Struggling is a given and struggling can be good

Japanese Students

Nice post over on my dad’s blog about the difference between learning in Japan and learning in America,

When that one boy as applauded for struggling to learn, the teacher gave the lesson that anyone struggling to learn deserves to be applauded. The lesson was that struggling is a chance to show that you have what it takes emotionally to overcome the problem by having the strength to persist through that struggle. Simply put, struggling is a given and struggling can be good.

At school in Tokyo

Guns in Japan

Hello Kitty Assault Rifle

My father (who started his own blog) shares what you need to do to get a gun in Japan.

To get a gun in Japan, first, you have to attend an all-day class and pass a written test, which are held only once per month. You also must take and pass a shooting range class. Then, head over to a hospital for a mental test and drug test (Japan is unusual in that potential gun owners must affirmatively prove their mental fitness), which you’ll file with the police. Finally, pass a rigorous background check for any criminal record or association with criminal or extremist groups, and you will be the proud new owner of your shotgun or air rifle. Just don’t forget to provide police with documentation on the specific location of the gun in your home, as well as the ammo, both of which must be locked and stored separately.

And remember to have the police inspect the gun once per year and to re-take the class and exam every three years.

– from A Land Without Guns : How Japan Has Virtually Eliminated Shooting Deaths

Oh, pink assault rifle? Yes, it’s real – in California.

Better Driving thru Optical Camouflage

This is pretty smart idea.

Using principals of Optical Camouflage, researchers at Keio University project the image from a camera on the back of a car onto a recursive reflector which looks like one of those glass screens politicians use for their teleprompters. The mirror sits at an angle to project an image right where the backseat would be,essentially making the back seat disappear.

As you can see in the video, it’s really useful when backing up your car to see all the objects behind you in context and in the proper size, lined up with everything else you see out of the rear view mirror.

– via DigInfo TV

The Long Now Bottle Keep

As I grow older, I have come to appreciate the power of stories. I collect them as I go through life, sometimes seeking out experiences because a good story may come out of it.  I was invited this past week to join the staff of The Long Now Foundation to share a story that I have been telling for years but never took the time to add to this blog.

Back when I was living in Tokyo, I had a several university mates that stopped by to visit. Like any host living overseas, I had gotten things pretty well wired where I could suss out what they wanted to see and could arrange from a number of “module” walks that could be strung together to make for an interesting day. But there was one visit, by an old fraternity brother, that really stood out. Mike was legendary for living life to the hilt, his laugh was infectious and he always went for the most extreme just to see what it was like. While most people traveled through Europe in between high school and college, Mike went to Africa. He was that kind of guy.

When Mike said he was coming to Tokyo, I of course planned an epic evening of carousing. We started at Shimokitazawa at around 4 pm and hit Ginza, Shibuya, Harajuku, and finally, at around 2am, stumbled into Shinjuku where I planned to show him Golden Gai. It’s hard to describe this area except to say it’s about the size of a city block but houses over 200 tiny little bars piled all up on top of each other. It’s been described as Ridley Scott’s inspiration for the street vendor scene in Blade Runner if you want to put an image into your mind. The place hasn’t changed since the war and each bar there has it’s own story and storied clientele.

Remember, it’s 2am and Mike and I have been drinking since the afternoon so we’re basically stumbling around leaning on each other but I feeling good, knowing whichever bar we pick it’s going to be weird. In a good way. I’d been here several times and each time, it’s kind of like a Disneyland for adults. Go into one bar and you might meet a bunch of John Wayne fans where the bar stools are saddles, the drinks are burbon, and music is strictly C&W. Hit another place and it’s all old Zero fighter pilots drinking sake and telling tales from the war. Another place is a haunt for movie buffs that have a weakness for Fellini. Each bar is tiny, they only have 6-10 seats so they are real cozy. But in the wonderful openness of Japan, each bar will welcome anyone that joins them with the proper deference and curiosity.

So I was feeling pretty good and turned fate over to Mike. I slurred out to him to, “Pick any one you’d like, they’re all fantastic in their own way!” and asked him to choose where to go. He spun on a heel and waved his left arm and pointed to some rickety stairs that went up the side of corrugated steel, painted a shade of faded blue.

We made our way up the stairs and stumbled through the door into a place that was amazingly elegant compared to the jumble outside. It was dark but lighting under the bar and via colored sconces on the wall gave the place a very sophisticated feel. There was some jazz playing, something like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue – very cool. There was only one other patron, off in the corner with his whiskey and the “master” or owner of the bar. He’s there, beard and glasses, slowly polishing a shot glass with a linen napkin.

Mike & I stumble in and made a bit of ruckus but quickly quieted down and settled into the open seats in front of the bartender. He keeps looking at me, slowly studying my face over his glasses. Finally he says,

“Moshikashitara, Kennedy-san no musuko jyanaidesuka,” which is the basically, “If I’m not mistaken, you’re Kennedy’s son aren’t you?”

I look up, incredulous. How does this guy know me? And my father? I have been to a few bars around here but have no recollection of this place. He tells us to wait a minute and then goes into a back room where we hear the clinking and clanking of bottles. He returns holding a bottle aloft like a prize-winning catch. It’s a whiskey bottle with about 1/3 left in it and as he places it on the counter I can see my handwriting on the side of it.

It all comes back to me then. A couple of nights before I went away to boarding school, leaving my parents at 13 to fly halfway around the world to Concord, Massachusetts, my father took me to this bar to have a drink with his son. He bought a bottle and we wrote our names on the side and, as is the tradition in most Japanese bars, the owner would then keep it there for us whenever we returned. This is the Japanese tradition of “bottle keep.” Only in this case, I had not been there in over 10 years and not only had the bartender somehow recognized me, he also had been hanging on to this bottle in case either my father or myself would return.

It was at that moment that my friend Mike fell off his chair. He could not believe that such a thing was possible. That you could have a relationship with an establishment over such a long arc. The funny thing about this story is that the bar was called “Gu” which is the word for “closed fist” as in the closed-fist from scissors/rock/paper. Basically hanging on, determination.

So full circle back to The Long Now. A friend,  Mikl-em not only heard me tell this tale but remembered it as something that might interest the folks from The Long Now Foundation. Their mission is to help people think about the long term and one of their more famous projects is the 10,000 Year Clock which, if you don’t know about it, you must read more about as it will change your perspective on technology and human permanence.

The reason my Bottle Keep story is relevant is The Long Now Foundation is opening a Salon and will stock it with a special batch of gin distilled by the folks at St. George’s Spirits using juniper berries for the 5,000 year old bristle cone pines that happen to grow on the side of the mountain in Texas where they are building the 10,000 year clock. The idea is that for a donation, The Long Now Salon will hold your bottle for you on site so you can come at any time and enjoy it with your friends. As my sister says, “With bottle keep, no need to ‘buy’ someone a drink and all that implies.”

Help us build it… from The Long Now Foundation on Vimeo.

I’m happy to hear that they are bringing the bottle keep concept to San Francisco. It’s the perfect thing for The Long Now Foundation to do and they are going about it with the same sense of care and craftsmanship as they are with their other projects. Indeed, my visit was part of their learning. The staff took in my story and weaved in their own experiences and asked questions for more details. The conversation was relaxed and philosophical. It was a beautiful day outside and their offices in Fort Mason look out over the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate. We drank tea. Before I knew it, I had lost track of time and realized I had to get back to work.

Thank you Mikl-em and thank you Long Now folks for a wonderful afternoon.

Japanese Maps a Unique Challenge

The New York Times has a piece pointing out that the new iOS 6 cartography woes that Apple is experiencing are amplified in Japan which presents it’s own unique mapping challenges. Mainly because they are trying to jam a global mapping paradigm into Japan which has its own challenges.

… cities like Tokyo are changing fast: its 80,000 restaurants, for example, open and close at a rapid rate amid cutthroat competition. Navitime, another map app that has benefited from Apple’s map problems, updates its data every eight hours, and replaces a third of its seven million data points every year.

The photo up top is a common site in Tokyo outside of most every train station or at the top of every subway exit. The city is changing so quickly that hand drawn maps, often annotated with side notes, are the best indicator of the what is where for the dis-oriented visitor. The back of most Japanese business cards are often helpfully annotated with carefully drawn maps giving directions to the establishment’s location with instructions like, “veer 30 degrees left and head past the large Coca-Cola billboard and take the next left at the noodle shop.” Navigating the back streets of Tokyo is more akin to orienteering through the woods than walking the streets of a well organized city.

But the real kicker for anyone trying to enter the Japanese market is that Japanese love maps and mapping services have gone to great lengths to provide the most detailed maps they can offer. Navitime, mentioned in the NY Times article, provides maps that tell you how to get from one place to another when it’s raining and you don’t have an umbrella (through office towers, underpasses, by shopfronts with awnings). Below is a screenshot from one vendor showing different ways from point A to point B. The route on the right is how to get there if you have a baby carriage.

The Western mind boggles at the complexity of the Japanese mapping services. Fundamental aspects of mapping break down in Japan. In Japan, they label the addresses by blocks, not street names. As Derek Sivers says in the Ted video below,

“Blocks don’t have names, streets have names. Blocks are just the unnamed spaces in between streets.”

Think different Apple. Think different.

Serving the Customer

In Japan, attending to the needs of the customer is not only a pre-requisite, it is a minimum requirement to participate in the domestic economy. The Japanese consumer is a particularly fickle shopper. The mere whiff of attitude will drive away shoppers and with it, the business. Back when I lived in Tokyo when VCRs were the way we watched movies at home, my local video rental establishment was a place called Tsutaya. My experience with them some 15 years ago is but one illustration of Japanese service that I pull out to explain how customer service works in Japan.

One rainy Sunday, I returned a video to Tsutaya, unwatched. I explained to them that this was so because my VCR was broken. Sensing not only a potential loss of repeat business but also, I am certain, an opportunity to go above and beyond, the guy behind the counter helpfully chirped that he would be happy to take a look at my stricken machine to see if he could repair it.  I came back later that afternoon, dropping off my VCR for a look see. I really was not expecting anything. I am a bit handy myself and after popping the lid could see that a belt needed replacing and knew that the cost of these types of repairs usually outweigh picking up another machine secondhand at the local electronics store.

Much to my delight, later that evening, I had a message from the Tsutaya guy that he had replaced the belt with a new one and I could come by anytime to pick up my refurbished VCR, all at no charge. When I came by, not only did I have a working VCR, they also let me take home the original movie I wanted to watch, free of charge as well.

You see, in Japan the customer is at the center of entire ecosystem. When a single customer walks in the door, that person is not an individual sale, that person is a lifetime relationship of repeat business. That person represents a net haul of customers that include that person’s friends, relatives, and a gaggle of second cousins and classmates. Win this one person over and close them for a repeat visit and you’ve added one more stone to an unassailable pyramid of revenue. The investment of a hour of labor and a spare rubber belt was tiny compared to the business returns from not only myself but others that I know, including those who read this story again, 15 years later.

This faith in the value of word-of-mouth marketing is something that has been passed down to Japanese through the ages. It was there before Facebook Fan Pages, before the Social Media Marketer. This is the mind of the Japanese merchant. Tsutaya has successfully evolved from CD & Video rentals into a major corporation with a fancy new flagship store in Daikanyama and I wish for its continued success.

When Mom Left for America

While in Japan I did the usual, clean out you parent’s hard drive and apply 50 updates that should have been and the other usual computer tune up tasks. I ran across a bunch of scans that I think my sister did last time she was there. I grabbed them and within found one of my favorite old photos of my mom.

My father loves Japan. He moved there in the early 60s when not too many Americans would venture to the Far East as they used to call it back then. The story goes is that he was in Amsterdam, working for a Dutch Trading Firm and when word went out that they were opening a branch office in Tokyo, he jumped at the opportunity. His job was to find interesting things for his company to import from Japan.

When he was there, the Yen was something like 330 JPY to the dollar (it’s now 78 JPY). He had a flat in Denenchofu, took taxis everywhere, had a maid, basically, he lived like a king. He met my mom during this time and they hit it off and began dating. My Japanese grandmother and grandfather were suspicious. They were used to GIs wooing away the young daughters of the village and then flying off to the US where they never saw them again.

My dad was different. He was not with the Army, he had a deep respect for the culture, took kendo, studied kanji, planned to live in Japan for the rest of his life. It took my father a long time, I think a year or two, to convince my grandparents that he was not going to be one of those to steal away.

If you know my dad, you know he has eclectic tastes. Apparently his nominations for lucrative exports (colorful koinobori flags for one) were not cutting it with the home office and after a time, they decided to shut down their Japanese operation. At that point it was impossible for a foreigner to get a job in Japan unless you were with the military. The English teacher route wasn’t an option, no one could afford one. My father had no choice but to return to the United States, New York City, where he knew friends in the publishing industry that could get him a job.

The photo above is one of my favorite of my mom. Here she is, all dressed up to fly to New York. This is when people flew Pan Am or BAOC, they got dressed up to fly. And look in the background, at my grandmother, dressed up as well in a kimono, to see her eldest daughter off to somewhere very, very far away. She’s scowling! I can imagine what’s going through her mind, “I knew this would happen, I knew this would happen!”

Flash-forward to several months later to the photo below. Dad now has a job in Manhattan and the two of them are living in an old brownstone in Brooklyn. Life’s pretty good but my Mom’s trying to figure things out. My dad suggests a local Welcome Wagon event for recent immigrants – maybe she’ll meet someone there.

And here is my 2nd favorite photo of my mom. She’s there trying her best to fit in. They’ve got some weird activity where you’re supposed to cut up some paper cups into stars and that’s the supposed to be this crafty thing. I guess this is folk art for a country that’s only 150 years old. You can see she’s trying her best to put on a smile for the camera but you can see that she’s thinking, “What the heck have I gotten myself into?”

Anyway, thanks for indulging me in this bit of family history. These two photos have been haunting me and I’ve told this story numerous times to friends and have referred to these photos and now I have a URL that I can sling their way so they can see for themselves.

Cancer Sucks

I’m in Japan this week to visit my father. He has colon cancer and just checked in for surgery.

This is not a total shock. He is getting old after all and I’ve come to accept a time when something like this would happen. He’s taking it well. He has openly embraced his body slowly falling apart like the owner of an old MG learns to deal with a tricky carburetor.

He could have gone in for check-ups and caught the cancer earlier and addressed it. Maybe he could have put some time between now and where we are today but that’s not Rick Kennedy’s style. He is not really a doctor kind of guy. He proudly tells the story of how, when diagnosed with a kidney stone he, “somehow managed to piss it right out.” I’m told that is extremely painful, most opt to dissolve it with drugs or other treatments. He has a high tolerance for pain and the cancer grew in him as an annoyance until it became something he couldn’t ignore. Let’s hope it’s not too late.

My father influenced me in many ways. As I am raising a son myself, I have an appreciation for how he was able to plant seeds of interest that lead me to take the path that I’ve chosen in life.

My early interest in cycling gave me love for the sport that I experience everyday as I ride to work. He was there in the late-70s with a fixie back before anyone heard of such a thing, an original hipster. I fondly remember watching grainy video tapes with him of European coverage of Paris-Roubaix and other European classic bike races as we learned about the sport together. Part of our weekly grime clean routine was to disassemble our chains, wash them off with an old toothbrush and kerosine, then dip them into a coffee can full of oil warmed up on the kitchen stove. My mom hated that. We were bike nerds.

My dad had a nose for the eccentric that would drive my mom nuts. For two years he somehow convinced my mom that we should live in a commune. It was fun for me and my sister because there were always lots of kids to play with but the shared chore list made my mom crazy because most people slacked off and she ended up having to do a lot of it. We moved out shortly after a lady named, Tomorrow nearly burned the house down after one particularly memorable party.

Dad was a writer. (Good Tokyo Restaurants, Little Adventures in Tokyo) Originally an editor at Random House, we moved to Japan when he convinced Sony they needed someone to help make their user manuals less laughable. He took great care to chose the right words and was quick to criticize sloppy use of the English language. To him, bad writing shows a carelessness that offends him.

We have an on-going debate about the craft of writing, often about the merits of print vs. online. He will never understand hashtags or data-journalism. “I’m just a print guy,” is his refrain. On his way into today’s operation, he insisted on carrying a copy of The Spectator and New Yorker to read just in case he got bored. The nurse had to remind him that he’ll be under while they operate on him. His books were his security blanket. He loves to read and has a hundreds of books he’s collected over the years at great expense. When I asked if I could bring him anything new from the US he declined, “Some people save up money for retirement, I’ve been saving books.” He has a stack of 15 books on the table next to his hospital bed and I’ve been asked to bring with me several more. AJ Liebling, Anthony Powell, Cyril Connolly.

Dad was incurably optimistic. To a fault perhaps. I remember seeing the book, “A lazy man’s guide to enlightenment” on his shelf. That was very much his philosophy. The secret to happiness is being at peace with what you have, not pushing for more that you might not get. He doesn’t like anyone to fuss over him but I think he is secretly enjoying his time in a Japanese hospital. The nurses are angels and are so gentle and kind. Japanese society is coddling to begin with so you can only imagine what this place is like.

I have no idea what to expect of Dad’s operation. As can be expected, he is brushing this off as an annoyance but also says things like, “It’ll be good to know you’re here,” which sounds ominous. My mom tends to suppress bad news by ignoring it and she hasn’t really been asking many questions. Keep your fingers crossed. We’re all hoping for the best.

Thanks to everyone who has already sent along their wishes. Thank you to all those at GigaOM who are filling in for me while I’m away. I am thankful to my managers who, when they learned of the news, told me to absolutely, without question, take as much time as I needed. Stand up folks at GigaOM they are, I feel your support and it means a lot.

I’ll update this post when I hear more. He should be getting out in a few hours.

UPDATE: All good! After five hours doctors where able to cut out about 20 cms of his colon and a big, ugly looking lump of evil. He’s resting in the ICU now and doctors say he’ll be wobbling about on his feet tomorrow. He’ll stay there for a week or more depending on how he heals. Luckily they were able to do the whole thing through a few tiny incisions so at least the outside will heal quickly.

The first thing he said? He wants a few more Anthony Powell books!

Tsunami Debris Includes Ghost Tuna Boat

Massive amounts of debris from last year’s March 11th earthquake in Japan is making its way to the West coast of North America. While most of the objects are not expected to wash ashore until October, some of the larger objects, including entire ships are arriving months earlier.

The Vancouver Sun reports:

After being flushed out to sea by last year’s massive tsunami and earthquake, a Japanese squid-fishing boat has drifted across the Pacific Ocean and was about 120 nautical miles off British Columbia’s north coast Friday evening.

The 150-foot ship was found drifting right-side-up about 140 nautical miles (260 km) from Cape Saint James, on the southern tip of Haida Gwaii.