Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Problem with Tipping

Let's get something straight: I'm not a cheapskate. I don't mind paying for stuff and paying for it appropriately. But having been in the US for several days now, I have developed a real distaste for the whole culture of tipping.

Why, you may ask? Because it doesn't produce better service. The quality of service isn't any better or any worse in the US than it is in countries where tipping isn't the norm. I've eaten in restaurants from Seattle to Seoul, and there is no correlation between the extent to which tipping is used as a supplement to the wages of waiting staff and the quality of service from those staff. Why doesn't it produce better service? Because it is expected: a gratuity that must be given.

What's worse, not only doesn't it work, but it undermines the whole point of being helpful and friendly. In a US restaurant, I'm not sure whether the waitress smiles because she is genuinely happy to provide her service, whether she's after a bigger tip or whether she's making a pass at me (okay, she's probably not making a pass at me, but you know what I mean). Being nice is cheapened, because a doubt about the motive is created. And that doubt lingers even after you've stepped from the restaurant. Tipping prostitutes something that should be given of freely. We should be helpful and courteous because it makes us feel good, and it makes others feel good. We should take pride in what we do regardless of how lofty our employment is, and respect the genuine effort of others without cheapening it by making it all contingent on money being exchanged.

I'm not a tree-hugging hippy advocating free love, but we're all human beings, and we deserve to treat ourselves and those around us with respect and dignity. If someone should be getting paid twenty dollars an hour, then pay them that. Don't cheapen the whole experience by forcing them to smile their way to a decent income. It doesn't improve the quality of service, it doesn't make anyone feel good. It doesn't work.

Monday, March 09, 2009

(Like) I'm in California

Wow. Nine months since my last post. I guess life gets in the road. Or maybe I was just waiting for something to write about, and now I've found it. I'm in California on business, and California is the place of impressions (both banal and profound), so I'm going to write about them.

That's right. California. The place where the word 'like' is so frustratingly common that it probably needs to be made an article in the English language, where being blonde is de rigeur and where the sun really does seem to shine more than it does in Queensland. I landed in LA, like, and immediately proceeded through the bus-terminal-like (that was a real 'like', as in a proper use of the word to indicate a simile) airport and to a waiting hire car. And then it was straight out of LA--via the traffic on highway 10340772-I (whatever that means)--and on to Santa Barbara. Along the way I had a strange sense of disconnection. The signs I passed by made me feel very much embedded in a Hollywood cop show, sitcom or song; Sunset Strip, Venice Beach, Santa Monica Boulevard, Beverly Hills, Malibu, Orange County flowed past me until I wasn't sure whether the experience was real or whether I'd been transported by Wonkavision into some TV programmer's idea of Heaven.

But then I reached Santa Barbara, and all was made good. What a beautiful town, even if it was populated by said blondes with brightly coloured shopping bags bearing all the right labels. The Spanish architectural influence shines through in a way that isn't tacky at all, not like when you see it on the Gold Coast. And the food that I did get to try--vegetarian mexican with fried black beans, tofu and (admittedly tasteless) cheese--was actually enjoyable, if not necessarily as richly flavoured as I might expect in Melbourne. I spent a day realising that underneath the cliche that first confronts you when you arrive in America were warm people who were proud of who they were and just wanted to help. It was easy to spend a day in Santa Barbara. The Santa Barbara Museum of Art was exceptional, with a brilliant collection of Asian artifacts (pictured will be posted up as soon as I can), the courthouse was beautiful inside and out and free, with a view from the tower that would cost money most places, and the town itself was about as picturesque as one could imagine, recalling the adobe walls and laced ironwork of an era long past. An archeological site (that's right, in the most hip of hip places), El Presidio de Santa Barbara, matched any historical site in Europe as far as transporting one back in time goes. Yes, not as grand as the abbey ruins in Canterbury or as culturally alien as tombs from pre-historic Japan, but transporting nonetheless, and somehow more immediate. You could feel Lt. Jose Francisco de Ortega pacing the Presidio after even 225 years, wondering how to protect the Spanish territories from the English and the French.

But such a day had to end, and that night took me to Lompoc, a town atmospheric for a very different reason. At Lompoc, and in the surrounding Santa Ynez valley towns, I saw less class and more kitsch. I also finally articulated my problem with tipping. And, somewhat unexpectedly, I once more touched on the wonders of America. But that's for the next episode, where I 'll tell you how I experienced Obama, Denmark, Hiroshige, olives and coffee all without leaving the States.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Menuki (what?)

A fellow student and I recently discussed the placement of menuki as part of a sword's koshirae. The question at hand was whether menuki were actually placed to align with the palm of the hands on the tsuka. None of the iaito in our dojo had the menuki placed thus, but that constituted only anecdotal evidence. Ross' book 'In Search of Mishima's Sword' claims that real swordsman placed the menuki to support grip, but he doesn't cite a source, making it hard to establish the veracity of his claim. So I went looking elsewhere, and came across this reference, which states that:

"From a pure functionalist point of view, menuki was basically born out of rather pragmatic demand to serve primarily as “mekugi osae” or the cover (or lid) over mekugi pin. Examinations of old Kara-tachi and Kazari-ken koshirae made in Nara through early Heian periods, such as the ones in Shosoin Museum and Tokyo National Museum, tend to confirm this functional origin of menuki among the earliest styles koshirae. (See Ogasawara, 1994 for photos.)

However, soon its secondary function to serve as a pair of ornaments began to be emphasized equally (Suzuki, 1995). Additionally, many other “latent functions (i.e., not originally intended or obvious but still important eu-functions)” were discovered (e.g., tactile indicators to tell the correct orientation of the edge or correct “tenouchi,” palm swells, status/rank symbols, religious charm, etc.). Then over the course of the evolution of Nihon-to koshirae, those secondary and latent functions of menuki seem to have taken over its “manifest function (i.e., originally intended and well recognized purpose)" completely."

This offers an explanation of sorts.  

Thursday, April 10, 2008

My Daemon 'Hermonystra'

I've just finished reading Northern Lights, filmed as The Golden Compass. Visiting the movie site, principally to see if they were making the sequels, I realised I could answer some questions and get my own daemon, so I did. You'll have to read the book to know what that means, but here she is nonetheless...cute, huh? And the description of me is spot on. Right? Right!?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Places of note

I've come across a great blog for those of you interested in reading about ancient Japan written by 'Nagaeyari, an amateur historian with an interest in early Japanese history'. Ancient Japan is full of snippets of information, as well as a serial introduction to Japanes history from the (almost) mythological past through to more recent events. The Samurai Wiki is another great resource. This wiki has a number of interesting links, including to the Samurai Archives History Journal, a soon-to-be-published journal on that topic we all know and love. Guidelines for authors are included for all those professional and amateur history buffs out there. Frog in a Well/Japan is another informative blog, and it includes plenty of links to sites that delve into all things oriental. Plenty of good reading. Subscribe using RSS and you'll always have something fascinating in your e-mail tray. I've included links to these sites in the Links section, for convenience.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Problem With Synthesis

OK, here is my rant against journalistic fairness. The other day, I was listening to a journalist report both sides of the Climate Change debate. On the one hand, the journalist referred to statements from, amongst others, the IPCC panel, Ross Garnaut and Graham Pearman. On the other hand, the journalist listened to a range of other commentators, including representatives of the automative transport industry, leading businessmen and so on. The idea was to present a balanced view of the climate change debate; you know, 'is it due to human activity or not', 'will it have a significant impact on us', 'what can we realistically do about it?' I suppose journalistic integrity calls for both sides of an argument to be heard, but I think we're taking synthesis a little too far. Sometimes, one side really is just wrong. The irritating thing about this particular coverage was that one side (the side disputing the evidence for climate change) was appealing to ideology to justify its arguments. You know, something like, 'but when I was young we had terribly hot summers' or 'what about all the rainfall in Queensland at the moment'. When science was quoted, it was misquoted. 'The weather is cyclical and has been for forever', meaning of course that this time is no different. 

Well, look at the hard science, the facts, the things we observe and measure. Put aside the ideology. This is different. No cycle has ever been this dramatic before. No evidence exists, indeed, of any change in temperature or greenhouse gas levels that mimics what we're seeing today. Putting even that consideration aside, we know that the uptake rate of greenhouse gases by the deep ocean (which is the primary method of removal of these gases) is considerably slower than our rate of production. It isn't an issue for debate. It's just reality. So all those journalists who give the ideologues a voice to maintain journalistic integrity may as well be giving a voice on climate change to two year olds (apologies to all well informed two year olds who might be offended by this). Synthesis, this notion that both sides might have a point, is valid when we're talking about entirely subjective matter -- you know the sort of thing I mean: which movie is better; whether classical is worth listening to more than pop; whether crocodile really does taste like chicken -- but not when we're talking about observable phenomena. Anyone who argues that the sky isn't blue, despite the evidence to the contrary, isn't presenting a valid alternative view. They're just delusional.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Ichigo, Ichie (一期一会)

The term ichigo, ichie is inscribed on the side of my bokuto, just below the tsuba. I see it frequently, about half the time that I draw my bokuto from its saya, but I don't always notice it. Recently listening to an interview with Dave Lowry, the author of (amongst other things) 'Autumn Lightning: the Education of an American Samurai', I was reminded of the ichigo ichie concept and why I'd had it put in such an overt place. 

Ichigo, ichie is literally 'one time, one meeting', but it might also be interpreted as 'one moment, one life' or 'one chance in  lifetime'. [1] In the interview, Lowry was using the concept specifically to emphasise the distinction between western fencing and Japanese fencing: in particular, that western fencing tends towards a battle of attrition, with fencers succumbing to prolonged blood loss from many deep cuts and lacerations, while Japanese fencing tends towards short and brutal. 

But Ichigo ichie is clearly of broader relevance to martial artists. For example, it shapes our attitude to the practice of koryu. When we practice kata, we must respond to the moment that is and not to the moment that was or that might be -- in other words, we need to avoid the tendency to intellectualise during the event, to pause and analyse, or to deconstruct as if deconstruction makes sense within a kata that is sensible only as a whole. Furthermore, each kata in Tatsumi ryu [2] ends with a moment of zanshin, a state of relaxed alertness. In zanshin, we are open to the moment and what it holds, not revelling in our victory or thinking of the battle's end. Again, this is a perfect embodiment of the idea of ichigo ichie.  

Ichigo ichie extends to guiding our everyday attitude. We experience each moment only once, and so we should live within it, notice it, respond to it as if it is the only moment we will know. The message is simple and yet, in our hectic lives, we seem to regret and hope, when we might just be. I'm as prone to this as the rest, and so I had the characters engraved on my bokuto. Now all I have to do is notice them when I see them. 

[1] See Dave Lowry's article here for further discussion. 
[2] Keeley, L 1999. 'The Tojutsu of Tatsumi Ryu, Murphy's Law, and the K.I.S.S. Principle', Sword and Spirit: Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan v2, Berkeley Heights, NJ:Koryu Books