Camera Update

February 21, 2011

Because I don’t know exactly what to expect in Bali in terms of safety and security, I opted not to take an expensive camera along. Instead, I went to BIC Camera in Ikebukuro and picked up a perfectly serviceable pocket camera, a Pentax Optio H90.

12.1 megapixel, a hillion jillion in-camera special effects, and most importantly, the diminutive size I have grown accustomed to with my now-defunct Canon. It set me back a whopping 5980 yen, about $72 or so. Early indications are that it takes pretty good pictures, given the limitations of any pocket camera, and that it will suit its intended purpose fine. Also, it uses SD memory cards, of which I have a bunch, so that made it kind of a no-brainer of a purchase.

After I got it home, I realized that I would likely want a backup battery, so the next time I was in Ikebukuro, I stopped in to BIC Camera to pick one up. The (almost) English-speaking salesperson checked the computerized stock list, and indeed there was one on hand. “4200 yen,” he said. Wait a minute, 4200 yen? But I paid only 5980 yen for the camera, and it came with the aforementioned battery, a charger, and a memory card as well! Naturally, I asked if there was a waribiki (discount) available, and was met with a (likely faux) sad face and a shake of the head.

So now (you can see this coming, right?) I am the proud owner of not one but two Pentax Optio H90 cameras, identical in every respect, each with its own dedicated battery and memory card. The next pictures you see in Mysterious Orientations will be from one or the other of the Optio Twins, so we’ll see if it was a worthwhile pair of purchases. One way to look at it is that the second camera is simply a 1780 yen accessory to the battery, which makes it a most reasonable way to break into digital photography!

The Road to Bali

February 20, 2011

The time has come for my midterm exit from Japan. I am allowed only 90 days at a time, exactly half of what Japanese are allowed when visiting Canada or the US, but them’s the rules, and these days I try to color within the lines for the most part (although I am partial to using uncommon hues from time to time…). Anyway, for the past several weeks, I have been surfing the internet travel sites, both Japanese and non-Japanese, in hopes of finding a cheap fare to some interesting and exotic place, preferably one I haven’t visited before. This strategy has landed me in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, and mainland China thus far, and tomorrow I will depart for uncharted territory once again (uncharted by me, at least), the tropical isle of Bali. ANA (All Nippon Airways) offered a flight to Bali for $100 less than their flight to Jakarta, another destination I considered. From Japan it is the same initial flight to either destination, so basically it is like getting the Bali leg of the flight for free, and then having the flight crew bring you $100 to say “thanks for staying on.” How could I say no to that?

I have done all due diligence in preparing for the trip: I’ve located my passport and my International Driver’s License, which have been sequestered in a closet since I arrived in Tokyo in December; I bought the online PDF edition of Lonely Planet’s guidebook to Bali and Lombok (about to be superseded by a 2011 edition, but not in time for my trip), and have printed out pages for the parts of the island I plan to visit; I have secured a couple of nights’ accommodations at the front end of the trip, to avoid arriving there at 8pm and having to find a hotel after spending all day in an airplane; and last but not least, I watched the 1952 Bob Hope/Bing Crosby/Dorothy Lamour film, The Road to Bali. I’m sure I had seen it before, but never with the intention of visiting Bali shortly afterward, so I paid special attention so as not to miss any great travel tips. As you might imagine, the travel tips were few and far between, although the movie was amusing enough (Bob Hope made side comments to the audience from time to time, usually about Bing Crosby, for instance: “He’s gonna sing, folks; now is the time to go and get some popcorn…”).

There were, however, a couple of places where the due diligence failed. First and foremost, it turns out that March is smack dab in the middle of Bali’s monsoon season, so it would seem that an umbrella will be in order. A look at the ten-day weather forecast shows one day of “mostly cloudy”, three days of “partly cloudy”, and six days of “scattered thunderstorms”. There is heat to go with the humidity as well, with highs hovering around 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and evening lows in the high seventies or low eighties. The other thing I didn’t realize is that during my stay I will get to experience the Balinese New Year holiday, Nyepi (the Hindu “Day of Silence”), notable for the fact that from 6am one day until 6am the next day, nobody is allowed out of the house (or hotel), not even tourists. Nobody works, travels, lights fires, or uses undue amounts of electricity. Entertainment is verboten, including lovemaking, I am told. Some don’t even eat, drink or talk. The airport is closed, and the only people out and about are emergency workers (police, fire, ambulance) and hard line security staff enforcing the curfew. I may make a break for an adjacent island (all the nearby islands are predominantly Muslim, and don’t celebrate the Hindu holiday) for a couple of days! I’ll keep you posted…

Eulogy For a Camera

February 14, 2011

I didn’t mention this before, but when I was in Okinawa shortly after New Year’s, my trusty Canon camera finally shuffled off this mortal coil, after five years of superlative service. I bought it in Halifax in 2006, shortly before embarking on a three-month-long trip to Greece and Turkey, via Paris. At the time, the Canon SD-400 was a medium-high-end pocket camera; if memory serves, it ran about $400, about what I had paid for a decent SLR film camera some years before. A friend of mine had the predecessor to the SD-400, and over time I had come to appreciate its diminutive size and its extraordinary capabilities. Having one of my own would mean that I wouldn’t have to tote a two-pound photographic albatross everywhere I went, and that notion was strongly appealing. Also, it used an SD card for storing images, and my laptop had an SD card reader built in; this made the Canon a much more attractive proposition than its archrivals, Sony and Olympus, both of which used proprietary storage cards requiring USB cables (and thus the attendant aggro of keeping track of same).

Not that you can tell from the picture of my rather elderly and abused example, but the SD-400 was quite the slick little piece in its day.

About the size and shape of a half-inch thick stack of credit cards, it made for a perfect fit in a shirt pocket. The iconic design defined Canon’s small cameras for a number of years, becoming known in photographic circles as “box and circle”. The body was brushed aluminum, rather than the plastic of its competitors (and of some of the less pricey Canon point-and-shoot alternatives), and it was Made In Japan, undoubtedly individually and lovingly assembled by one proud and elderly Japanese craftsman armed with micrometers, magnifying glasses, and all manner of arcane precision hand tools. At the end of the work day, he went home for supper and his wife asked “How was your day, honey?” He replied “I made one very fine camera for Master Bruce Tierney of Canada. It will become his constant companion.” Satisfied, he sat down to a meal of tempura udon, accompanied by a chilled Kirin. Or so I imagined.

I bought a padded cloth carrying case for it, with loops that attached it to my belt. About the only time we were apart was when I was swimming or in the shower.  For the first couple of weeks of ownership, I babied it, polishing it at the end of each day of use to remove the fingerprints and body oils that I assumed would eventually mar the precision finish. That all came to an abrupt halt the day I made a misstep off an Istanbul curb while furtively snapping a shot of an aged Turkish couple in traditional dress. I went from vertical to horizontal in considerably less time than it takes to say that, and the camera flew out of my hand, skittering across the rough pavement and winding up underneath a parked car. “&@$%&%” I said, presumably in capital letters, fearing the worst.  It was just out of reach, naturally, so since I was flat on the tarmac anyway, I slithered under the car to retrieve it. Afterwards, I sat on the curb to lick my wounds and to field test the camera’s functionality; surprisingly, everything seemed to work fine (on the camera at least). But the camera body had gotten scratched and gouged in several places, with two immediate corollaries: 1) it became immeasurably less interesting to potential thieves, and 2) I was forever freed from the borderline obsessive maintenance regime; from now on, the camera would get basically the same level of attention as, say, a toaster (which is to say: none). For the next five years the Canon would look about as appealing as Nick Nolte’s mug shot, but perform in a manner that totally belied its size and specification. Here are a few of my favorite shots; click the pics for a larger image:

Santorini courtyard

Adrift in the Greek Islands

Relaxing cats

Astro, gone but not forgotten

Back then, houses were built to last...

We were inseparable for some years, traveling together to such far-flung locales as Pusan, Taipei, Hiroshima, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Santorini, the Turquoise Coast, Cappadocia, Paris, a couple of dozen US states, and every last one of Canada’s Maritime provinces. In all that time, although it picked up several more dings and scratches en route, there was never a performance hiccup.

And so it went until January 2011, at which point I turned the camera on to take a twilight picture out my Okinawa hotel window, and was greeted with this image on the video screen:

Whatever it was, it was clearly not representative of an Okinawa evening. I tried changing the battery, switching the camera on and off, muttering incantations and imprecations, all to no avail. Happily, there is a manual viewfinder, something you don’t find on analogous Canons nowadays, so I was able to use the camera for the remainder of the trip, albeit minus the video screen and thus lacking the facility of olden days. The writing was on the wall; it would limp through the remainder of that tour of duty, but no way would it make the next one. So now it’s time for a new camera. The replacement will be a Canon as well, slightly larger and of much higher specification, although at a lower price point. Cool as it is, it is hard to imagine that I will like it nearly as well.

Sayonara, tomodachi!

The Silent Land, Graham Joyce

February 5, 2011

It’s Saturday morning in Tokyo, and I just got my box of April books from the States, four of which will comprise my Whodunit column for BookPage. It will be a difficult choice this month, as there are offerings from C.J. Box, James Thompson, Jonathan Kellerman, Joe R. Lansdale, Henning Mankell, Harlan Coben and more. Abby, my editor, sent along another book as well, with a pink Post-It on the front cover which read: “Something different, but it could be interesting…” I peeled off the Post-It to reveal the title: The Silent Land, by Graham Joyce.

Hmm, don’t know him. In my experience, though, Abby has been a pretty good judge of what I might like, so I flipped the book over to have a look at the synopsis on the back cover. Here’s a synopsis of the synopsis: Jake and Zoe, Brit tourists on holiday in Chamonix, are overtaken by a treacherous avalanche while skiing, and buried alive. Somehow they manage to dig their way out, but when they finally make their way back to the hotel, they find it completely empty. All communications are out; to every appearance they are the last people on earth. Fearing another avalanche, they make haste to leave the vacant village, but every effort they make, whether by car, on skis, or on foot, finds them eerily and inexplicably right back where they started. Shades of Stephen King! Okay, I was hooked.

A flashback: I read The Shining back when it first came out, while camping on a deserted beach near Mulege, Mexico. Twilight was closing in as I plowed through the final chapters; there was no way I could go to sleep without finishing it, so I lit a chapel’s worth of votive candles in order that I could keep reading. If you’ve read that book, you will likely remember that the denouement didn’t contribute much to a good night’s sleep, but still, it was better than not knowing. I felt much the same with The Silent Land. As with the best fantasy novels, it is difficult to determine where the reality ends and the supernatural begins, which of the things seen out of the corner of one’s eye belong to the real world and which are imagination, or worse. The protagonists quite rightly question their sanity as their sense of time becomes strangely fluid, and they begin to experience auditory and visual hallucinations, often at distinct variance with one another. It is at the very least a weird sort of reality, populated only with ominous black birds, and a friendly dog that bears a striking resemblance to Jake’s long-dead childhood pet. Add to that a cell phone that rings at inopportune times (with a garbled foreign voice at the other end), a kitchen counter full of raw meats and vegetables that never seem to spoil, and the repeated creaking and grumbling of the dangerously unstable snow…

Author Joyce has won basically every award in his field: the O. Henry Award (multiple times); the British Fantasy Award; and the World Fantasy Award. His 1998 book The Tooth Fairy, was a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of that year. It is easy to see, from reading The Silent Land, just what all the fuss is about. His work is thought provoking and hypnotic, as much a treatise on what is important in life as it is a compelling page turner. It’s not the sort of book that fits in the Whodunit column, which is basically a mystery venue, but it definitely merits a place on the short list of all fantasy and horror novel aficionados. Thanks Abby!

Funny Commercials From Around the Planet

February 5, 2011

Like most folks, when a commercial intrudes on my evening’s TV watching, I take the opportunity to make a quick dash to the kitchen or the bathroom to add or subtract ballast, or at the very least, I take careful aim with the mute button on the remote. It is a point of personal pride to avoid listening to even one word of the this unwanted interruption of my entertainment. It doesn’t have to be this way, to be sure. Every year at Super Bowl time, people stay glued to the television especially for the commercials, as they are among the major highlights of the show. Volkswagen, one of this year’s sponsors, leaked their Super Bowl entry early this year, a charmingly hilarious close encounter between a young Darth Vader and the new Passat, and it has amassed some 6 million hits thus far on YouTube.

This level of quality in advertising is nothing new for the rest of the world, both in print and on the tube; if it is not quite the norm, it is certainly not the exception. I actually find myself looking forward to commercials in Australia, France, the UK, Italy and Japan (to name but a few); here are a few favorites from over the years.

A series of whimsically nostalgic VW ads ran in Mexico the final year of VW Beetle (known in the US as the Bug) production. One showed an empty parking space, fairly small; several large cars tried to fit in, but couldn’t. Then a sign appears on the space saying (in Spanish, naturally): “It is incredible that a car so small can leave such a large void.” My favorite of the series showed the rear end of an early Beetle in the left side of the ad matched up to the front end of the final model in the right side of the ad, with the concise and elegant caption underneath: “Once upon a time…The End.”

The perils of being a one car family: The Turtles’ tune “Happy Together” overlays a weird and wonderful TV ad for the the Toyota RAV4, as a suburban couple duke it out for the day’s first opportunity to play with their new toy:

An Asian company called Sealect Tuna is responsible for some of the funniest commercials I have ever had the privilege of watching. Here are a couple of choice examples from the Mysterious East:

France’s CulturePub showcases a strange (no, make that capital-B Bizarre) series of Japanese ads for among other things, blood pressure medicine, felt pens, and a chiropractic office. Check this out, but be ready to be a bit surprised at what is allowed on TV in an otherwise buttoned-up society:

These are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. A look through YouTube, using the search term “Funny Japanese Commercials”, or “Funny International Commercials” can easily keep you entertained for hours. Here’s one final one, the Top Ten Commercials of 2009; the one of the kids with elastic eyebrows is priceless; I can pretty much guarantee you’ll have no idea what product is being advertised until the last moment or two of the commercial:

A Somewhat Surprising Look at the Best-Selling Recording Artists of All Time

February 3, 2011

I read a news feed a couple of days ago about Billy Joel, whose alleged addiction difficulties apparently prompted long-time concert mate Elton John to issue a statement of concern and support. This got me to thinking about which of the two had had the more successful career over the years, both having started around the same time. So, I trundled off to Wikipedia, where I found an article entitled “List of best-selling music artists”, which included claimed sales figures for the 140 or so all-time sales leaders, purportedly every artist with sales totalling 50 million units or more. It was an eye opener in many regards.

First off, Elton John has sold 2.5 records (tapes, CDs, etc) for every one flogged by Billy Joel. That doesn’t necessarily translate to more money, though, as John shares his songwriting credits most of the time, whereas Billy Joel has been the solo author of virtually every song in his extensive repertoire.

It should come as no surprise that the Beatles are the No. 1 best-selling (1 billion and counting!) English group, but who would you think would occupy the No. 2 position? I would have guessed the Rolling Stones (cue the error buzzer); in fact, both the Stones and Pink Floyd come in at 200,000,000 apiece, but that was nowhere near the sales amassed by Led Zeppelin and Queen (both hovering at the 300,000,000 mark) and the aforementioned Elton John, who tips the scales at 250,000,000. Next up is Genesis (150,000,000), then David Bowie (140,000,000), Dire Straits and the BeeGees (120,000,000 apiece), and Status Quo (118,000,000). How on earth, one might ask, did Status Quo, with only one Top 40 hit in the US (1968’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men), outsell such perennial favorites as Paul McCartney (100,000,000), Rod Stewart (100,000,000), Phil Collins (100,000,000), the Who (100,000,000), Fleetwood Mac (100,000,000), and the Police (50,000,000)? The answer would seem to lie in their UK sales, with over sixty chart hits in that market, a number unmatched by any rock group in history.

Quite a number of these once best-selling artists have largely slipped from the public consciousness, some of them in a remarkably short period of time: Ace of Base (50,000,000); A-ha (51,000,000); Jean-Michel Jarre (70,000,000); Kylie Minogue (68,000,000); M.C. Hammer (50,000,000); Ray Conniff (50,000,000); the Pet Shop Boys (50,000,000); UB40 (70,000,000); Roxette (60,000,000); and the Scorpions (100,000,000). Where are they now?

Perhaps the most surprising part of the entire article, though, was the success of a number of artists I can virtually guarantee you’ve never heard of, artists whose popularity was (or is) for the most part limited to one country, due to their singing in that country’s language: Johnny Hallyday (France; 100,000,000); B’z (Japan; 75,000,000); Luis Miguel (Mexico; 75,000,000); Ayumi Hamasaki (Japan; 50,000,000); Dreams Come True (Japan; 55,000,000); Glay (Japan; 56,000,000); Hibari Misora (Japan; 68,000,000); Mr. Children (Japan; 50,000,000); Orhan Gencebay (Turkey; 60,000,000); Hikaru Utada (Japan; 50,000,000); Vicente Fernandez (Mexico; 50,000,000). Every one of these folks has sales equal to or greater than Anglophone stars Willie Nelson, REM, Johnny Cash, Alan Jackson, Nirvana, Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Coldplay, Tony Bennett, Sade, and the Police. Chart toppers Johnny Hallyday, Luis Miguel, and the B’z have each outsold, among others, Bob Dylan (70,000,000), Enya (70,000,000), Green Day (65,000,000), Pearl Jam (60,000,000), Shania Twain (65,000,000), and the Black Eyed Peas (56,000,000). Go figure.

A brief addendum: Kenny G, the New Kids on the Block, and Meatloaf have each shifted the same number of units as Bob Dylan (70,000,000); Michael Bolton (53,000,000) has slipped by Nat King Cole (50,000,000); and the Village People are tied with Green Day (65,000,000). Does anyone else find that slightly disturbing to the World Order?