A tribute to Steve Jobs

Back in the late nineties, I was lucky enough to get hold of that most prized of possessions, a Hotmail address with my christian name first, my surname second, and no dots, dashes, numbers or anything else extraneous in between. Purely for illustrative purposes, let’s pretend that my real name is Billy Nugget, and that the address in question was billynugget@hotmail.com

Even then, there were already scores of other Billy Nuggets using Hotmail, but I just happened to sign up at the precise moment the original Billy Nugget either decided not to use Hotmail any more and cancelled his account, or died in a freak dog grooming accident. As I’m sure you can understand, I was very pleased about this fortuitous turn of events (fortuitous for me, that is, not necessarily for Mr Nugget). Partly for convenience sake, and partly because I couldn’t bear the thought of giving up something so easy to remember, I kept hold of this holy grail of email addresses, and in the intervening years have become well acquainted with the idiosyncracies of Hotmail’s service, of which there are many.

For example, allow me to introduce those of you who are not familiar with Hotmail to its ‘Contacts’ feature:

Like other free email accounts (and indeed mobile phones. And indeed, er, address books), Hotmail allows you to store your friends’ / colleagues’ / acquaintances’ / stalkers’ contact details alphabetically. Should you happen to email someone you have not emailed before, or should someone non-suspicious happen to email you, Hotmail will even ask if you would like to add that person’s name and details to your contact list. So far so good, and after more than a decade with Hotmail, I now have getting on for two hundred contacts, some of whom I email regularly, some occasionally, and some I will probably never have reason to email again for the rest of my natural life.

Anyway, let’s assume I want to send an email to one of those occasionals; one of the people whose email address – and this is a key point – I don’t happen to know off the top of my head. As usual, I click on the ‘New’ option on my Hotmail page and a blank email appears. In the ‘To:’ box, I begin to type my friend’s name – once again, and purely for illustrative purposes, let’s call him Harry Pratt. Almost instantaneously, a drop-down menu appears listing everyone on my contacts list whose email address begins with an H: harold.bobbins@gmail.com, horatio-nelson@britishnavy.net, humbert_humbert@lolita.xxx, and so on and so forth. The trouble is, now that I come to think of it, Harry is a bit of a joker, so rather than harry.pratt@gmail.com or harry-pratt1971@yahoo.co.jp or even pratt_harry@dyno-rod.co.uk, his email address begins with crazyharry or bonkersharry or madcappratt or something similarly ‘hilarious’.

Now you would think, wouldn’t you, that the whole point of a contact list – particularly the contact list for an email account – would be to allow the user to quickly access his or her friends’ email addresses merely via the use of their christian name or surname. As anyone with any sense will tell you, it’s far easier to remember a couple of key words like, say, ‘Harry’ or ‘Pratt’ than it is to remember something far longer and more complicated, like xiekdgijdkaoed.23856308386.harold_h-pratt.jr_the-3rd@itsonthetipofmytongue.org, for example. The mind-bogglingly infuriating thing about the Hotmail contact list, however, is that even though Harry’s email address is stored along with his name therein, it is not possible to access that name at the precise moment you need to do so. In other words, the drop-down menu that automatically appears when you begin to type in the ‘To:’ box is not a list of your friends’ names that start with that letter, but merely a list of the email addresses on your contact list that start with that letter, which two things, as we’ve already discussed, have no intrinsic connection.

What I actually have to do in order to get Harry’s email address into the ‘To:’ box of the aforementioned email is to:

1) Save a draft of the email
2) Go to my contact list
3) Go to the H section of my contact list
4) Find the name ‘Harry Pratt’ halfway down the page
5) Click on said name
6) When Harry’s contact details appear, manually copy his email address [my italics]
7) Go back to my inbox
8) Go to my drafts folder
9) Click on the drafted email
10) Paste Harry’s email address into the ‘To:’ box

Now if you’ll just excuse me, I need to pause for a moment and use some punctuation:


Call me a remorseless pedant if you like, but surely, after well over a decade of running what is still one of the most utilised email services in the world, the good people at MSN might have figured out that this small but significant glitch in their system could do with being fixed. More to the point, they have probably received complaints numbering in the tens of millions from disgruntled and remorseless pedants like myself: enough complaints, in fact, to make them realise that perhaps the time may have come to sort things out.

One of the obituaries for the recently deceased Steve Jobs claimed that he had a reputation for prioritising ‘form over function’, but whoever wrote this had clearly never used a single Apple product. Sure, I have had my fair share of problems with the various Macs I have owned – malfunctioning CD drives, crashed hard drives, dodgy keyboards etc. – but that never stopped them from a) looking good and b) being easy to use. PCs, on the other hand, a) look ugly and b) are not easy to use, and for this, Mr Jobs deserves at least a modicum of retrospective credit.

So what does this all have to do with Japan, I hear you ask? Not much really, except to say that had Bill Gates been born Japanese, PC and Windows users might all be a lot more satisfied with their Microsoft product user experience, and I might more readily be able to access the email addresses of my contacts, thus allowing me to waste even more of my time on Facebook, Twitter and Badass of the Week.

Earthquake / 地震


I awoke on the morning of Friday 11th to the sound of my mobile phone, which is often silent for days at a time, but which on this occasion was – so to speak – practically ringing off the hook. Assuming it was junk texts or people asking if I could do a day’s work (by that point I had already completed my final day as a sound recordist, so was in no hurry to pick up), I had a shower and didn’t check for messages until my morning coffee was on the go. As soon as I read the first text, I knew exactly what had happened, and to switch on the television and see those apocalyptic scenes of tsunami sweeping inland towards Sendai came as no surprise – as a shock, yes, but not as a surprise.

A lot like getting married, moving to Japan was something I had decided to do with some trepidation, but once I got used to the idea, something that began to appeal more and more, so that by the 11th – about a week and a half before we were due to leave – I was positively busting to get on the plane and begin my new life as an expat. The earthquake didn’t change my mind at all, it just gave the idea of moving a very stern slap in the face and told it to sit down and be quiet until further notice. The key question was, were we still going to go? And apart from one or two mornings when Mrs M and I woke up to yet more apocalyptic news reports, neither of us seriously considered changing our minds.

There were many reasons for this; we just had to make sure we were prioritising them correctly. At one end of the scale, part of me was worried that because our preparations were almost complete, to turn back now would make us look rather silly: not only would we see people again to whom we had already said our goodbyes, but we would also have to tell our new tenants to look for another flat. At the other end of the scale, part of me was worried that, frankly, we would turn up in Japan, be exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation, and suffer a slow and painful death.

The more I read in the papers and on the internet, and heard on the news, the more it became clear that death – even mild discomfort – was highly unlikely. Nevertheless, the combined forces of the media to induce panic and irrationality are difficult to resist, and I could see how ridiculous we had begun to look to some of our friends, when everyone else with white skin was getting the hell out of Japan, and when we appeared to be embarking on the most ill-timed family visit in human history. Right up until the point we had arrived in the country and stayed the night at a hotel in Osaka (our flight had been redirected by Lufthansa, who were not keen to subject their air crews to any undue risks by landing in Tokyo), I was standing at a computer in the hotel lobby for a good half an hour after breakfast, going through the results of Google searches for ‘radiation levels Japan’ and ‘放射線量’ with the proverbial fine tooth comb.

Once we had arrived in Ibaraki, however, it became clear that life in this part of the country was almost back to normal, despite the motorway being punctuated with speed bumps from where it had only just been repaired (on one particular stretch of the Joban Expressway in Ibaraki, the earthquake had opened up a six-foot deep chasm in the slow lane), and the roofs of perhaps one in every five houses being concealed beneath blue tarpaulins and gaffer tape where their tiles had been shaken loose. Partly because of road closures, there was even a traffic jam heading north into Hitachi-ohta: very few of the town’s 15,000 or so residents appeared to have run away, and nor did they seem concerned that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant lay just 100 kilometres further north. Our reunion with otoh-san, okah-san and onii-san wasn’t unduly emotional, the electricity, gas and water were back on, and we soon sat down to a hearty dinner, whose ingredients included spinach hand picked that week from the family allotment (several types of leafy vegetable – and spinach in particular – originating in Ibaraki, Fukushima and other nearby prefectures have been banned from sale due to abnormal (I’m going to refrain from saying ‘high’) levels of radiation found in samples earlier in the week).

Since then, I have found many myth-busting articles about why we should learn to stop worrying and love radiation (here, here and here, for example), although I suspect that our friends and relatives in the UK are still dubious. I was brought up to always be suspicious of what the government and the media told me, and with some justification: justification that includes such incidents as Chernobyl, and a lesser known nuclear accident that occurred just down the road from where I now sit, in a place called Tokai-mura. In Chernobyl, the authorities sat back and told people not to panic, that everthing was fine, and that it was OK to carry on drinking the milk and the water, and living their normal, day-to-day lives. In Tokai-mura, the power company sat back and told its employees not to panic, that everything was fine, and that it was OK to carry on with their normal working day. In both cases, and down the years in other places like Sellafield, the public have learned that it is best not to trust what they are told, so that now, even when the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company have done their best to be completely open about what is happening at Fukushima, very few people truly believe them. And because the science of what is going on is so difficult to grasp (particularly when explained by a man in a white coat and thick glasses with no concept of how to put something across in layman’s terms), the automatic, fall-back response is to assume the worst and act accordingly.

I don’t want to go into too much detail, but one blindingly obvious thing that both Japanese and foreign news channels could do to make us all breathe more easily (in both the literal and metaphorical senses of the phrase), would be to stop confusing us with units of measurement. Even after many hours of research, I am still far from certain about the exact ratios involved, but basically, a severt is a fairly hefty chunk of radiation, a millisevert is a fairly small chunk of radiation, a microsevert is an incredibly small chunk of radiation, and a becquerel is an infinitesimally small chunk of radiation. So why oh why oh why do journalists insist on using becquerels to describe the radiation levels found in Tokyo tap water? Or, if they really do have to use becquerels to describe this, why don’t they use becquerels to describe everything else as well (such as the radiation levels found a couple of hundred metres from the exposed fuel rods of Fukushima Daiichi)? If only we, the humble viewers, were granted this one small concession to comprehensibility, we would suddenly find ourselves armed with information we could easily absorb and understand, and more to the point, we would suddenly realise that drinking the tap water in Tokyo is approximately as dangerous as diving into a swimming pool full of cotton wool and marshmallows, whilst wearing safety goggles, ear protectors, steel toe-capped boots, a hard hat, a hi-vis vest, a padded gorilla suit, and simultaneously wrapped in sixteen high-tog-rated goose feather double-duvets.

But anyway, while the situation in Miyagi, Fukushima and Iwaté is far from happy – many people have yet to take their first proper bath since the quake, and at the moment of writing, the weather forecast for Tohoku still incudes snow – here in Ibaraki, everyone is doing their best to lead a normal life again. I had wondered before we came here if I might be called upon to help ‘rebuild the country’, or at least hand out rice balls to evacuees, but instead, I have had my job interview, started looking for an apartment, browsed the aisles of the nearby second-hand furniture shop, and even had a bit of a play with some snazzy looking new mobile phones. The TV is awash with advertisements (or rather, public service announcements) exhorting the Japanese to pull together, be strong, help each other, do their best and so on, and the best way of doing this – as we Brits can relate to from our own and equally renowned Blitz-based collective consciousness – is to get on with things; to Keep Calm and Carry On.

Heroes and miracles

One of the most famous videos of last year’s tsunami was shot in Rikuzentakata City, Miyagi Prefecture, and makes for pretty terrifying viewing. If you fast-forward to four minutes in, however, you will notice a small group of people trying to outrun the approaching wave of debris and muddy seawater.
Setting aside what was going on in the background for a moment or two, you may be surprised…no, forget that: you will be astonished to learn that all of those people survived – a few happy endings among many, many sad ones, and a story that was related in one of the TV programmes broadcast this month to mark the first anniversary of the disaster.

Four minutes and thirty-five seconds into the video, the final two members of the group can be seen running across a field towards the camera, and disappear out of frame just as the tsunami is snapping at their heels. One of them made it to safety despite having broken a bone in her foot as she was climbing over her garden wall, and by an incredible stroke of luck, the other – who only gets around with the aid of a walking stick – was scooped up by a floating rooftop and deposited on the hillside without injury.

Although it’s hard to make out, on the left-hand side of the screen from around the five-minute mark, some residents from a nearby old people’s home are in the process of being rescued – you can get a slightly clearer view two and a half minutes into this next video, shot from almost the same location.
Daichi Sugawara, who was a member of staff at the home, can be seen running back down the hill towards a wheelchair-bound, 94-year-old lady called Umeko (the documentary didn’t mention her surname).

When he was interviewed for the documentary, Daichi – who was just ninteteen years old at the time, and with his chubby features, acne and pudding-bowl haircut is probably the least heroic looking young man I have ever seen – recalled the events as follows:

‘I thought that either I was going to abandon Umeko and run away, or we were going to die together. Of course, when I looked into Umeko’s eyes, I thought, “If I let go of her hand now, I may regret it for the rest of my life”. I thought of her as a member of my own family.’

Daichi pushed Umeko to safety, and out of sight of the video camera, even the man who is apparently washed away as this is happening somehow managed to scramble his way back onto dry land.

Umeko was interviewed for the documentary along with Daichi, and said, ‘Daichi is like a grandson. He is so kind, and he really saved me when I was sitting in that wheelchair.’

Just as I was wiping a tear from my eye and wondering whether Daichi has been given some kind of award for this incredible act of bravery, Mrs M turned to me and said, ‘If that was me I would have left her behind. She’s ninety-four – she’s lived enough already, hasn’t she?’

Oh well, so much for sentimentality.