three children in the southwestern city of Fukuoka in August. While no death on the road should be dismissed lightly (especially when innocent victims are involved), it's sad to see the kind of knee-jerk reactions that have come to light in the wake of the incident. Nissan, for one, has promised to develop anti-drink driving cars. The TV networks are getting in on the act and incorporating 10-minute discussions on drink driving into morning news bulletins. Ordinary policeman are standing on corners and stopping cyclists in the middle of the road in order to check their breath while taxis speed past without even taking their foot off the accelerator. It's all so superficial. Just this morning on the news, three Japanese researchers debated the level of alcohol that should be permitted in the blood stream and came to the conclusion that the zero tolerance policy should continue to remain in place "following the tragic deaths of our young people on the road." What rendered the entire debate rather pointless, however, was the fact that the discussion was immediately followed by a lifestyle report on the increasing popularity of viticulture in India, which closed with a shot of the wine maker hopping into his car after sampling his latest wares. While not exactly blind drunk, it's not exactly the "zero" tolerance policy Japan seems to be reiterating at the moment.

Quickeze (links of interest)
CIA myths.


We Love Science (and rap)

Quickeze (links of interest)
Scientific Myths. String Theory. The World of Golden Eggs. The Closer.


Boxed Into A Corner

Tokyo, Japan– More than two-dozen cardboard boxes were taken into police custody this morning as investigators from the National Fraud Squad scrambled to trace the present whereabouts of investment funds worth ¥7 billion that went missing from the Social Security Centre’s weekly bingo kitty last week.

Investigators suspect that one of the cardboard boxes now in custody concealed the funds during a regular stationary inventory before walking out of the building through the front door after passing through a handful of security checks undetected.

A spokesperson from the Fraud Squad would not divulge any information regarding the expected duration of the boxes’ stay.

“There are many issues we need to address before we simply let them go,” said Detective Sugimoto. “ The first question we want answered is: Where is the money?”

No cardboard boxes were believed to have been drenched with water during their ordeal.


The Significantly Grumpy Italian Waitress

(Fish & Chip Jokes for Beginners)

Sometimes you encounter a person with a real chip on their shoulder, sometimes they seem to have an entire scoop.

“Do you have any pineapple rings?” I asked the broody waitress as she made a note of my drink order – beer – but as this was an Italian-style pizza establishment I doubted whether she understood the joke.

“Sorry but we only have pizza,” she replied with a snarl, “With cheese or without?”

It was a limited menu but one that made cents – in both senses of the word. There were four of us, so we decided to really chance our arm and order one of each.

As we waited, the waitress muttered something that sounded like “Last drinks!” but we decided to decline her kind offer, as we were a little embarrassed to take further advantage of her generous hospitality.

Ironically, the Cheese Pizza arrived before its cheese-less counterpart and we were just debating how to attack the steaming rings of dough when the waitress came over and told us very matter-of-factly that it tastes better if eaten when piping hot.

“But–,” started my companion, as he sought to draw attention to what was missing from the table.

“No buts,” the waitress snapped. “Eat them while they’ve still got some fire left in their belly.”

“But,” continued my companion, ignoring her specific request, “it would help us to have a knife or something to cut the pizza into smaller pieces. There are four of us after all.”

The waitress was tall to begin with but she drew herself up to be her full height and towered above the table like Roppongi Hills at dusk. She stood as all matriarchal woman stand when they want to make sure their statement is clearly understood, which seemed surprisingly natural from a person who looked to be pushing thirty-two. She wiped her hands on a grubby apron before placing both on her hips.

“All you had to do was ask,” she finally blurted out, and with that she turned on her heels and disappeared in a trail of table dust. A few loud thumps could be heard resounding from the kitchen and by the time she returned, the pizzas were looking decidedly cold and forlorn.

“Remember to pay at the counter on your way out,” she said as she placed the knife on the table, looking at the four of us as if she knew we were planning to sneak out the bathroom window between our dessert and digestive. She might have been unfriendly to the point of being rude but her intuition was pre-programmed to foil such plots long before they occurred.

“Have you got any vinegar?” I gulped, unable to restrain myself from a last subtle dig. My companions looked at me with a mixture of horror and disbelief.

“We close in twenty minutes,” she said bluntly. “If I were you, I’d get a move on.”

And believe you me, we did.

Mental Note to Self: Fish & Chips always taste better by the sea; save Italian for Italy.

copyright elliott samuels [08/01/07]

The Piece of Paper

It was a day like none other, a Hanoi day. I was standing in a grubby police station near my house. The man I suspected I needed to talk to was fast asleep under his desk. He was using a plastic shoe as a pillow. A copy of the latest Newsweek rested on his nose.

I had come down to the station to report the loss of a piece of paper. Not just any piece of paper, but the immigration form I filled out when I arrived at Noi Bai international airport. Alongside your passport, this yellow piece of paper is one of the single most important pieces of paper you will ever receive in Vietnam. I mean, you will get other fairly meaningless pieces of paper – tickets, bills, love letters and so forth – but your immigration form is of utmost importance. Lose this and you will not be allowed to leave the country – even if you are deported.

So important is this piece of paper that should you lose it you are expected to head down to your local police station and report it missing. The boys in peach are expected to file a written statement on the matter. And that’s just what I had gone to do.

But I had made the fatal mistake of going a little bit too early. It’s common in Vietnam for people to take a nap after lunch. Something to do with assisting the digestion process, I believe. Try to do anything during this period of the day and you will only be met with a solid wall of open mouths (a little bit like that revolving head game at the fairground, minus the clowns). Even if you do manage to stir someone from their slumber, they will generally only be able to point outside and mumble something that sounds like, “what does it look like I’m doing?”

Anyway, in my case (actually case number CSGT/197608327-11-03) I was fortunate because the policeman woke as I stood there, uncertain of my next move.

“What do you want nephew?” the rotund man asked. He had definitely had one too many banh baos, the local version of a meat pie.

“I lost my customs form,” I replied, taking a step towards the desk that, just moments ago, was used as an incubator.

“Lost it, huh?” the man asked. “What were you doing?”

I thought briefly about telling him the full story, that my immigration form had actually been lost by my embassy, which perhaps should have known better in such circumstances. But I merely shrugged my shoulders and pursed my lips together in mock confusion.


“You should be more careful,” the policeman retorted.

I had been anticipating a comment such as this. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt during my time in this godforsaken country it’s never ask an older person for help and expect to avoid a lecture.

“I understand,” I said. “Want do I need to do?”

“You must fill out these,” he said, and threw three forms in front of me.

“So you’re telling me that I have to fill out three pieces of paper to say that I’ve lost one piece of paper?”



“And pay money.”

“Of course. How much?”

“How much do you think?”

“I don’t know. Aren’t you a policeman?”

“Yes. I must work hard, you know… filling out paper work all the time.”

At this last remark I choose to bite my tongue, swallow my pride and leave it there. I didn’t think it was such a good idea to point out that I was the one who was actually going to fill out the paper work.

I answered the questions in the spaces provided, which were generally insufficient for the screeds of information requested. But as with all forms in Vietnam, it’s not the information you give that is important, it’s the fact that the piece of paper exists in the first place.

Existence, as Albert Camus once said, is everything.

copyright elliott samuels 2003

Conversation with a Pharmacist

Author's Note

This story is based on actual events that occurred on August 17, 2003. However, please note that certain liberties have been taken in the English translation of the conversation that may or may not have been intended by the participants. As a result, the author may have distorted some of the phrases used in the course of this encounter in a bid to capture the essence of a typical conversation that takes place in numerous small retail outlets in Hanoi on a daily basis. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in Vietnam will know what I’m talking about; anyone else will make of it what you will…

But first, let’s introduce the conversation’s participants…


Name: Nguyen Oanh

Age: 51-ish

Occupation: Pharmacist

Nationality: Vietnam

Marital Status: Married

Eyesight: Failing

Hair Colour: Black-black

Hairstyle: Parted perm

Make-up: Heavy


Name: James Sycamore

Age: 29

Occupation: International Man of Mystery

Nationality: New Zealand

Marital Status: Single

Eyesight: 20/20

Hair Colour: Black-brown

Hairstyle: Short back & wide

Make-up: Light


James Sycamore strolls confidently into a chemist that sits prominently on the corner of a major intersection in Hanoi. The street outside bustles with myriad motor vehicles and little can be heard above the cacophony of horns. He is greeted by a ruddy-cheeked, middle-aged woman standing behind the counter wearing thick-rimmed glasses and a spotlessly white tunic. The name-tag pinned onto her uniform introduces her as Nguyen Oanh.

Nguyen Oanh: [Hears footsteps, looks up] Oh nephew! Aunt help nephew how?

James Sycamore: Hello Aunt. [Steps towards the counter, accidentally startling the middle-aged woman by moving “too quickly” ] Aunt has health, no?

NO: Have. Nephew buy what?

JS: [Remembers the time] Aunt eat rice yet?

NO: Not yet, [states the obvious] I am working. [Puts down her clipboard] Nephew buy what?

JS: Umm… Nephew wants to buy, er… [Looks around and sees no-one – at least, not yet] …er, nephew no know what call that thing in Vietnamese.

NO: Medicine? [Reaches for vitamin C tablets]

JS: No… er, [Glances over left shoulder, then right] …er, OK?


JS: Yes… OK. How much? [Reaches into pocket and unfolds a big wad of cash, which has been arranged before arriving in order to make the purchase snappy]

NO: OK… mmm [Looks him up and down] Friend a boy or a girl?

JS: [Deepens voice] A boy.

NO: Is nephew sure? Nephew looks pretty like a girl.

JS: Thank you. [Bows, curses]

NO: Nephew, this year how much old?

JS: Er... [Looks her straight in the eye] Thirty. But aunt also looks young, pretty even.

NO: True, no?

JS: True. [Shuffles feet politely]

NO: Nephew person country which?

JS: New Zealand, and aunt?

NO: [Chortles] Vietnam.

JS: Yes, er… [Begins fidgeting, tries to change tack] Sky beautiful. [Nods assuredly, as if to convince himself. It is, in fact, grey and overcast]

NO: Beautiful. [Begins to think aloud] Nephew like woman Vietnam, no?

JS: [Expecting this] Of course. Woman Vietnam very beautiful, beautiful very [Pauses slightly for effect, a well-rehearsed line] …a little bit beautiful.

NO: A little bit beautiful. [Beams] Nephew take wife Vietnam, no?

JS: No. [Squirms]

NO: Why nephew no take wife Vietnam [Looks personally insulted]

JS: No have money.

NO: Oh… [Understands & slowly nods head] Oh… so nephew buy what?

At that moment, another woman dressed in a white tunic enters. Her name is Yen Anh, but she has the same hair, same make-up, same uniform and same all-knowing eyes. Sycamore’s ruse has been rumbled.

JS: Uh… er…

YA: Nephew capital city which come?

JS: Sorry? Nephew no hear Aunt clearly?

YA: Person country which?

NO: New Zealand, near America. [Pauses slightly] Nephew wants to take wife Vietnam.

YA: Really? But wife Vietnam ugly very.

NO: That’s why nephew wants to buy OK.

YA: OK? [Looks startled, places hand over mouth]

NO: But nephew no have money.

YA: Really? But person country foreign has much money [Looks accusingly at him, daring him to deny it]

JS: Er… well… sometimes person country foreign has money, sometimes person country foreign has no money.

YA & NO: Oh... [Both nod in understanding]

JS: [Becoming flustered, blushes] OK, how much?

NO: OK? Oh, wait a moment… One thousand Vietnam dong a thing. Three thousand Vietnam dong a box. [Reaches into a box that is already open].

JS: One box [Looks over left shoulder and catches sight of a man selling baby rabbits on the footpath outside the pharmacy] Sorry… fifteen boxes.

NO: Fifteen? [Looks surprised but grabs a plastic bag]

JS: Hey Aunt! Nephew no need bag at all.

NO: No need bag eh? [Looks him straight in the eye] Nephew no want have problem yeah.”

JS: No, nephew no.

Sycamore crams the boxes into his shoulder bag, pays the pharmacist a twenty thousand dong note, turns on his heels and heads for the door.

NO: Hey nephew! Five thousand Vietnam dong price back again!

Sycamore chooses to ignore her, but in his haste a box falls out of his bag and skids across the floor. By chance it falls at the feet of a traffic officer who has just stepped into the pharmacy for a quick rest in the shade while on duty. The traffic officer bends over and picks the box up.

TO: OK of young brother?

JS: Yes.

TO: [Looks amused] Young brother… person country which?

JS: [Limply holds out his hand] New Zealand.

TO: [Placing box in his outstretched hand] Young brother go play yeah.

JS: Yes, young brother go play.

A little background...

OK is a popular brand of condoms sold by chemists in Vietnam. Chemists are almost always staffed by middle-aged Vietnamese women with perms.

copyright elliott samuels [2003]