Thursday, December 29, 2016

United Nations Parable

A little light hearted parable welcoming the new year and our new Secretary General

UN Secretary General I: We need to sprint. We need to run 100 meters really fast. This would be a great outcome for mankind. Let us be practical, hire the best, and deliver this outcome!

Ban Ki Moon
Following a two year long procedure the UN hires Usain Bolt, the fastest man alive five years ago. He is retired now of course and a bit over the hill, but still lightning fast. Not bad.

Admin: Usain, welcome to the UN team. We see you prefer using Nike brand running spikes. Unfortunately no due diligence has been done on Nike, and wearing such shoes in an official capacity violates single source procurement requirements. In order to ensure no audit problems down the line, you will have to run in these noname brand army boots made by UN volunteers in Ouagadougou.

Usain: This will slow me down quite a bit, but ok, I am willing to change and learn new things for the good of our organisation and the world.

Usain Bolt
Admin: Usain, you are spending too much time practising actual running. It is mandatory that all staff spend time learning. We have developed some video based learning tools, which are run on a sketchy internet platform dating from 1980 and filled with logical inconsistencies and technical glitches, that will serve to teach you the basics of bipedal motion. We ask that you please take these and print out your certificate to verify to administration that you have successfully completed 'basic walking' 'speeding up' and 'running for beginners' training modules. Unfortunately we cannot allow you to continue actual running until these courses have been duly completed.

Five years later,over the hill, out of shape, wearing noname brand army boots and dragging a cinder block chained to his left ankle (which is another administrative story). Usain manages to run the 100 meters in 46.07 seconds. Although slightly off his 9.6 second world record pace, this feat is noted in the UN results based knowledge management information portal as successful completion of a performance indicator in the sesqui-annual strategic plan and reported to member states, who thank the secretariat for the effort and ask for strengthened and enhanced work on moving quickly.

UN Secretary General II: Let us be practical, we need to face the fact that the running thing didn't really deliver an outcome. We need to think creatively and work with the private sector. Let us swim 100 meters really fast. We can deliver!

Antonio Guterres
Admin: Well this Bolt fellow can't swim, and given his deplorable track record (pun intended) with our learning tools he's probably not capable of change. He only has a few years left before mandatory retirement anyway, let's transfer him to the field office for thumb twiddling. But be sure to keep the really nice ankle and cinder block arrangement we developed to assist him. Of course, while Usain is still on the books, there is no envelope for new staff hires, but maybe Michael Phelps would be available for consulting work. This ankle contraption will probably fit him nicely.

Michael Phelps

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Wrapped and Ready

Can a blog of a cliche expat diatribe be interesting?

I remember as a kid being astonished and impressed with edible rice paper candy wrappers. What ingenuity! Edible wrapping paper.  Even if it tastes like nothing, it is still edible wrapping paper. How incredibly cool.

Japan is the land of wrapping.

Here is a photo of an individually plastic wrapped banana for sale at our local 7-11.  Since the peel provides a perfectly good natural wrapping, what on earth is the bag for?   I suppose it provides a surface for the decorative and informative label, but does one really need information about bananas? In any case, the phenomenon is not specific to bananas. The same store also individually plastic wraps its limes.

Another possible explanation is related to the fact that plastic waste in Japan is usually incinerated to generate electricity. Such waste disposal systems benefit from a well separated dry plastic waste stream. Absolutely everyone who buys these individually wrapped bananas, throws away the peel and the bag into carefully separated bins. I suspect the Osaka city government has guaranteed the incinerator operators a daily minimum volume in order for them to justify the upfront investment (over 100 million dollars) of constructing an incineration based 'waste to energy' plant. The point here is that perhaps there is a financial incentive to overuse plastic.

I think the record, at least for common grocery items I have purchased, was a small wheel of Japanese made camembert cheese. The cashier had kindly placed it in a little dainty plastic bag to keep it protected from nearby groceries in my larger grocery bag. I duly opened and placed this bag in the burnable plastic garbage bin, and then turned to the box, which I opened and placed in the cardboard bin. Inside the box (this is starting to sound like a Russian Doll toy I know), I found a little plastic tub with a plastic lid. Finally, out popped the cheese, or so I thought as I naively attempted to slice a piece only to discover, as my knife failed to penetrate, that it was shrinkwrapped in plastic. Removing this last layer of plastic I did finally get to the cheese, which ironically is of course covered in a perfectly good natural rind that served for centuries to protect such cheeses from the elements before the invention of plastic.  I lost count somewhere in the middle of this paragraph, but I think I just recounted six impermeable layers of wrapping around my brie.

There is one last grocery item that a blog about wrapping simply cannot omit. Onigiri. This is some kind of delicious filling such as tuna and mayo or salmon roe (pictured) wrapped in wet sticky rice, which is then wrapped in dry seaweed. Probably back in the edo period they made this for you in a little rustic stall, forming the rice around the delicious inner goop, then wrapping it in seaweed so you could carry it away without getting sticky rice all over your hands. Now though, these need to be stored on shelves in convenience stores, and the rice cannot be allowed to contact the seaweed or the later would lose its crunch, thus requiring the ultimate high tech plastic wrap. So there is an inner plastic sheath separating the two, and one opens with the '1-2-3' labelled pulltabs in order to be able to slide the plastic out from between the rice and seaweed, as well as remove the outer plastic wrap, all at once.

All these technical issues aside, there does appear to be a deeper cultural issue whereby wrapping things leads to an enhancement of their perceived value. But these culturally appropriate wrappings are usually reusable. Like the Furoshiki (風呂敷) I received a little (boxed) memento in when I met with the governor of Tokyo, or the 100 dollar wood bento boxes that dutiful housewives pack their children's school lunches in.

Well the final answer to this Japanese wrapping mystery will have to wait. I have run out of time. I can hear my wife calling me to the other room to help her with the onerous, yet somehow deeply sentimental and rewarding, task of wrapping Christmas presents for the kids to open tomorrow.