June 28, 2008

Conference Honeymoon

After L. and I got married, we took a trip to Morocco for our honeymonn. Actually, I had made a committment a long time before to attend the 2008 LREC Conference in Marrakech, Morocco, so we went together as a kind of honeymoon. It was the best honeymoon conference ever.

Read more for notes from the trip, and a few pictures.    read more (8661 words)

June 21, 2008

Second Apartment Viewing

Today I went with L. for the second apartment viewing. On the first viewing we filled out a form with 10 issues we found in the apartment. The majority of them were small bumps in the wall, or a few were areas where there were imperfections in how the finishing on the doors, or how the doors close. They addressed all of the issues, and we pointed out a few more new ones that we found, but generally things are looking good at the apartment.

We were presented with one major change though: in the living room where the pipe from the air conditioner blower unit to the compressor was supposed to be, it turns out that they could not put the compressor where the initial plans indicated they would be. Instead, the compressor had to be moved to the other side of the room, so the exit pipes were changed to the other side. This is a problem because we plan to have custom built shelving put where there is now an exit pipe, and two access panels for the air conditioning unit. In the end the company that does the custom furniture was able to work around the constraints, but it is kind of annoying.

After the second walk-through we went down and spent a while with the custom furniture people working on the wall cabinetry. I'm very happy with it, and excited to see what it will look like when it is done. I can't believe how much it costs, but I'm sure it will be worth it. (For that matter, I can't believe how much the drapes cost either!)

We also had a chance to check out the common facilities at the apartment: the exercise room (looks pretty nice), the two guest rooms (Japanese style and Western style, look very nice), and the library (three study carrels which look very cool - net connections and everything.)

When we finally finished up everything, L., her parents, and myself all went out for an excellent sushi dinner.

June 15, 2008

The NHK Man pays a visit

Friday evening I came home from work to a hot apartment: it was raining all day so I had left the windows closed. When I do that my apartment warms up pretty quickly, mostly due to the refrigerator and computer I suppose.

I put some rice on for dinner and opened up the windows but it was still pretty hot. Since I absolutely never have any visitors, I stripped down to my shorts and tried to cool off using the fan.

Sometime around 8pm or so, the doorbell rings. This is very unusual. Nobody ever comes to my place unless I'm expecting a friend or a delivery. Since neither were on the schedule, I assumed it was just some sort of salesperson. I probably should have thrown on a T-shirt and pants, but I figured I could get rid of him fairly quickly, and if he wants to bother me right before dinner he can put up with a shirtless foreigner for the time it takes for me to get rid of him.

When I opened the door, I was surprised that the person there was a NHK representative. I had previously had one visit from the NHK guys. NHK is the Japanese national broadcasting service, like the BBC. They are supported by the government and officially people who have TVs are supposed to pay a licensing fee. I don't have a TV, but I do have a computer monitor that has an internal analog TV tuner, and since I was watching NHK News at the time, I felt like I should pay up. I didn't pay last year when the guy came around, but since then I've been watching a lot of NHK news in the morning and evening (it is good practice) so I really felt like I should pay. So I did. It was about $30 for two months worth of the broadcast fee.

I'm planning to move at the end of next month, so I don't think I'll be paying further licensing fees, but I'm glad I did pay at least once.

Also, some foreigners on the expat blog community have warned of scams where someone pretends to be the NHK guy for collecting licenses so some foreigners are wary of paying. This guy was the real deal though, and I've got some nice official paperwork backing things up.

Still, I wonder what the NHK guy was thinking the whole time, talking to a foreigner in his shorts the whole time. I wonder if I just started some other strange stereotype about Americans for him. :)

June 14, 2008

Saturday morning alarm

I was looking forward to getting a bit of extra sleep on Saturday night, but at about 8:45am this morning, there was a pretty big earthquake north of Tokyo (centered on Iwate, a low level 6 on the Japanese scale) which caused shaking down near Tokyo. It was very minor, not strong enough to move anything off my shelves or bookcases, but enough to convince me to get out of bed.

Everything is fine for me, although it was pretty strong farther up north, so I'm watching TV (NHK, I'll have a post about that shortly) to see if there were any injuries or damage caused near the center of the earthquake.

June 11, 2008

Notes from Marriage Week

As always I am a bit behind posting news to my blog. Sorry about that. If you couldn't tell from my previous entries, I married my girlfriend L. three weeks ago. We didn't have a wedding ceremony, but plan to have one next year in May. My family came to Japan to meet with L.'s family, which was totally great. If you are interested, I've written up the events of the week.    read more (3260 words)

June 9, 2008

Busy busy busy

I'm back in Japan - got back in just about a week ago. I've been really busy catching up on stuff, and very soon I plan to post an entry about my "wedding week". Next up is a post on the trip to Morocco for a conference / combined Honeymoon. In short: Wedding Week was awesome, got to see my family and my amazingly beautiful wife. The honeymoon was also great, with two "surprise" trips to Casablanca and Milan. More on that later.

For now, I just wanted to say that I am busy, tired, and now sore. I went running this morning with my friend Sebastian, a marathon runner. I haven't run for three months, so I'm out of shape. Horribly, horribly, out of shape.

May 25, 2008

One picture - Traditional Japanese Kimono and Hakama

I don't really have much time, because I have to pack still, and then get on a plane to go to Morocco for a conference, but I wanted to make a quick note of things.

Yesterday I married L., and for the past week my family has been in Japan. We went out to an amazing Kaiseki Japanese feast (11 courses!) and for the occasion - the first time that both families met - Alana, Jana, Grandma Bessie, myself, and L. were in traditional Japanese Kimono (or for me, the Hakama.)

The only pictures I have are blurry (dad doesn't know much about cameras!) but here is one with Alana, L., Jana, and I.

May 17, 2008

The Future of News

I do research on automatic opinion identification, and one thing that is really interesting to the community right now is analyzing blog data. Most of the available tagged resources are over newspaper data or movie reviews or other kinds of collectable TEXT - user star rating type things (restaurant reviews, product reviews, etc.)

The community is very interested in moving to blog data, where ostensibly there would be more and varied opinions available to analyze, but there isn't too much data available for that yet. (But see the TREC Blog track work where there is an opinionated blog search task.)

All this interest in blogs and user generated media seems to have had an impact on "traditional" print media. Recently, there was a workshop on the Future of News. It was held at Princeton University, near my old stomping grounds. It would have been nice to go, but thanks to the (news-media destroying!) blogs, I've been able to at least get a brief impression of what was discussed.

Matthew Hurst's great Data Mining blog has two posts with pointers to some summaries from the workshop. Fun stuff.

I'm firmly of the opinion that traditional news media will be around for a long time. Blogs do have some role to play in modern news dissemination, but not a large enough role to displace focused organizations that can fund people to do research and have a vested interest in vetting information. It isn't clear to me that the newswires do as much of this as they should, but the traditional media certainly will play a role in choosing what news to elevate to the national level.

At some point, most blogs are really locally focused, and I don't see how any of the personally-run small sites (like, say, my blog) could ever hope to break interesting news more than once in a lifetime. Also, I like writing about what I ate for dinner. That isn't news. :)

May 15, 2008

Licensed to drive: Making Japanese streets more dangerous

About two months ago I started the process to convert my Texas Driver's License into a Japanese Driver's License. I expected it to take a long time, but actually things went more quickly than I expected.

Preparing the documents took a while. You need to have

  • A valid Driver's License from a reputable country
  • A translation of the Driver's License
  • At least for me, I needed a certified copy of my driving record from the Texas DMV because the driver's license does not have a date of issue field on it. I also needed a translation of that.
  • Your passport
I think that is everything. It took me a while to collect everything, and to get the translation of your driver's license you have to trek out to the Japan Automobile Federation, but at least it only takes about half an hour and $20. I was able to get a copy of my driving record over the internet, and then I translated it myself (which seemed to work fine -- suckers!) and headed out to the Samezu Driver's License Testing Center and spent about two or three hours applying for the paperwork to take the road test.

If you are a citizen of France, Australia, Canada, and a few other countries you don't need to take a test. You just show them your license, and they give you a Japanese license. That is pretty nice. In my case I had to take a written test - absolutely ridiculously easy - one of the questions was "Is it ok to drive after drinking alcohol if you only have a little bit?" The other nine questions, of which you have to get seven correct (I think), were similar. There is also an eye and hearing test. The eye test is pretty simple: no alphabet, just a bunch of circles with a hole in the top, bottom, left, or right. It isn't really too hard to pick that out. You have a 25% chance of being correct, which is much easier than say, 1/26 like you would have in an American Driver's Test.

Anyway, if you pass those pretty low requirements, you then get to apply to take the driving test. I had to wait about a week or two I think. Another problem I had was that since my passport is my second passport, the people there said that there wasn't proof that I was in the US when the license was issued. Unless I brought in my old passport, I would have to put a "New Driver" sticker on my car for the first year or two. I eventually was able to get that, so it wasn't a big deal, but I was really surprised. Did they honestly think that even though I have a driving record that says I've had a Texas Driver's License for twelve years, I somehow wasn't in the US for that time and didn't do any driving?

In Japan people drive on the left-hand side of the road. I'm not used to that. The day of the driving test they explain the 1600 meter course to you, and you sit in the back seat as someone else drives the course. Then you move to the front seat. Since they drive on the left-hand side of the road, the car's steering wheel is on the right-hand side of the car. That also means that the turn signal is on the right-hand side of the steering column.

When I took my turn to drive, on the very first turn, I hit the wipers. Ha ha. I did it on the next turn too. And the next. The driving instructor was clearly getting annoyed, making unhappy noises at my clearly foreigner mistakes. It made me nervous.

Even worse, my left eye is weaker than my right eye. It is lazy. I don't use my left eye very well. Since I'm driving on the left-hand side of the street, I have to track the curb with my left eye, and that wasn't working well at all. On a straight road, I bumped into the curb and the instructor exploded: "That's dangerous! Aren't you even looking! What's wrong with you!" He called off the rest of the test and I didn't even get to try the S-turn and 90 degree angle turn "crank" portions of the test.

That really unnerved me because not only did I have to get used to driving on the other side of the road, I really felt like I needed to practice using my left eye for monitoring distance. I'm really bad at judging distance because of my eyes: I don't have good depth perception. This is really tough for me. I was positive that I would window-wiper and curb-bump my way to ten more failures.

So I checked around and the local Tokyu Driving School will let you ride around their practice area in one of their cars for 15 minutes for free. So I went and did that, and then signed up for a 50 minute practice lesson. The practice lesson is 50 minutes in the car for only 4,600 yen. That is a steal: normal driving school in Japan costs around $3000 or so. During the free trial I hit the window wiper a few times, but not as often as before. The practice session was scheduled for a week later, two days before the driving test.

The practice session really helped a lot. I used the same trick that I use in America to judge where I need to be in the road: determine empirically where the lines on the road need to disappear into the hood in order for your car to be centered in the lane. I only used the window wiper once. I never hit the curb, except for once on the S-turn course. Since I ran through the S-turns and crank turns about 10 times each, I think that was pretty good. I was feeling pretty good about the driving test.

Two days later I had the real driving test. Things went beautifully. No trouble.

The problem is that once you pass, you have to wait around for them to issue the license (and also get some papers stamped and wait in some lines, and get a photo taken, etc.) That all takes about five hours. Luckily, that gave me a chance to eat at their fine dining establishment. For the bargain price of 850 yen I had a curry rice and a coke. (This is, by the way, probably 2-3x the price that it should be.) You've got all sorts of choices at the cafeteria: curry rice or ramen. Or curry rice and ramen. There are five kinds of ramen, but still. Thinking about it though, I guess there are probably lots of places in America that serve only pizza or hamburgers (but five different types of pizza.)

I am proud to announce though, completely in opposition to what I would think is common sense, the Japanese government has licensed me to drive on their roads.

I think this is a problem for a few reasons. First, I am seriously not used to driving on the left-hand side of the road. I think it won't take too long for me to get used to it, but I really should have a Beginning Driver mark on my car. Second, this test is really simple. You only make maybe three right-hand turns. You don't have to go on the hill portion of the course, or cross the rail-road tracks. You don't have any crazy multi-lane turning tests. One thing that surprised me is that if you are turning right from a two-lane road onto a two-lane road, you turn into the far lane, not the near lane. That means you have to cross two lanes of traffic instead of just one. That seems strange to me.

Anyway, I'm really surprised at how much I have changed since when I first got my license. At 16 (or was it 17?) I was ready to drive anywhere. I was excited, and wanted to hop into a car and go. Now, after living in New York City for eight years, I am worried about driving in Tokyo. I don't want to drive if I can avoid it. When I do go driving, I'm going to drive slowly, I'm sure. At least until I'm out of this city and into some less congested roads.

That said, I'm kind of looking forward to going for a drive sometime with L. :) I'm not sure how insurance works here though, so I'll have to look into that.

May 11, 2008

Updates around Jiyugaoka

I've been neglecting my blog lately. Work has been busy, I'm getting married, family is coming to visit, etc. etc.. These things happen all the time, and it is no reason to ignore your beloved blog. I spent a bit of time today and fixed two things that had been bugging me: the admin control panel now links to the post for posts with new comments (bBlog isn't under active development anymore, but it is a very clean and easy to understand system. It is lots of fun to play with.) The other thing I fixed is that I moved the avatar images to be flush with the blue comment boundary. I would like to work a bit more on the template so it looks a bit more unified, but I'm not really a graphics guy.

So, over the past two months a few interesting things happened in and around Jiyugaoka. First up, my friend Henry told me that there is a New York Doughnut Plant in Jiyugaoka. I love New York! I love Jiyugaoka! I love Doughnuts! (But not enough to wait in line for Krispy Kreme at the two Krispy Kreme shops I know about.) The New York Doughnut Plant sounds like a great place because they spell Doughnut correctly, and maybe they are good Doughnuts, not like some of the other unlikely food combinations that I've come across before. (Although, on that note I did have a Spicy Wiener Doughnut this morning. It sounds like it wouldn't be very good, but it actually was quite nice. The hot dog was great, and a bit spicy, with the same kind of sweet fried exterior that you would find on the misleading Curry Bread that pretend to be sweet jelly-filled doughnuts, but totally are not.)

Back on topic with the New York Doughnut Plant, I was really excited to check it out but it is closed! They are remodeling and will be until sometime in September! I'll have moved away from my beloved Jiyugaoka by then! Oh noes! No doughnuts for me.

Next up on the docket are the new express trains on the Oimachi line. I often take the Oimachi line from Oyamadai (my beloved small town where I live) to Jiyugaoka (the nearby "big" station) where I can transfer to the more respectable Toyoko line. I take it every day to go to work. The Oimachi line is pretty small, only 10km from end to end. If the weather is nice, I'll just walk. I live very close to the tracks, basically separated only by a narrow road, so I hear the trains go by all the time. One thing that really surprised me is that these new express trains are much less noisy than the local trains. They look pretty cool too.

I'm going to miss the noise of trains going by every ten minutes or so. After about two years, it is strange how comforting the noise has become. I know that if I haven't heard trains go by in a while, I really need to get to bed. And they give you a good incentive to wake up when you really should be awake.

Finally, one shot of the Cherry Blossoms in Jiyugaoka. I made it through the whole cherry blossom season without posting any photos (I do have a bunch that I could upload, but it seems very clichéd.) I kind of like the cherry blossom trees that line the Jiyugaoka shopping street.

Mabo Tofu: Cheap and easy food

I'm always interested in adding new options to my menu of things that I can (poorly) cook. I often cook some kind of curry rice (it is one of my favorite dishes, it is easy to make, it stores well, and it is flexible because you can always add some side dishes to it) but it is nice to have some variety. One thing I always look for is a simple dish that I can cook up on the weekend and eat over the week.

One of the things that I ran into lately is Mabo Tofu. Mabo Tofu is a kind of spicy flavored Tofu. I saw a package at the Supermarket that said it is a mix for the stuff, all you have to do is basically add this stuff to Tofu and you are set. Sounds easy enough.

Basically, you make the stuff by cutting up your Tofu into small blocks - this is surprisingly fun, and if you get the hard Tofu it works fairly well - and then add some water to a pot. Put in the flavor packet, and heat it up. While you do this, there is a packet of corn starch that comes with the mix, which you should mix with water. The first time I made this I added ten times too much water, and ended up with a kind of Tofu soup. It was actually really good, and I think I'll make that sometime in the future as well. If you do it right, you bring down the heat and mix in the thickening agent, then heat it up again. The second time around I also coocked up some hamburger and threw that in - it was great.

Unfortunately, this stuff doesn't keep very well. After about three or four days it starts to smell bad. It still tastes good, but starts to smell like ... rotten bean paste. Well, more like you would imagine rotten bean paste would taste like.

It turns out that it mixes fairly well with Curry too. I don't mean that you should mix them together, just that having some curry one one side of rice, and Mabo Tofu on the other is pretty good.

May 9, 2008

More earthquakes in Japan

So I'm a bit late on this -- I meant to write something last night, but never got around to it -- but there was a medium-sized earthquake two nights ago (Wednesday night.) Actually, it was early Thursday morning, at about 1:45am. I was in bed, somewhat asleep, when my dreams started to become strange and wave-like. The entire bed was swaying. There have been a few small earthquakes in the two years that I've been in Tokyo, but this was one of the bigger ones. In my strange dream-like logic, I thought "Should I wake up and run outside?" I convinced myself that the rocking, wavelike motion was kind of pleasant, and somehow thought that I was a on a nice boat.

I feel back deep asleep again shortly.

It was apparently a fairly big earthquake - showing up on the the local blogs.

Checking some of the earthquake report sites it looks like it was a 6.8 on the US scale, and a 4 or 5 on the Japanese scale.

Anyway, things were fine in my place. I think a pen rolled off one of my tables, but that was about it. I'm up on the 4th floor of a 4-story concrete "mansion", and that thing really gets swaying!

I'm a little worried now thinking about "the big one". Benkei is convinced that the big one is coming and will hit Tokyo soon. A friend of mine at work said the same thing. I'm not so sure: I don't really know much about how earthquakes work. Since I'm in the process of buying a place here though, I've decided that the big one is not coming, and our new place will be built to withstand it even if it does hit.

Unbridled optimism is a great power if only you can harness it correctly!

May 6, 2008

How I spent my summer vacation

This week was "Golden Week", a sequence of usually 4 days off at the start of May. This is one of the big holidays in Japan, and people usually have big plans for the break, including overseas travel and the like. The gas prices always seem to go up a bit before Golden Week, and miraculously return to normal a few days afterwards. This year, things are even crazier because of the reinstatement of the lapsed "temporary gas tax" (temporary since 1954! - well, 1974 for the actual temporary part, but there have been gas taxes in effect since 1954.), which are about 50 yen a liter.

I don't really want to write about that - it was reinstated in a recent push by the upper house that overrode the lower house and probably angered a lot of people - but just wanted to quickly jot down the things I've been doing on my "vacation".

I wanted to get some work done over the four day break. Usually the holidays are four weekdays, but timing is particularly bad this year, and two of the holidays fell on the weekend, so we only got Monday and Tuesday off. I brought my work laptop home so I could do some programming, but as often happens high hopes clashed with reality and I didn't get as much done as I wanted.

On Saturday I slept in, and did some needed cleaning around the apartment. I watching some TV, and started looking at my email backlog (that always takes longer than expected.) I have family coming to visit soon and spent some time planning for that, and then in the evening decided that I would take advantage of the holiday and play a game. Quite a while ago I bought Galactic Civilizations 2, a space war and conquest game. It is really cool, and I was totally obsessed with it for a while. Because I'm the obsessive type, I just drop things cold-turkey when I think they are taking up too much of my time. I think by the time I realized what had happened, it was 6am on Sunday morning, and I had wasted about 14 hours in a blink.

So I've put that away again, and won't go back until I can learn to set a timer or something.

I woke up Sunday afternoon, went down to the local cafe for lunch, and read a bit more of "Kafka By the Sea", the Murakami Haruki novel I've been working on for over a year now. I'm about a quarter of the way into the second book and it is really getting interesting. I wish I had more time to devote to reading in Japanese - it is a great way to study, and lots of fun - but it seems hard to take the time. (I say, as I blog.)

Back at home I spent a few hours reading up on the FrameNet project, which I'm using in some research. The framenet book is pretty large, but does not cover the xml file format and all that stuff. Since the data files are pretty large, it is a daunting task to dive in and start using them right away. I'm very surprised that there are not more well-developed interfaces to accessing FrameNet in Java - there are two that are kind of old, and don't look very well adopted, unlike the state of affairs for WordNet, which has many Java interfaces.

On Sunday night I went out and met a friend for dinner, which was lots of fun. I've been cooking at home a lot lately and it is really nice to eat something that I didn't make myself. I have started making lots of Mabo tofu lately, which is pretty good and very easy to make.

Monday I spent some time doing work email, and a bit of programming (getting a feature set developed for a CRF learning system) and in the evening I went to my finaceé's parent's place for dinner. Unfortunately, L. was sick, and holed up in bed. Still, dinner with the in-laws was nice (more food I didn't cook!) and I helped L.'s dad set up his email on a new computer.

Today I've spent the day working with a FrameNet semantic labeler from the NLP group at Lunds University. It looks really great, because it will save me the trouble of having to build a learning system to map from syntactic dependencies to semantic roles. Since that is a pretty tough project in itself, I wouldn't be able to do it justice because really I just want to use a bit of the semantic information in FrameNet for sentiment analysis.

As vacations go, it was nice because I spent maybe two days goofing off, and then a bit of time working but in a more relaxed environment than usual.

Unusual things that happened while walking around Oyamadai: another new restaurant opened up. I'm amazed at how quickly they tear down and construct new buildings around here. For the first time since I've been here, I received a benefit for having signed up for the local supermarket's "rewards card" thing. They gave me a coupon for 500 yen off. Not bad. That's almost a pint of Hagen Daaz ice cream here. (Or two gallons of Blue Bell back in Dallas.)

While I was dozing off in the afternoon, I heard something strange out my window: English! I poked my head out and it looks like another foreigner is moving in nearby. Neat.

April 23, 2008

The Balanced Corpus of Contemporary Written Japanese and Japanese Blog Data

Today I went to a brief introduction talk about the plans to release a corpus of Japanese blog data for research use. The presentation was at the National Institute of Informatics, with a panel of Professor Toukura and Professor Oyama from NII, MAEKAWA Kikuo from The National Institute for Japanese Language, and a representative from Yahoo! Japan's blog division (I didn't catch his name, sorry.)

There were a lot of people there, about 30 or so all told. The purpose of the presentation was to introduce the plans to make a corpus of Japanese blog data available for research use. The presentation wasn't too detailed about what exactly will be released, but the current plan is to make the data available to researchers in July of 2008. The data consists of post entries from the Yahoo! Blog service where the users have agreed to allow their data to be collected and used in such a manner. The post comments are not included in the data, and the corpus will possibly have things like proper nouns anonymized and other things done to protect the privacy of the people in the data. It is really nice to see people thinking about putting together this kind of data for research use. I haven't found a URL for the project or I would post that - the contact section of the handout says to email Professors Toukura, Professor Oyama, or Mr. Maekawa, but I suspect there will be information on the main NII homepage about the data release when the time comes.

In addition, Mr. MAEKAWA spoke a bit about the Balanced Corpus of Contemporary Written Japanese, which looks very interesting. The project to build the corpus runs from 2006 to 2010, so they are only about two years into the project right now, but it is looking to be something like a Brown corpus for Japanese. It contains three sub-corpora, published material from 2001~2005 (magazines, newspapers, and books) and material from 1986 - 2005 from library sources (books mostly it looks like), and a mixed domain sub-corpus with web data, white papers, text books, records from Diet meetings, best seller novels, and so on.

This post isn't really all that content bearing, but there was only very useful resource that Mr. MAEKAWA mentioned in his talk: the demo of the KOTONOHA Corpus of Modern Japanese Search system (actual entrance is on a button click from the description page.) This is exactly what Alex was asking about in one of his posts: a Japanese KWIC (Key Word In Context) search.

I don't know how long that demo will be available, but it is totally great for language learners or generally people who don't know colloquial usage. I tried poking around at it a bit, putting in a few terms but didn't come up with anything too interesting. I liked めんど as a search term because there were lots of hits, some showing it used more as めんどう and others the shorter めんど, often with a くさい not too far behind...

Anyway, that demo search could be a useful tool for non-native Japanese speakers. I'll add it to my toolkit of places to check when I'm mystified.

Now if only someone would make a Geinojin info site that would tell me *why* that person is famous and should be a guest on some panel, that would be great. (I currently use Wikipedia for that, but I would be happier with something that just says X: comedian, Y: famous lawyer, etc.)

April 16, 2008

First impressions of OSX 10.5 Leopard and Time Capsule

A while ago I bought a 500GB Time Capsule and Leopard at work to use as a backup solution. It took me a while to find the time, but I had a lot of papers to read recently so I installed Leopard and set up the Time Capsule while reading the papers.

First off, I'm really impressed with Time Capsule. It costs only a bit more than an external hard drive, but had a Gigabit Ethernet 3-port switch and 802.11n wireless. It feels very solid, is small, and is very, very quiet. I have an external IO Data 500GB hard drive right next to the Time Capsule, and it just drowns it out. Even after turning off that drive, I had a hard time hearing the Time Capsule. I'm really shocked at how quiet it is.

Setting the Time Capsule up was really simple, Zero Conf is just great for getting things on a network and making it easy to find them. Since we've got wireless at work I turned off the wireless interface, and just used it to extend the wired connection I already had. Once I set up Leopard on my machine, I started the Time Machine backup, and I have to say again that I am really impressed with how quiet the drive is: I had to listen pretty hard to hear the write noise. I was using ethernet plugged into the Time Capsule for the backup, so I was surprised that I was only getting about 10 MB/sec (sometimes up to 12) to the drive, which surprised me. The Gig-E connection should be able to support 125 MB/sec. Well, not really of course, but 10 MB/sec is an order of magnitude less than I expected!

Interestingly, the 802.11n interface should typically get (according to Wikipedia, so who knows if this is true) about 9.25 MB/sec, or about what I was seeing with the ethernet connection! Wow. Now I want to get one of those Time Capsules at home...

I'm very, very impressed with Time Machine. I haven't played with going back in time for the recovery stuff yet, but it looks like it will be great. I had been using an rsync-based backup solution that would use hard links to not duplicate files that have changed, but there are some problems with that solution. It works very nicely, but every four hours I run the backup script, and for about ten minutes the hard disk thrashes madly as rsync runs down the file tree looking for new files. I had it in a cron job, and nice'd the process so the machine is still totally usable, but there is a noticeable drop in performance, and sometimes you get the dreaded beach-ball while it thinks about file operations.

Time Machine uses a very similar approach, but Apple does some other magic that lets them link directories (not possible with standard Unix tricks as far as I know) and more importantly uses a DBUS-style notification system that tracks file operations, and keeps a list of things that have changed since the last backup. It doesn't have to check the whole file system for changes, it just has a list of things that have changed. The backup is impressively fast. I'm really impressed with how easy it all comes together: this is a consumer solution. There are no real drawbacks: the backup is so fast you wouldn't notice it happening (after the initial full backup) and the drive is so quiet that you can just forget it.

That's all I have to say about that. There are some other things about Leopard that I've noticed that I like:

- The "Spotlight" window is now a real finder window and you can use exposé to find it. In Tiger if you are in finder and do a "show application windows" the Spotlight window does not exist!

- Spotlight is a bit faster now for launching applications, which I use all the time.

- I like the coverflow view for windows much more than I expected. Being able to see large views of PDFs makes it really nice to look for a paper. It also helps recognizing Word and Excel documents quickly much more than I expected it would.

- They fixed the annoying "yellow cursor bug" in the X11 server. Yay!

Here are some annoyances:

- Mail.app again defaults to sending Japanese email in UTF-8. Generally, I think this is a good idea, but for some reason if email isn't in ISO-2022-JP for Japanese a lot of mail clients turn it into gibberish (mojibake). What really surprised me is that this happened with someone on Windows Vista - I don't know what client he uses, but if you are on Vista shouldn't your email client be able to read the headers and use UTF-8? Most mobile phones can only accept ISO-2022-JP, but I would think big computers could deal with it fine. By the way, to set the default encoding for Mail.app, you can enter "defaults write com.apple.mail NSPreferredMailCharset "ISO-2022-JP"" in a Terminal window. I vaguely remember having to do something like this on Tiger as well.

- I don't know if they fixed this, but at one point after a recent Security update in Tiger, all text pasted into Mail.app lost carriage returns. It was awful. There are ways to work around it (paste into Text Edit first, make rich text, paste into Mail.app, then make it plain text again) and so on, but that is annoying. I'm sure I'll notice this pretty quickly because I'm always pasting text into email. But I haven't noticed it yet. (I hope it is fixed.)

April 15, 2008

Just try not to get sick

As of April 1st due to some law changes in Japan many people are changing to a new health insurance plan. I'm also switching plans, either because the type of employment I have has changed, or because of the health change laws - I don't really know. I saw a story on the news about some people who are in a situation where their old health insurance cards are not valid, but their new cards have not come yet.

I'm currently in that situation. I went to the HR department the other day for something unrelated to health insurance, and while I was there I had a conversation about my health insurance. My new card hasn't come yet, but they want me to turn in my old card.

I asked them what I should do in case I got sick. They said "Well, tell them that you are waiting for your new card." It wasn't clear what would happen at that point there.

So in the end: just try really hard not to get sick. I hope that new card comes soon!

April 14, 2008

Good News, Everyone!

I've been neglecting this blog a bit lately. I've been a bit worried about the personal / public boundaries a bit, but one of the reasons I have a blog (besides the fun part of playing around with blog software on my personal server) is to keep friends and family up to date with that is going on in my life.

So I would be remiss if I didn't write about one of the biggest events in my life to date: two weeks ago, I proposed to my girlfriend, Lisa. I met her almost two years ago (we met at the We Are Scientists concert in Shibuya on May 12th, 2006) and we've been dating for about a year and a half. I won't go into detail here (that whole public / private thing) but Lisa accepted, and we will be getting married!

This year seems like it will be full of big changes. Lisa and I currently in the process of buying an Apartment together in Shinagawa, which will commit me to a mortgage, and through the transitive property of debt, a country for the next many years (where I don't like to think about how a large a number many is.) We've applied for a loan together, and have preliminarily been accepted by at least once bank, so once the apartment is finished (August 15th is the date that it is supposed to be completed) we should be moving in. Hearing all this stuff about the US Subprime Mortgage meltdown is a bit scary, but as far as I can tell they don't have ARMs here, and the terms of our loan looks quite reasonable -- actually cheaper than what I pay now in my rental place.

I'm really excited about life with Lisa though - we've been spending a lot of time together over the past year, and she really gets me. She doesn't mind that I'm nerdy, spend too much time on computers, watch Star Wars, and love some crazy music. She's got great taste in music herself, and has introduced me to some great bands. She also picked up an extra ticket to Summer Sonic for me too. She's the best.

Things will probably be super crazy busy for me over the next few months, but I'm also really looking forward to May, when we do the paperwork for the marriage (no time like the present!) and my family (mom, dad, Jana, Alana, and Grandma Bessie) come out to meet Lisa's family. That should be interesting.

Even though we're doing the legal paperwork soon, we plan on having a wedding ceremony sometime in the summer of 2009 - probably May 24th, 2009. Also, it is likely that the ceremony will be in Hawaii based on the information Lisa's been giving me. I really want to have a celebration where friends and family can gather and have a great time together, so I'll be in touch about that once we firm up our plans.

I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed, but am really happy!

March 26, 2008

Mail Server downtime

The mail server on FuguTabetai.com was broken for an unknown period of time.

I didn't notice because essentially, once I set up the mail server (postfix) it just worked, and kept on working. I should also take the time to note that Rimuhosting.com, which hosts this server (on a virtual linux system) has been just great. Set things up, do an yum / apt-get update every once in a while, keep the software up to date (essentially keeping up with phpbb patches) and things have been great. Once set up. :)

Anyway, the problem with the mail server is that it was using a dns blacklist that went out of service a while back, and I guess the owners decided they wanted everyone who still had it in their configs to remove it NOW because all messages sent to me were bouncing because of the blacklist. I removed it from the postfix setup, restarted, and things are back to normal (as far as I can tell.)

So I might have missed a day's worth of mail or two. Not more than that though, since stuff got through two days back.

Pretty boring post come to think of it. I should have more exciting stuff coming up (well, if you like Perl I've been meaning to post something about that in a bit.)

March 24, 2008

Tax Time

I don't know what to think about taxes when one is a resident of a foreign country. I think it is completely reasonable to pay taxes where you live: I am living in Japan, and taking advantage of their infrastructure, so of course I should pay taxes to help defray those costs.

I also think it is good that, as an American citizen, I am allowed to take a certain exemption (about $80,000) of foreign earned income that I do not have to pay taxes upon. Since I don't get paid all that much (why did I go to grad school and get a phd again? Well, at least I enjoy what I do!)

I'm not so sure that people who make over the exemption amount should pay taxes. Just because of the coincidence of where one is born, the US decides that it is entitled to a cut of the money you make even if you do not benefit from the services that the taxes support. I suppose the argument is that, as an American overseas, you benefit from America's reputation, the protection of the US armed forces in keeping the global peace, US foreign policy and aid, and so on. I can't really say that the US foreign policy has helped me out personally: in fact, living in Japan right now a few thousand people in Okinawa are pretty angry with Americans.

So I don't really know where I stand on that issue, but I guess I'll give the US the benefit of the doubt: while I do not agree with current US Foreign policy, I hope that in the future it will change to be less violent and warlike. Given the way the US Political system works, I'm hopeful that a change can be made (unfortunately, with major policy changes likely every four years, that doesn't say much about stability, but that is another issue entirely.) I also exercise my right to vote via absentee ballot, so I guess that is worth paying some amount in taxes to have a voice in my government.

Anyway, as like last year I am again going to take the foreign earned income exemption. You can read about it in the Tax Guide for US Citizens and resident aliens abroad publication 54.

A really, really interesting note is that you are able to also take a foreign housing exemption. Most places in Japan (and Tokyo-to) are about $30,000 - $40,000 a year. Tokyo (do they mean only the area around Tokyo station??) though jumps all the way up to $85,000 a year. My guess is that this is where politicians who have some influence over the tax code live. :)

Assuming I filed correctly last year, I was able to use the 2555-EZ form (2555EZ instructions here) and the 1040 form (1040 instructions here.)

I would have preferred to use a 1040EZ but the 2555EZ says to use the 1040 form. It is nice the that US Government sent me a booklet of tax forms to use, but man that thing is big and complicated. It is poorly laid out: you open it, and are faced with the 1040 form. No table of contents until after that first form, and as far as I can tell, no simple directions. I wouldn't have known what to do had I not used the 2555EZ and 1040 forms last year.

Taxes. This stuff is crazy. I would much prefer something simple, like a single sided sheet of paper that says "pay 20% of your income for the time that you lived in the US" but I'm sure that doesn't cover enough cases, and would decimate the tax preparation industry.

March 7, 2008

Three Cheers for National Health Insurance

I have been extremely sick for the past two days. On Tuesday afternoon, I started to feel bad, a nasty headache, and my joints started to ache. When that happens, I know I'm in for some sort of sickness. I went to work on Wednesday, but started to feel bad again in the afternoon, and by the time I went home I had a nasty headache, achy joints, and sore all over.

I didn't get a wink of sleep that night. By about 5am I decided that I wouldn't be going to work, and started looking for a place to get myself checked out.

I don't really know the workings of the Japanese health care system that well, but every encounter I've had with it has been many times better than when I've gone to a hospital in the US.

I went to a local "clinic" - I guess we have these in the States also, but I've never seen as many as they are here. There are three clinics within walking distance of where I live. I showed up at the place at 9:30am, saw a doctor at about 10:30am, and was given medicine a few minutes after seeing the doctor. The amazing thing is that all of this only cost slightly less than $20. I got antibiotics, an anti-fever medication, and two other pills (a total of 44 pills) for less than what it would cost to park at a US hospital.

Even more amazing is the paperwork: there was none. I showed them my health insurance card (I was enrolled when I started work), they asked if I had been there before (no) and then they asked me to write my name (which they had a tough time with: their computer didn't like it one bit) and address. That was it.

According to the doctor, I should be better in two to three days. I hope so. I've had about three hours of sleep in the past two days, and I've eaten one piece of bread and a pastry in the same time. I've been drinking all sorts of orange juice, but I'm just in terrible shape. Nothing will stay in me, and my guts are a mess. My Japanese isn't great for medical stuff, but according to the doctor I've got bad bacteria in my gut. It is filling me up with gas - I feel fat and full all the time - and I've got lots of diareahha. Since I haven't eaten though, that isn't so bad.

I had a fever too - 38.6, which sounds low to me. Like, almost popsicle style ice-cold dead. But when I converted that into Fahrenheit, that's like 101.5! Higher than the 98.6 at which I prefer to stay.

Anyway, I am sick, but I hope I'm getting better. I was going to go see the Stars and Broken Social Scene in concert tonight, but there is no way I'm leaving my apartment today.

I am really impressed with the Japanese Health Care System though. One good thing about the upcoming election is that it looks like both Hillary and Obama have strong health care programs. I think we need to get capitalist interests out of health care, and look at it as a social service.

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