July 6, 2008

Asian American comedians on American TV (watched in Asia by an American)

I really like the internet. Thanks to the Internet, I'm able to keep up on news in the US, and it helps me feel still connected to a culture that I left behind two and a half years ago. (I also make frequent calls home, but that is more a personal than cultural connection.)

I get most of my news from podcasts. I highly recommend WBUR & NPR: On Point with Tom Ashbrook, a nice 45 minute podcast that is only fifteen minutes two short for my commute, NPR's Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! for a humorous weekly news round-up, This American Life for very interesting stories about the American experience, NPR's Science Friday with Ira Flatow, science!, and Car Talk for funny car-based humor from two ex-MIT guys. There is lots of other good stuff out there, such as the New York-based WNYC Brian Lehrer Show (makes me nostalgic!) and all sorts of other NPR news, but these are the main things that I listen to. Since I'm on the train for a bit over two hours a day, it really helps to have some stuff lined up to listen to.

But I also download and watch TV. Lately I've been watching NBC's Last Comic Standing. I've always been a fan of stand up comedy, and liked going to shows when I was in New York. I've been to a few shows here in Tokyo and enjoyed them, but I don't think the American style of stand up comedy is very common here (see my previous post on Japanese comedy and note that Japanmanship is no longer defunct, but is happily re-funct!

I vaguely remember Dat Phan in the first Last Comic Standing, and at the time he really came under a lot of fire for being a one-trick pony, only relying on jokes that play on obvious racial stereotypes. I thought he was pretty good, but I don't remember very much about his comedy now, so I won't comment too much on it.

In this new version of Last Comic Standing there are two comedians that I really, really want to like, but am having a really hard time with. Esther Ku and Papa CJ. (There are other acts that I don't think are funny, such as God's Pottery, which is basically just a one-trick musical act making fun of the religious right. I don't see how they can have anywhere near the range required to advance in a show like this.)

I wanted to like Esther because she's cute and asian. I won't comment about whether Papa CJ is cute, but he's asian too and has a bit of a geeky flavor to him that could be really funny. I think they both should have some really interesting experiences to mine for comedy, but I was really disappointed that Esther seemed to go for the obvious racial based jokes that aren't new and aren't funny. She has a few things that I think are funny, but she's not very subtle, and some of her stuff is just depressingly obvious (asians can't tell asians apart either! koreans eating dogs! were low points for me.) She is cute and bubbly though, and when she stays away from racial stereotype stuff (like when she was just talking about men buying women dinner) she is funny.

Papa CJ is interesting, but at least with the way that the show has been cut, he relies too heavily on outsourcing jokes and reincarnation. I guess my problem here is that he used the same material in his two sets, but maybe he's also just trying hard to get through to the next cut and using his best stuff. What bothered me most is that he used a clear set-up of talking directly to an audience member that would have worked great in response to heckling, but just sounded very forced in the way he set it up. Still, both of them made it through to the next show, so hopefully there is more to their humor than I've seen so far.

As I expected, there has been a lot of talk on the blog-o-webs about Esther Ku, mostly negative but some positive (kind of) and even an appearance on NPR's Talk of the Nation which I'll listen to pretty soon here. I really hope that Esther is able to bring a bit more subtlety and social commentary into her act - I think Chris Rock does an amazing job of that - and does more non-stereotype based comedy.

As long as I'm talking about last comic standing, I want to say that I think that Iliza Shlesinger is really funny, and I hope she goes far. I also really like Paul Foot and Jim Tavare.

By the way, the Tokyo Comedy Store's Ken Suzuki was briefly on the show, but they didn't give him much of a chance - which is too bad because he's pretty funny.

Anyway, I'm glad that I can at least get some weekly stand-up on TV, which is nice and easy to put on while writing (for example) blog posts.

July 4, 2008

Japanese Chocolate

As I mentioned in a previous post, I've been seeing a lot of Salty Chocolate lately. I picked up the Morinaga Salty Chocolate candy the other day. I opened the box, expecting a standard candy bar, but instead I got about eight individually wrapped really small chocolate wafers. They are pretty good, with a bit of salty flavor that isn't overpowering.

As always, I also picked up a new flavor of KitKat when I came across it this evening. Triple Berry. It is one of the better strange KitKat flavors.

It is great that Japan has so many seasonal changes in their coffee and chocolate and other snacks and drinks. It gives me an excuse to keep buying them.

Fire Cafe Zero (Zero Sugar)

Another new (to me) japanese canned coffee. It was not very sweet, but that is to be expected: it is a Zero Sugar coffee. Still, it wasn't that bad, and I had no trouble drinking it. I'm not going to buy it again though. :)

Super cool robot parking systems

L. and I are buying an apartment. I'm really excited about it. One of the things that is way more exciting than it should be to me is the parking system. Our tower has two parking garages that are totally robot garages. We have to apply for a parking space, and we need to specify the size of car because they have different sized spaces in the robot garage.

The way this system works is that you get a PIN that you type in and in about two minutes the carrier for your car shows up. You drive it into the large elevator contraption, and then you get out and the carrier takes your car to its designated spot and leaves it there. To get your car out you do the same thing. It takes on average two minutes to get your car (I'm curious what the worst case is, and whether they charge more for cars nearer the bottom of the stack since they would come faster.)

I've seen other versions of these things, circular ones that can store more cars than this one - this version only has storage places on the left or right of the transit tower, although the cars do rotate 180 degrees in there somehow. They go in head first, and come out head first.

There is also a nice bicycle robot parking system in Jiyugaoka near where I currently live, but I've never had a chance to peek in there. That one is one of the circular storage systems though. I'm a little disappointed that the bicycle storage system at our new place isn't robot powered, but you can't have everything.

July 2, 2008

Ryusendo Coffee Black

Yesterday I tried the Ryusendo Black Coffee. It was awful. I should have known; it says right on it "no sugar", and I like my canned coffees a bit on the sweet side. Still, I had tried another Ryusendo coffee, so I thought I should round out the set.

After two sips, I dumped it and got a nice Georgia Caffé Espresso. That is more my style. Sweet, and easy to drink.

These blog posts are pretty boring, but I like the idea of documenting the Japanese coffee cans. I really want to find more of the cans with manga characters on them, since that was supposed to be some special limited run thing. I might have missed out on most of them though. If that is the case I will have to give up my afternoon coffee again I think.

July 1, 2008

Books reviews: The Audacity of Hope and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

Note: the links to the left are referral based things that might, at some point in the future, make me money somehow. I don't really care about that, but I couldn't find any other way to get pictures of the covers to show up (since it looks like they block non-amazon referrers.) Also, in general I like Amazon and don't mind driving traffic to them.

The Audacity of Hope

On the last international flight I took, before getting on the plane I picked up two books. One of them is a kind of current-events sort of deal, Barack Obama's "The Audacity of Hope". I'm really excited about the upcoming US Presidential election. To tell the truth, I can see positives in each of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain, but I'm most excited about the prospect of Barack Obama becoming president. He made a joke about bubble sorts. He's also been covered a lot on Slashdot, and it really seems like he has a good grasp of some issues important to people in the technology field. I've been intrigued, and have become interested in learning more about his views, so I thought it would be my civic duty to read his book.

I'm not really going to give any summaries or big overviews, but I enjoyed the book, and thought it was an easy, fun read. I found his analysis of some of the problems that America faces to be well thought-out and his policies also look very reasonable. There was one chapter on religion and the family that sounded like an appeal to a broad American religious base, but it isn't a fanatical style of mixing religion and government; he clearly believes in the separation of church and state, which is good enough for me. His oft-mentioned points of diversity and hope are also very appealing, so I'm really looking forward to the upcoming election.

It is disappointing to me that we only have two major parties and two realistic candidates, but at least that means that if I want to be fair, I only have one other book to read.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

This is a book that I bought purely on recommendation of a random person on slashdot. It came up in a discussion of science fiction novels (of which I'm a big fan) although it isn't of the space ships and aliens variety. I wouldn't even really classify it as science fiction so much as just fiction written from an interesting perspective.

It is really interesting to go into this book without knowing much about it, but I will say that I really enjoyed this book, and highly recommend it. I don't generally like novels that use narrative gimmicks (I can't tell if I'm sick of, or enjoy, the unreliable narrator) but even though this book has its gimmick, it doesn't come off as gimmicky.

This is apparently a young adult novel, but I have a thing for well-written young adult novels - particularly Garth Nix's Abhorsen Trilogy and Shade's Children - so that isn't a problem for me.

Anyway, I really liked this book, and am going to make space for it on my bookshelf. That's pretty rare because I get the feeling that I won't have too much bookshelf space after the move to the new apartment.

June 30, 2008

Paying the Tax Man, and stuff around town

When I get mail, I usually like to let it sit around and age for a bit, like a nice wine. In all honesty, I only get a few pieces of mail a week, and it is all blindingly obvious what it is just by looking at the envelope. Generally they are bills, so letting them sit for a week or two isn't a problem. (Of course today, just to prove the exception to the rule, I got some mail from a friend. I was expecting that though: a pair of tickets to the new Setagaya Museum of Art exhibit on architecture by Osamu Ishiyama.)

A few weeks ago I got a big, fat letter from Setagaya county. I knew that they wanted money from me, and specifically money for having the honor of living in their ward. I wasn't in any rush to open it. I wonder if I had just refused to open, like the White House, if it would all just go away. Probably not. So I finally opened it over the weekend, and found out that I had to pay up on Monday.

Monday was actually the last day that I could pay the first installment of the tax (although I've paid other installments a bit late, and they have been very kind about it) so I deviated from my standard schedule. Usually I'm out of the house by 7:30am, but today I needed to go to the bank, get some money, go to the post office to mail some stuff, and then go to the ward office to pay the tax bill. I went to my local bank, and was amazed. I have never seen more than two people in that bank ever. There must have been twenty people in line for the ATM machines. I believe that you can register with the ward office to pay the tax bill using the bank system, but I'm not really too sure about that. If I'm going to pay a bunch of money, I like to go down and talk to people, especially because then I can ask questions. That's a lot easier than making sense of tax documents written in Japanese. I still needed to get money out though, so I got hit by the last minute rush. (Nobody was at the actual ward office tax payment division though - that was super quick. Much quicker than waiting for the ATMs.)

After pulling out some money, I walked by a local shop that makes tatami mats. I've seen that place once or twice before, but generally they are never open when I am around. I had a camera handy and asked if I could take a picture. It would have been nice to hang around and get some shots of them working on those mats by hand, but I had to get going to get my taxes paid and get to work. It really is pretty amazing though: they do all that weaving and finishing by hand. It looks really tedious.

Finally, I also found another interesting candy bar at the local convenience store. Meiji Salty Pralines Chocolate. It is pretty good! I just barely taste the salt, and I really liked the pralines a lot. There are a few more salt and chocolate items that I saw, so maybe I'll pick a few more of them up.

Reviving the Japanese Daily Coffee Posts

So a while back I quit doing updates here, mostly because I quit drinking coffee. Usually when I go overseas though I start up again. I went to Morocco recently for a conference / honeymoon and started drinking coffee again. I haven't been motivated to quit since coming back, and have been enjoying another cup of coffee each day. So here is a backlog where I'll post a few pictures.

I bought Georgia's Essence Drop purely because it looks like it would be something that shows up in a JRPG. I don't have any memories of the drink itself though. Middle of the road.

The Fire Coffees are the ones that I usually drink, and they are pretty good. I've had this one a couple of times, and think it is pretty good.

I also am a fan of the Boss coffees, and was intrigued by the Switch Shot. It was a bit bitter and not as good as Rainbow Mountain, which is one of my favorites.

I hadn't heard of Ryusendo before, and didn't really like it too much.

Kirin Fire Special is another cofffee that I like a lot.

The wonda gold was pretty good.

Finally, three Nescafe coffees. I like when they put manga characters on them, and I think those last two are Golgo 13. I never read that though, so I'm not too positive.

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!

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