The Metaphor of Memory

December 31, 2009

On numerous occasions, I have commented (or worse yet, others have helpfully pointed out to me) that I have a memory like a sieve, although I can easily imagine sieves all over the world taking umbrage at being drawn into that comparison. It would be easy enough to blame it on the natural process of aging, but it has been part of my life for as long as I can remember, which is something of a paradox if you think about it. This may have been passed down to me maternally, as my mother was always embroiled in discussions (she called them discussions; I called them arguments, as they inevitably ended up that way) about minutiae from her recent or distant past:

Mom: Remember when we went to Miami, and stopped in that hotel in Winter Garden, where the seals were in the swimming pool? It was in the summer of 1962.

Me: I think it was ’63, because it was later that year that President Kennedy was assassinated, but I don’t remember any seals.

Mom: Kennedy was assassinated in 1962, so I’m right. Besides, that was the year we got the new Plymouth and it was our first vacation in that car.

Brother: Um, Mom, actually Bruce is right; Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Have a look here… (he proffers the World Almanac)

Mom: (adjusting bifocals, perusing the page with consternation) Well, that’s just wrong! I know that was the first vacation we took in the Plymouth. And it was a 1962 model, I remember that as clearly as if it were yesterday… (which was to say, none too clearly)

Me: (patiently) Perhaps we didn’t take a vacation the year we got the Plymouth, and this was the first vacation, but a year later?

Sister: (chiming in for the first time) I thought there were porpoises in the pool…

Mom: (glaring at my sister) I think I can tell a whale from a porpoise! (I know, you’re wondering where the whale came from; I was wondering that too.) Just a minute! It had to be 1962, because your Uncle Frank was there, and he died right after that…

Typically there was no real resolution to these, um, discussions, and we kids all bolted to neutral corners at our earliest convenience.

I should point out that, in my case, it is not long-term memory that is at issue. It is the short-term variant that bedevils me on a daily, if not hourly basis. I can remember all manner of arcane factoids from my distant past: the date of the Battle of Hastings (1066); the name of the four little holes in the front fender of a Buick (Cruiserline Ventiports); the capitals of North Dakota, Burkina Faso, and Malaysia (Bismarck, Ougadougou, and Kuala Lumpur, respectively); the entire second verse of “Louie, Louie”, which I will not go into here and now; conjugation of irregular verbs in Spanish; the list goes on. What I cannot remember with any degree of accuracy are: the birthdays or anniversaries of any of my friends or relatives (I am doing well to remember Christmas…); where I put my keys last time I set them down; what I came out to the kitchen for; what I was supposed to get at the store that was so obvious there was clearly no reason to add it to the list.

I have a theory about this, a metaphor, if you will: I think it works like a water glass being filled from a pitcher. One’s brain is the water glass, and the pitcher contains the sum of all information (the water), some of which gets poured into your glass. For the first several years of your life, the glass doesn’t get full, so no worries. You just keep on adding information, and you can keep track of it fairly easily. Naturally this varies from person to person, depending on the size of the glass, the rate at which information is poured in, and so forth. The problem comes when the glass is topped up, and there is no room for one more iota of information. You can keep pouring the water in, to be sure, but it simply runs over the rim of the glass, spilling onto the table below. This, in my estimation, is what happens to my short-term memory; it just washes over the side, taking my keys along with it, and depositing them somewhere I cannot begin to recall. Long-term memory bytes are basically unaffected, as they have secured their places in the glass, and are not likely to be evacuated unless the new water (or information) is poured in exceptionally forcefully (such as when your boss says “If you miss the deadline this afternoon, Tierney, don’t bother showing up for work tomorrow.”). Those moments are anomalies, though; most of the assembled facts floating around in the glass are impervious to the threat of information displacement, and I, for one, can rest easy in the knowledge that if I ever appear on Jeopardy, I will be able to look Alex Trebek confidently in the eye and say “’Louie, Louie’ lyrics for $200, Alex…”

Happy 2009, all! I mean, um, 2010. Heh-heh!

Ben Franklin, George Orwell… Meet Henry Porter

December 30, 2009

Although the US gets all the bad press for its “Big Brother” attitude since 9/11/2001, “the colonies” are still a libertarian’s dream compared to the United Kingdom. Consider this: 1) there are more closed circuit television cameras in the UK than in the rest of Europe put together; 2) road journeys are now monitored by cameras adapted to read car number plates and the data from every trip is kept for five years; 3) Special Police teams are deployed to protest events with the sole purpose of filming innocent protestors and storing their data; 4) the genetic profiles of hundreds of thousands of innocent people are now illegally held on police DNA databases. This sobering data is lifted verbatim from the afterword of Henry Porter’s chilling novel of governmental abuse of power in the Age of Terror, The Bell Ringers (Atlantic Monthly Press; ISBN 9780802119315; 416pp; $24.00), set for release in February 2010. Porter goes on to describe a little known piece of legislation, the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which allows the Prime Minister and/or a few well placed others to suspend the rule of law, dismantle democracy, restrict travel, sieze property, and arbitrarily arrest and detain anyone at any time for any reason. Scary? Let’s just say that George Orwell is likely looking down from above, waggling an admonitory finger, and saying “I told you so.” Porter’s book is set in the near future, although he stresses that all of the laws referenced therein are in fact on the books now, ready and waiting for the almost inevitable wave of governmental paranoia to set the wheels in motion.

The Bell Ringers chronicles the last days of David Eyam, a one-time bright light in the ruling administration, now cast out for his anachronistic views on personal freedom versus national security. He possesses some potentially damaging information about the incumbent Prime Minister; the government in turn desperately wants to neutralize him, and by whatever means necessary. People close to him begin dropping off like flies, often under dubious circumstances; his computer has been compromised with child pornography by person or persons unknown, and details of his supposed proclivities leaked to the press; his bank accounts have been frozen. So, he does what any right thinking person might do under the circumstances: he beats a hasty retreat to someplace warm and tropical (and a long long way from England), in this case Colombia, where, to all appearances, he has the misfortune to get blown up by a terrorist bomb. Problem is, somehow he manages to make a phone call a week after his “death”, so it seems a good possibility that he may have faked his untimely demise. The powers that be hold one premise paramount: Eyam, if he is indeed alive, must be prevented from delivering his evidence to the Parliament; no cost is too high, and no excuses will be brooked.

The Bell Ringers crossed my threshold a bit too late to be covered in the February issue of BookPage (, so I wanted to make a special point of devoting space to it here in Mysterious Orientations. To my mind, it is easily one of the most important and timely novels of post-9/11 governmental excess, flat-out guaranteed to set off heated and lengthy debates in reading groups worldwide.

One parting thought, in case there are lingering doubts as to where my sympathies lie: Benjamin Franklin once famously said “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” This has been oft-repeated, usually with slight variations, my favorite of which remains: “People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither, and will lose both.”

Package Tours in Sensible Countries, Part II, the International Edition

December 29, 2009

Good deals on travel in Asia are not limited to domestic travel. Over the past year, I have indulged in a pair of international jaunts, each time opting for the ones with the greatest degree of autonomy. My first such journey was to Taiwan, the land of the perpetual party. Compared to buttoned-down Japan, Taiwan seems always in the throes of a celebration of one sort or another. Freeway ramp just got finished? Cool, let’s launch the festivities. Religious holiday? Alrighty, then; fire up the incense and start clanging the finger cymbals. My tour package included round trip airfare from Tokyo, accommodations for three nights, two full days on the ground (plus part of a third day), a half-day guided tour of the major tourist attractions and one huge lunch. For the remaining meals and sightseeing, we were left to our own to devices, as desired. The price was 29,000 yen apiece, about $350.

Second time out, I opted for Hong Kong, someplace I had wanted to visit since seeing the movie The World of Suzie Wong more years ago than I care to remember. William Holden played an expat artist infatuated with (and totally confounded by) a mischievous lady of the evening, the aforementioned Suzie Wong (superbly played by lovely Chinese ballet dancer Nancy Kwan, for goodness sake!). The movie is an epic Hollywood romance on the order of Casablanca or Roman Holiday. The scenery was amazing, and the first meeting of the Holden and Kwan characters took place on the fabled Star Ferry, which traverses the harbor between Hong Kong island and the Kowloon mainland. Happily, the Star Ferry is largely unchanged some fifty years later, and for about twenty-five cents you can make the crossing, one of the great romantic travel bargains of the world.

Ferry deals aside, however, Hong Kong has the reputation of being one of the most expensive cities on the planet. One need only look at Kowloon’s renowned Peninsula Hotel, with its fourteen emerald green Rolls-Royce Phantom courtesy cars in the forecourt, to get an idea of just how much money passes through this tiny enclave on a daily basis. That said, good buys abound if you know where to look: my package tour included round trip airfare from Tokyo  (1800-odd miles, roughly the same distance as New York-Albuquerque), six days on the ground in Hong Kong, five nights hotel at Kowloon’s mid-range Panda Hotel (including breakfast each day), a day-long tour of Hong Kong island, then four days of unstructured sightseeing. Total cost: 39,000 yen (about $475 or so) per person. Consider that the posted price of the hotel room (which was, by the way, bigger and certainly more luxurious than my apartment in Tokyo) was $175 per night, and you can begin to see the value of such a package.

Downsides, sure: when you’re on the tour bus, the sights are being described in Japanese only, and in my experience, the tour guides must get paid by the word, as they never (but never) shut up. Also, you don’t know (exactly) when your flight will depart until confirmation arrives a couple of days before you leave. You know the day, of course, but not the time (which can be most inconvenient; to catch the plane for my trip to Jeju Island, Korea a couple of weeks back, I had to leave the house at 4:30am, a time I had heard tell of, like leprechauns or molecules, but had never actually seen in person).

Package Tours in Sensible Countries

December 28, 2009

Package Tour. The words alone give the inveterate traveler a case of the heebie-jeebies: visions of overfed middle-aged pasty Americans (or Brits, or Germans) herded from their gaudy-hued tour buses into third-rate freeway-adjacent restaurants which are distinguished largely by the fact that their parking lots are of sufficient dimensions to accommodate a multitude of tour buses. After the meal, said tour drones parade through the inevitable attached gift shop, picking through souvenir clothing (“My parents went to _____________, and all I got was this *%&^* shirt!”), small “hand crafted” objets d’art (likely made with child labor in some seedy backwater far far away from the gift shop environs), and the like. It must be said that there are tours in Asia that approximate the above, albeit with a somewhat more exotic flavor, at least for the Western attendee. Where they diverge from their American counterparts is (for the most part) in the pricing. Consider: just to take the famed Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto round trip runs 25,600 yen, about $300 US, per person (so, $600 for two). Figure on a minimum of $100 per night for a traditional Kyoto inn (which might be found in a modern high-rise apartment building, oddly); so, three nights’ accommodation, $300. You can eat, not lavishly but decently well, for about $50 per day per person, so there’s another $300. Booking all this on your own will set you back about $1200 for a three-night long weekend for two (not counting taxis, admissions and incidentals). Alternatively, you could place a quick phone call to any of a dozen aggressively competitive Tokyo tour companies and get all of the above, plus all admissions to attractions, inter-attraction transport, and free half-day side trips to Nara, where the tame deer will nuzzle your fingers in pursuit of a morsel of fruit or veggie, and Arashiyama, whose fall colors give New Hampshire a good run for its money. The price: 49,800 (about $600) for two, all in. (And if by some chance you do find yourself aboard a bus, rest assured that it will be rather upscale from its US counterpart: leather seats, individual a/c controls, etc; not in any form or fashion the penalty box that pops to mind when you think of domestic “motor coach” travel. Clearly there are many things we can learn from our Far Eastern brethren, beyond martial arts and how to make reliable cars!)

Air Travel in Sensible Countries

December 28, 2009

It sounds like the title of the next No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency instalment, but I assure you it is nothing of the sort. Rather, it is a short treatise on the sorry state of air travel nowadays in North America.

If you want to purchase the least expensive air ticket between, say, Nashville and Chicago, the best plan is to book it well in advance, basically as soon as you know that you want to make the trip (if not before). Rules vary from airline to airline, of course, but booking two to three weeks in advance is likely to secure the cheapest available fare. The one thing that you would never ever (ever) do is just show up at the airport on the desired day of departure, advance through the queue to the counter agent, and say “Excuse me, I would like to buy an inexpensive ticket to Chicago, please.” It would be enough to render the agent momentarily speechless, followed by elbow nudges and ill-restrained mirth among the airline staff. Also, a large ka-ching sound clearly audible in the long-term parking lot.

In Korea, due to the unexpected availability of a friend I hadn’t seen in over a year, I made a last-minute decision to embark on a flight between remote Jeju Island and the Korean capital, Seoul, a distance of about 300 miles. The procedure for this: walk up to the Jeju Air ticket counter, smile at the exquisitely beautiful counter agent, show her my passport, swipe my American Express card, and walk off with my confirmed window seat boarding pass, all for the princely sum of 56,000 Korean won, about $50 US as of this writing. Had I booked fourteen days in advance—$50. Twenty-one days ahead—you guessed it, $50. Note: this was a weekend fare; my return flight to Jeju was actually less, just 43,000 won (about $40), because I was doing it on a Tuesday. Of course it is possible to make advance reservations in Korea, but the reason for doing so is to ensure a seat on a particular flight (i.e., for your convenience, as opposed to the airline’s), not to lock in a cheaper price.

In fairness, I have to say that I probably got a bit lucky in terms of seat availability. I arrived at the airport at 10:25am, and had to wait until the 12:25 flight, as the 11am and 12:05 flights were booked to capacity. My flight was getting full as well, so had I arrived just a bit later, I might have had to wait until 1:25. Yikes, the inconvenience! (By the way, for my return flight, I arrived at the airport at 9:50am, and was actually in my seat on the airplane at 10:20am; remember when that used to be the norm?)

There must be some reason why this model is not workable stateside, but for the life of me, I cannot suss out what it might be.

Flash Frozen in Suwon, Korea; Merry Christmas!

December 26, 2009

Ice in the river, even in the rapids!

Kids engaged in scientific testing of ice thickness...

Common Korean baby-dolls: crying baby, happy baby, stubborn baby...

My friend Kil-Sun at her old alma mater

Proofreader? We don't need no stinkin' proofreader...

Ancient and modern collide at every corner...

A traditional eating establishment

The latest in Korean headgear, the clear plastic cake box cover!

A uniquely Korean appliance, the kimchee refrigerator! Seriously.

Proofreading redux: the Happy Day Jewery Store!

Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward men...

Book Shopping in Suwon, Korea

December 25, 2009

I brought a pair of trade paperbacks along with me to Korea to occupy my time while flying and to fill any potential downtime while on the ground, books slated for review in the February BookPage Whodunit column (available at your local bookstore or online sometime in mid-January): Winterland by Irish author Alan Glynn, and Devils in Exile by Chuck Hogan. Both writers were new to me, and both books were page turners of the first order, the result being that I consumed all of my reading material with more than half the trip left to go. What to do?

My first foray in search of books was the Suwon Public Library, a huge ultramodern edifice that dwarfs the library in suburban Saitama, where I live in Japan. Sad to say, the selection of English-language books was nowhere near as comprehensive: three small shelves featuring such dubious choices as Seoul Food, a Look at Contemporary Restaurants in the Capital (from 1988), a Korean-English dictionary of biblical terms (I’ll bet you are dying to know the translation for “Garden of Eden” into Korean; well, here you go: 의 에덴 동산), several books on surefire investment opportunities in Asia (all of similar vintage to the restaurant book), and one well-thumbed copy of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, which I had already read. Not another potboiler in sight.

A trip to the humongous FoodPlus/Tesco department store proved a bit more fruitful, thankfully. Almost immediately I stumbled upon a table of hard cover novels, books that in the US would be described as “remaindered”. The first row yielded a copy of Jeff Shelby’s surf noir classic, Wicked Break, which I had also read (and reviewed, for that matter), but it boded well for the hunt. I applied myself to the task at hand, finally settling on Daniel Judson’s The Darkest Place (St. Martin’s Minotaur; ISBN 9780312352530; 310pp; $23.95), a 2006 tale of a serial killer preying upon teenage boys during the coldest Long Island winter on record. My choice was helped along by back cover blurbs from three longtime favorites: Robert Crais (“…the kind of honest, powerful novel that gives crime fiction the very best parts of its reputation.”); G.M. Ford (“…destined to become a classic piece of American crime fiction.”); and S.J. Rozan (“Daniel Judson writes beautifully about the peculiar satisfactions of self-destruction.”). As expected, the three blurbists did not let me down, and neither did Daniel Judson. I shall be on the lookout for more of his books, without a doubt.