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.

February 27, 2008

Street Fighter IV on Test in Akihabara 2/29 - 3/2

I keep up with a few blogs via Google Reader, and recently came across this entry about Street Fighter IV going on public test (Japanese).

I'm a big Street Fighter fan, but pretty much only Super Street Fighter II Turbo or the new mix-and-max Hyper Fighting Anniversary Edition. Great games. (A brief side-note: last night for the first time in about a month a stopped by the Shibuya Game Kaikan on the way home from work. It is my favorite arcade in Japan: 50 yen games, 3 of the Anniversary edition games, an old Hyper Fighting machine, and there is always great competition there. Sadly, much better than I am. I hadn't been there in a month or two, and they moved the SSF2HF:Anniversary (how is this supposed to be abbreviated??) to the back. Not a problem. But I think they changed the cabinets they were in, because the sticks on all the machines were horribly loose! They were awful! I can usually do a dragon punch 90% of the time (I'm no expert) but I was only hitting them like 10% of the time on one machine! It was awful!)

So the relevant bit from the SF4 article:

そして! 今週末、2/29~3/2には早くも第二回ロケテストが開催!

今度は秋葉原の駅前にある「Hey」というゲームセンターで開催しますので、 皆さん、引き続き奮ってご参加くださいね!!

お待ちしています!


「ストリートファイターIV」第二回ロケテスト 開催概要
・店舗:秋葉原HEY
・住所:東京都千代田区外神田1-10-5 広瀬本社ビル 2-4F 【店舗HPは、コチラ】
・期間:2008年2月29日(金)~3月2日(日)
They did a first public test of SF4. Great. But now, this week, they will test SF4 in Akihabara. That's like a twenty minute walk from where I work. They start testing on Friday, and will continue through until Sunday. I think I am going to have to check that out. They will test at the arcade HEY (I don't know that one offhand) and give the address and link to the HEY website. There is a little "Access Map" button that will pop up a map, and I think I know where it is now.

I'm really looking forward to SF4 because it is supposed to continue on in the SF2 tradition (no parries or air blocking I hope!) and from what I've been reading about it, it sounds like it will be good. Since this is a SF2 post, I also want to say that I really, really hope that the new HD version of Super Street Fighter II Turbo gets released in arcades over here in Japan. I think that is probably unlikely to happen, but it would be great. The information on re-balancing from David Sirlin's blog has been really interesting reading.

February 25, 2008

People that are not me

While reading the program for the 2008 International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (it looks like an interesting conference, I wish I was going!) I was surprised to see that I am going, and apparently giving a presentation!

Oh wait, no, that is not me. That is another David Evans. A quick search pulled up this page on Psychster LLC, that has information about David C. Evans, a Ph.D (like me!) in Psychology (not like me!) and has worked at Microsoft. Whew, that was close!

Since it looks like he is doing work on sentiment analysis on blogs, we might actually run into each other some time.

There is another famous person that shares my name, David A. Evans, who is the CEO and Chief Scientist at Clairvoyance. He is very well known, and a really nice guy. I met him at the New Directions in Multilingual Information Access workshop a while back. His invited talk was very interesting.

I think it is very strange that I feel compelled to make a list of people that I am not, but I was really surprised to come across David Evans at a conference that I'm interested in. For a few seconds there, I actually thought "wait, did I write a paper, get it accepted, and then completely forget about it?"

February 23, 2008

Salad

I've been having salad more and more often. I would like to say that it is because I'm on a diet, but more truthfully it is because I'm lazy, and making salad is easy. Also, I don't like thinking about what to eat. I like having a clear decision. Since thinking about what to eat is often difficult, I just punt on the issue and have something easy like salad. (I love it when I have a big batch of curry at home, and I just eat curry. Then the decision is "what do I pair with the curry tonight?", which is a much simpler question.)

Anyway, this is what I want to say about salad:

It is amazing how you can eat a lot of salad, and once you have enough, you don't feel hungry any more. But I still want to eat, because I also don't feel satisfied! Damn you salad!! Be more satisfying!

Although, I have to admit that when I stop by the local Three F convenience store (I just looked up what that means: Fresh, Foods, Friendly. I especially like question 2 in their FAQ: when do they people at three F sleep? This page must be for kids, because it explains that more than one person works there. ha!) and pick up one of their spicy chicken cutlet things and cut that up into the salad, it is pretty satisfying.

The non-spicy chicken things from other convenience stores are not satisfying though. Probably because they aren't Fresh, Food, or Friendly.

Anyway, a random salad rant. Tomorrow I'll go into work and end up with a bento, so maybe I'll have a random bento rant. Probably not though, because Hokka Hokka Tei bentou are pretty good, and that is what I'm planning on getting...

February 18, 2008

Added Gravatar support for comments

This person wrote a Gravatar plugin for bBlog and I set it up here for the comments. I like the idea of Gravatars a lot, so I'll try them out and see how it goes.

If you are interested in the procedure, download the function.gravatar.php file from the website above, throw it in your bBlog_functions directory, go to the admin panel, and rescan to pick up the plugin.

Then you have to edit the bBlog/inc/bBlog.class.php file, search for the format_comment function and insert the line $commentr['posteremail'] = $comment['data']->posteremail; before the return statement.

Then you have to edit your template file to put the gravatar image where you would like. The code should go into the comments section in the post.html file. I added a <img style="margin-right: 10px;" src="{gravatar email=$comment.posteremail}" align="left"/> line to template and things are working great.

I would actually like to add Wavatar support on top of the Gravatar stuff, but that would take more than five minutes, so it will have to wait until I get more time.

Also, if you want to change any of the default values, you can set them in the call to the gravatar plugin in the template file (e.g., add {gravatar email=$comment.posteremail size=80 default=http://example.com/image.png}).

February 17, 2008

Dave, your forms are EVIL!

A while ago, I got this email from a friend of mine:
i left a long comment on your starbucks entry, but i got a character wrong in your CAPTCHA, and it told me to click the "back" button and try again. however, when i did that, all the entries in the form were BLANK! I LOST MY COMMENT! AIEEEE!!!!!
This is a problem, because I don't like evil in any form. Particularly in my forms. I've been really busy, but spent about thirty minutes poking around at the bBlog internals (looks I chose a bad horse: the bBlog project seems to have died!) and made the field values sticky on an error with the captcha submission.

If you are interested in the changes, here is a diff file that you can apply via patch: patch -b bBlog.class.php bBlog.captcha.diff against an unmodified version 0.7.6 bBlog.class.php from the bBlog install.

Once that is done, you have to modify your template to add value="{$commentFieldPosterXXX}" where XXX is some value. The only exception is {$commentreplytitle} which remains the same.

Here is the relevant portion from my template:

<div class="formleft">Comment Title</div>
<div class="formright"><input name="title" size="80" type="text" id="title" value="{$commentreplytitle}"/></div>
<div class="clear"> </div>
<div class="formleft">Your Name: </div>
<div class="formright"><input name="name" size="80" type="text" id="author" value="{$commentFieldPosterName}"/></div>
<div class="clear"> </div>
<div class="formleft">Email Address: </div>
<div class="formright"><input name="email" size="80" type="text" id="email" value="{$commentFieldPosterEmail}"/>
          Make Public? <input class="checkbox" name="public_email" type="checkbox" id="public_email" value="1" checked=\
"checked"/></div>
<div class="clear"> </div>
<div class="formleft">Website: </div>
<div class="formright"><input name="website" size="80" type="text" id="url" value="{$commentFieldPosterWebsite}" />
          Make Public? <input class="checkbox" name="public_website" type="checkbox" id="public_website" value="1" chec\
ked="checked" /></div>
<div class="clear"> </div>
<div class="formleft"><img src="/randomImage.php" alt="verification image"><br>Image verification:</div>
<div class="formright"><font color="red">{$commentFieldError}</font></div>
<div class="formright"><input name="verification" type="text" id="verification" /></div>
<div class="clear"> </div>
<div class="formleft">Comment:</div>

<div class="formright"><textarea name="comment" cols="80" rows="10" wrap="VIRTUAL" id="text">
{$commentFieldPosterComment}</textarea></div>
Of course, you also need to follow the relevant directions in my original post on adding a captcha for comment protection in bblog. But it looks like things are working well for me here.

The diff patch is here.

Kafka by the Sea Part 1: Japanese Vocabulary in half a modern fiction novel

This is a post that I've been waiting to make for a long time. Every weekend, I spend about one or two hours reading Murakami Haruki's "Kafka by the Sea" (村上春樹「海辺のカフカ」). I have been doing this for the past year, and finally today I finished the first book. Japanese books are often sold in two parts, so now I'll move onto the second and final part of this book. I expect it will still take another year for me to finish, unless I start trying to read it a bit on weekdays as well, but to be honest it is a bit difficult to read because I need to sit down somewhere with enough room to take notes in a notebook, and look words up in a dictionary.

This is the second novel that I've read in Japanese, and much more interesting than the first one, Keritai Senaka, by Risa Wataya, in which nothing much happened. I'm not going to write a review of Kafka by the Sea right now, since I'm only halfway through, but I enjoy it a lot so far. It has elements of fantasy and wonder that I usually really enjoy in Murakami's work. I've started reading a bit faster as time goes on, mostly because the story is getting interesting (and perhaps I'm remembering more words.)

What I would like to write about is the vocabulary with which I had trouble. I sat and wrote the words I didn't know in a little notebook, and then entered them into a simple text file when I finished each reading session. I also added little notes summarizing what when on (I didn't start doing that until later though, so it isn't a complete description of the first book.) These words aren't the only ones that I didn't know, just the ones that I wrote down - there are probably 10 words or so that I just skipped entirely because I was reading on the subway and didn't want to drag out my notebook, or something like that.

There were a total of 877 words that I wrote down in my notebook. Out of a 486 page book, that means there are about two words per page that I don't know on average, but the distribution is really not nearly that even. Of those 877 words, 103 of them showed up more than once. That means that of those 877 words, I couldn't remember about 11 percent of them. One of them in particular is embarrassing: I didn't know the word for "sentence", which makes no sense because I use that word all the time. I attribute it to the word showing up in a context that I am not expecting (literature instead of computer science stuff.)

There were two words that I wrote down four times, nine words that I wrote down three times, 79 words that I wrote down twice, and the rest occurred only once. The good news there is that at least I did seem to learn most words after writing them down twice: very few words occurred three or four times. Also, there are a lot of words here that I really don't need to know. Murakami likes to use strange words, and he will use less-common characters for them also. I don't think I need to know 咀嚼, soshyaku, to bite. Don't normal people just use 噛む, kamu (to bite / chew)?

On the off chance anyone else is interested in reading this novel, I'll put up my vocab list.

February 13, 2008

Arcade Fire Concert

I went to see Arcade Fire play Studio Coast in Shin-Kiba on Monday evening. It was my first time seeing Arcade Fire, and I didn't realize that they were such a large band. There were ten members up on stage: two horns, two strings (like, violins), three guitar-like objects (bass, guitar, banjo, etc.), one or two percussionists, and one or two keyboardists. Also, one accordion or some other random instrument that I could not identify that has to be wound up somehow.

It was amazing too that people rotated through the instruments. Very interesting to watch, and great music. Also, very, very lively. One member in particular was running around, jumping, stomping, just completely crazy.

It was a great show, I'm really glad I got the chance to go. I'm pretty sure it was pretty well known in the Tokyo area, in fact one of the blogs that I read (Jean Snow's blog) had a post on the show also.

Next month I'm going to catch the Stars and Broken Social Scene. Lots of Canadian bands. (I also recently bought the Weakerthans' Reunion Tour CD, as well as Magnetic Fields' Distortion, but they aren't Canadian.)

January 29, 2008

The Asian Olympic Handball Controversy (and Doctor Who)

For the past few weeks when I check out the news I've been hearing about the Handball Controversy.

First off, I didn't know that handball was an olympic sport. I know there are lots of olympic sports that I don't know much about, but I have never seen anything about handball in the US.

That is one interesting thing about Japanese TV: I see all sorts of topics that just are not on the radar at all for American Media. In general, I think American Media is just awful, reporting on unimportant things and ignoring interesting topics, completely dominated by large corporations and advertising to consumers. I like NPR, and that probably gives you a pretty good idea of what I'm about.

Anyway, I can't say that Japan is all that different, but the NHK news here does touch on a lot more international topics than news in America.

I've seen a few stories on the handball thing, and didn't really pay much attention but it seemed like there was some officiating controversy at the handball playoffs that decide who will go to the Beijing Olympics to represent Asia. I didn't get much more out of it than that - they played some clips, but I don't know the first thing about handball, so I didn't know what was going on.

This morning I saw that Japan and Korea will be re-playing a tournament. Japan and Korea. That sounds like it could be explosive. These countries have a long history of competing, and it can get serious.

Since I didn't know what was going on though, I did a search of the English web. Wow! Based on this afp news story and this story on China Daily it is even crazier than I thought! I basically thought that Japan and Korea had some problem with the officiating (and they do!) between the games they played. It turns out that they are accusing that the Kuwaiti team benefited from a late switch of officials (Germans to Jordinians) and cheated their way into an Olympic berth.

Korea and Japan appealed to the International Handball Federation who ruled that the tournament be re-played. The president of the Asian Handball Federation, Kuwaiti prince Sheikh Ahmed Al-Fahad Al-Sabah (who also serves as the head of the Olympic Council of Asia) does not sanction the replays and has threatened action against any other nations that play in them.

So in the end only Korea and Japan are playing in the IHF re-plays. The women play tonight, and the men play tomorrow.

I just wonder what will happen with the results? I mean, two teams can't make up an entire tournament, can they?

Since I saw that the game is actually going on live, I thought I would take a peek at the seven channels I get on my TV to see if it was on. It wasn't, but completely randomly I came across Doctor Who (dubbed in Japanese!) on NHK! It was great to hear Rose and the Doctor in Japanese. Rose doesn't seem as strong and independent in Japanese, but she's still cool. The doctor doesn't sound as funny and irrelevant either, but I only caught the last 10 minutes of the first part of the two-parter "The Impossible Planet" (Episode 22). The second part airs on Feb 5th at 7pm. I'll have to leave home early to make sure I catch it. :)

And now I'm watching "Sanma Palace", which is a show with a comedian that takes to a bunch of other "talent". I don't get it.

Also, they broke the talent into two teams, the "complete idiots" and the smart team. But when you look at the text they use to title the segment, it is the "not intelli(gent)" (ノットインテリ) against the "intelli(gent)" (インテリ). I think - I'm just guessing, and usually that means I've completely and horribly misunderstood the Japanese. I liked when they introduced the baka team with a segment "this is when you realized that you're stupid".

January 26, 2008

I lost my watermelon

I sometimes have conversations that go like this:
D: It's really cold tonight, so after dinner why don't we take the train home instead of walking?

R: Yeah, it's really cold today. That's a good idea. Oh but wait, hey hey, I lost my watermelon!

D: You lost your watermelon?

R: Yeah, I had it yesterday, then I went to my friend's house, and now I can't find it! It's really inconvenient!

D: It's inconvenient that you lost your watermelon? In the winter?

Of course, things became clear shortly thereafter: she was talking about her JR RFID-style card, the "Suica", which is a homonym for watermelon. I was so confused.

January 3, 2008

Happy Bags

Every new year in Japan, retailers put together bags, call them Lucky Bags, Happy Bags, Grab Bags, what-have-you, but essentially they are a collection of goodies for a good price.  I bought the 2008 Muji Happy Bag, and here are pictures of what was inside.

This idea of "Lucky Bags" (essentially grab bags) is new to me.  I heard about it just the other day, and it was explained to me like this:
Do you know fukubukuro? (福袋 - literally good fortune bag) It is a bag at a store.  It costs maybe 1000 yen, but has 3000 yen of stuff inside!
Now, I'm no business major or economist, but that sounds like a bad deal for the retailer.  Thinking about it though, it is a really interesting idea.  I'm sure that the retailers don't take a loss on these things - the margins are probably very low on them - but the idea is somewhat similar to the Black Friday sales you see the day after Thanksgiving in America.  So the day after Thanksgiving, stores sell stuff at ridiculously outrageous prices, certainly taking a hit on some of the deals as "loss leaders" just trying to get people into the store.  These are probably operating on the same, or at least similar, model.  Get people into the store, and they will pick up some other stuff along with your Happy Bag (I kind of like that as the translation instead of Lucky Bag.) 

The way these bags work is that you generally have a bag for some set price, say 3000 yen, and unknown contents inside.  Generally you can't see into the bag so you don't know what is in there.  It's a gamble.  (Given the Japanese peoples incomprehensible love of Pachinko  it comes to no surprise to me that they like the idea of a random gamble on a bag of unknown stuff.)  This strikes me as an interesting propsition on two grounds: it is good for the merchant because you can use the happy bag as not just a loss leader, a way to draw people into the store, but also as a way to manage inventory: you need to get rid of the 2007 models and make room for the new, trendy 2008 models.  I don't follow Japanese fashion magazines, but this place is dominated by magazines that set trends (see Neojapanisme, clast, or jeansnow.net for more about that) and last year's stuff just won't do.  Since you are selling this bag of stuff, you can throw in things that didn't sell well or that you are overstocked on, drop the price a bit, and people are happy because they are getting a good deal.  That's a win-win situation.  It also has the advantages of a video game system bundling deal: you can put in a few stinkers with the winners and hopefully people will overlook that fact. 

Having the Happy Bags be opaque is very interesting because now the merchant is faced with a problem: dump a lot of crap that isn't worth much into the bag and make some money, or put really good stuff in there, possible take a loss, but possible gain customer loyalty in the process?  It is a tough call.  Personally, I wouldn't want to a get, for example, a Don Quixote happy bag, but I'm pretty sure I would be interested in a Muji or Uniqulo happy bag.  Anyway, I have more confidence that Japanese companies would take the long-term view and generally try to put good stuff in their bags.  I'm not sure that I would trust American companies to do that same thing.  I think the closest thing, the Black Friday sales in America, are similar but have some bad sides to them as well: for example, generally the best deals are limited to a certain number per store, and now have resulted in not-infrequent tramplings and mad rushes at the stores.  I don't think that happens as much in Japan, but then again I didn't line up for any 初売り (first shopping!) trips either. 

Anyway, the short of it is that I went and bought the Muji Happy Bag this year.  It is the first year I had ever heard about them, and I was thinking of stopping by Muji and picking up some socks and a hat.  Thinking about the bag, maybe there would be socks and a hat in there.  Muji seems unusual in that their Happy Bag is see-through.  I like Muji a lot.  I haven't written about it, but I think that the idea of a brand that is personified by the lack of branding, is really interesting.  Japan is more or less brand obsessed, and a brand that is unbranded is still somehow a brand (you can tell by color schemes, design scheme, style, function, and so on.)  Anyway, they expect that they can sell more bags when people know their contents as opposed to not.  I think that is because Muji is an honest and reliable store.  And I like their socks. 

So here is a breakdown of what was in their bag:

  1. A large wool Jacket
  2. Two pair of boxer shorts
  3. One India Linen bag (?)
  4. Three pair of short socks
  5. One pair of long socks
  6. One short scarf

I have to say that the bag was worth it if for the Jacket alone.  It is a really nice large wool Jacket.  Of course, I got the large bag - the bag also comes in small I suppose - so the jacket actually fits pretty well.  I'm really pleased with just the jacket, but wait, there's more!  You also get two pair of boxer shorts (can't go wrong with those), three pairs of short socks (I was hoping for some socks!), one pair of long socks (they look warm), one short scarf, and one Indian Linen bag.  Now, I'm a little confused about the linen bag, since I'm not really sure what it is supposed to be for.  A dirty laundry bag?  Something that stands up is more useful for that task.  A shopping bag?  There are no convenient handles.  Really, I'm kind of at a loss here.  It is totally in line with Muji's style, but just not something that I have a use for.  I am currently using it as a tablecloth on a small table.  It is doing a good job, but I feel like I should put something inside it.  (But what?)

Anyway, I like this idea of Happy Bags.  I have a lot of blogs written by foreigners in Japan, and over on Tokyo Manga Lisa writes about the women's Muji vs. Uniqlo Happy Bags

The Seven Gods of Happiness New Year Temple Tour

The Tokai Seven: like Ocean's Eleven, but much older.  And less criminal.  They are both pretty lucky though.

The Seven Gods of Happiness represent different types of good fortune, and for some reason in Shinagawa there are seven temples, each devoted to one of the Gods.  One of the traditions of the New Year is the 初詣, the first visit to a temple of the new year, and while often this occurs at midnight, it isn't unusual for the first visit to be done anytime in the first few days after the new year.  The most busy time of the year is probably the First, and the most busy temple is probably Meiji Jingu.  I'm not going to brave those crowds, but since I was staying in Shinagawa, Lisa and I decided to make the rounds and visit all seven temples. 

At your first stop, you can buy a poster-board with a spot for each temple.  As you go to each temple, you can collect a stamp for that temple.  Collect all seven!  You can also buy a boat, and buy little figurines that go in the boat at each temple.  The suggested order for visiting the temples is:

  1. Shinagawa (Shinto) Temple, for Daikokuten God of Wealth 品川神社 (大黒天)5 minutes to
  2. Yougan Temple, for Hoteizen God of Good Fortune 養願寺(布袋尊) 1 minute to
  3. Isshin Temple, for Jyuroujin God of Long Life 一心寺(寿老人) 5 minutes to
  4. Ebara Temple, for Ebisu God of Wealth 荏原神社(恵比須) 15 minutes to
  5. Shingawa (Buddhist) Temple, for Bishyamonten Buddhist Guardian God 品川寺(毘沙門天,金生七福神) 20 minutes to
  6. Tenso / Suwa Temple, for Fukurokujyu the God of Happiness, Wealth, and Longevity 天祖・諏訪神社(福禄寿) 25 minutes to
  7. Iwai Temple, for Benzaiten the God of Music, Wealth, Eloquence, and water 磐井神社(弁財天)

I didn't know much about the different Gods when I was visiting the temples, but I did do a little bit of research when I got back home.  A "little bit" means that I looked them up on Wikipedia, and noticed that there was an English page as well as the Japanese page.  So now you know about as much about them as I do.  It took a long time to visit all of the temples.  I don't remember the order that we did it (although possibly you can reconstruct the order from the pictures on Flickr) but it took us two days.  We visited five on the first day, ending with Shinagawa.  Shinagawa temple was probably the largest of the lot, and had police managing the crowds.  We waited for about forty minutes or more to make our offering there.  I also picked up an Omikuji (お神籤), which is a written fortune.  I was lucky and got "The very best of luck" (大吉) so I'm hopeful that this will be a good year.  So far, so good anyway.  After the long wait, and previous hour or so of walking around going to the other four temples, we decided to go back to Lisa's parent's place. 

The next day we went to the last two temples, Iwai Temple and Tenso / Suwa temple.  I've never seen a temple with two names in it like that before, and I wonder what that is all about.  I'm sure I could figure it out if I did some searching on the Japanese web, but I'm not too interested in doing that right now.  The Japanese web makes my head hurt when I stare at it for too long.  Iwait temple houses Benzaiten, which I think is my favorite of the Gods because I've always been a fan of Benten Records, a record label that focuses on female Japanese bands.  In all honesty though, I think you would be best off with Fukurokujyu, since that God seems to be a general jack-of-all-trades Gods.  Also, unless I'm really bad at looking these things up, it looks like there are two Gods of Wealth (Can't have too many of those I guess) and some other overlap also, but nobody ever said that your pantheon had to be orthogonal.  If I was to build my own pantheon though, I would probably try to select both orthogonal and complementary Gods, but that's just me. 

I really enjoyed this trip around to various different temples, and now that I've looked into it, there are lots of these things.  http://park1.wakwak.com/~hisamaro/tokyo2photo.htm lists many different temple tours, and has a convenient list of temples and gods for the Tokai Seven.  So I'm sure there are lots of other temple courses I can try out - but to be honest, it is a lot of trouble, and probably not something I'll repeat. 

Note: while writing my post, I relied on http://www.evam.ne.jp/tokai7/index.html as a general site on the Tokai Seven Gods of Happiness.  But I didn't rely on it too much because it is part of the Japanese web.  

Osechi Ryori

I feel obliged to say that the next few posts on my blog will be about the New Year in Japan.  None of them will really have interesting observations that haven't been made before, many times, by foreigners in Japan.  That is one kind of interesting thing about being a foreigner in Japan: you go through phases.  I'll have to write about that at some time, but we all go through a "I'm a funny guy and will comment on these crazy Japanese" as well as a "wow, look at all the cool cultural things they have here" phase.  You can probably find any number of similar posts on the blogs listed at the Japan Blog List.

I have been in Japan for about one year and nine months now.  Last year, I spent the new year on my own, and visited a local temple.  I didn't know what was going on really, but I enjoyed it.  This year, I had the chance to spend New Year's Eve with a Japanese family.  I was looking forward to the chance, because the New Year's holiday is one of the biggest holidays in Japan, very similar to a mix of Christmas and Thanksgiving in the United States, where families gather together  and eat food while celebrating the New Year and reflecting on the year gone past.  (Although in practice it reduces down to over-eating and watching people sing on TV.  I'll write more about that in a later post.) 

The main thing to which I was looking forward was Osechi Food (おせち料理), which is the kinds of food that families each over the New Year's Holiday.  I never really had a good idea about the food consisted of, and now after having experienced it, I'm pretty sure that there are not any real set dishes aside from a few common things, and that anything can be Osechi Food.  It is just a time for the family to gather, sit around the table, eat, and enjoy. 

On New Year's Eve it is traditional to eat a special kind of Soba called Toshikoshi Soba.  I didn't know the origins of this custom, and found two interesting sties with more information on it.  One is at jpn-miyabi.com and the other is at urban.ne.jp.  It seems like soba (buckwheat noodles) are traditionally thought to symbolize long life and good fortune.  The custom dates back to the Edo period, perhaps around 1700 or so, perhaps earlier.  More interesting is this post over on justhungry.com where they have a nice recipe for Toshikoshi Soba.  The Soba that we had was nice, although grandma humbly complained that it has weak flavor, and tasty.  It had some great wild mushrooms in there, and some chicken.  I hope it passed on to me the attributes of long life and wealth, but I'm afraid all it did for me was to fill me up before the main course: Sukiyaki.

Sukiyaki is a food that it seems like is a traditional Japanese "comfort food".  Lots of people associate it with happy times with the family, sitting around the table and talking happily.  I have had Sukiyaki a few times, and I think it is really great.  Absolutely delicious.  I was told that the Kansai (Kyoto / Osaka area) version of Sukiyaki uses a sweet sugar base with Mirin, while the Tokyo version uses a salt-based sauce.  This version was the sugar-based one, and I thought it was great.  What happens is you put food - vegetables, meat, and so on - into the Sukiyaki bowl, and pull it out as it cooks.  If you like, you can take a raw egg and crack it open into a bowl, which you then dip things into.  I am not crazy about the raw-egg-on-things custom that the Japanese harbor, but I don't dislike it.  (Other places where you can find this include Yoshinoya, where you can get a raw egg to put on your beef bowl, and many of the "o-don" dishes where the raw egg cooks, essentially, over the hot rice.)  Incidentally, you can buy eggs at the supermarket that are specifically meant to be eaten raw for this kind of purpose.  I suppose they have some sort of higher quality standard for safety or whatever, but I'm not really sure. 

Along with the Sukiyaki meal there were other small dishes, such as mochi (rice cake) both cold and hot with soy sauce on it, and of course alcohol.  The New Year's Eve meal was accompanied by sake and beer.  And not a small amount: every time I checked, my cup had been re-filled.  I also made sure to do my duty and keep the cups of those around me full.  After dinner, we all gathered around the TV to watch the special sets of shows that are specific to New Year's Eve, and pass the time until midnight.  I won't go into detail about that here, but shortly after midnight we went to bed.  I slept on a Japanese futon, the first time in quite a while, and woke up with a sore back. 

The next morning at 9:00am we gathered for breakfast, which is the proper Osechi Food.  There were two main components to the meal: the Ocean Foods, and the Mountain Foods.  The Ocean foods consisted of things from the Ocean and peculiarly a sweetened mashed-like Potato dish that I really enjoyed.  I liked the Ocean Foods a lot because they are colorful and made a very pretty arrangement on the plate.  The traditional colors of the New Year are Red and White, and some delicious seafood cakes took on those colors.  Sadly, I don't know what everything on the plate is, but it was all quite nice.  The Mountain Foods are fresh vegetables and things like that, including mushrooms and other things that I don't know.  As with many of the foods, some were round and in a ball-form since that symbolizes good luck.  There are some beans that are traditional as well, but I don't know the story behind that.  Interestingly, you can see in the lower-left of the photo that I took that there is a bottle of Sake and three bowls for drinking, each smaller and with a good-luck character written on them.  Before breakfast everyone at the table had a saucer of the sake before the saucers ended up with their rightful owners (in this case, the head of the household, his daughter, and myself.)  I enjoyed having sake for breakfast, although it isn't something that I want to do every day.  The final part of the meal was the Mochi (rice cake) soup.  I'm not sure what all was in it, but it was quite nice.  As with the previous night's dinner, mochi (rice cakes) were present and I was given a rice cake roasted with soy sauce and then wrapped up in nori (seaweed.)  It was nice, but those rice cakes can fill you up really fast.  They are heavy, sticky, and sink to you stomach.  I'm pretty sure I added a layer of fat composed entirely of rice cake over this three day period.

After breakfast Lisa and I headed out for our first temple visits of the year, which I'll document in a later post.  We returned after a few hours, and snacked on tea and some cakes, before dinner at 6:30pm.  I didn't get any pictures of the tea that we had, but I had a very, very large amount of tea over those three days. 

Dinner was Western Style (on my account?) consisting of Roast Beef that Lisa and her grandmother cooked previously, some salad, and leftovers from the previous day's food.  Of course, the Sake tradition continued, but this time we also had two bottles of Red Wine to go with the meat.  The roast beef was quite nice, but curiously served cold.  Actually, that isn't all that surprising; Japanese often eat meals (Bento boxes in particular) which are cold, and I've had roast before here before that was served cold.  It was still quite nice.  To accompany the beef there were two sorts of sauces: one was standard Wasabi like you would get with Sushi, and the other was a type of salt, called "Yuzu Salt", that was very nice.  Yuzu is a Japanese Citrus, and this salt was made with Yuzu in some way.  I've equated it with Garlic Salt in my mind, and will try to pick some up next time I'm at a shop that might have some. 

After dinner, I went back home so that I could sleep in my own bed, but I was asked to come back for breakfast the next morning at 9:30am.  Breakfast consisted of the same foods seen previously, and more Breakfast Sake.  To tell the truth, I was still absolutely stuffed from all the food over the past two days, but I think the point of the New Year Holiday is to save up energy and fat for the coming busy times when everyone goes back to work and does their standard twelve hours days subsisting on only ramen.  After breakfast the family watched some more TV, then Lisa and I went out to hit the last two temples on our temple card.  More on the Temple Visits and crazy Japanese New Year's TV at a later date.

December 27, 2007

Installing Fedora 8 on a Gigabyte GA-G33M-S2H motherboard with 2x 500GB SATA drives, onboard GMA 3100 video into an Antec Fusion (Black) case

This entry is a little bit different than the others I've made: I'll be updating it as I continue working on the box. 

Surprisingly, this was the first system I've ever put together myself.  The first computer I ever used was an Apple //e that my father bought.  I was probably about eleven years old.  It was great.  Of course, he did whatever assembly was required on that machine.  We had that machine for years: I was still using it into high school.  Probably in my freshman year of high school, my dad bought a "Fat Mac", one of the 512k Macs in the original case.  At some point he got a 10MB hard drive for it that sat under the machine in a matching beige. 

When I went off to college, I worked part-time at the campus computer store (a great job for a CS major, maybe) and saved up until I could by my first machine: a Mac IIci.  I had that for four years, and in my last year there I bought a PowerMac 6100av.  When I went off to grad school I made the switch to laptops and Windows, with a Toshiba Satellite Pentium II based laptop.  I eventually replaced that with an IBM ThinkPad A31p, which I have been running since 2001.  When I moved to Japan it was my primary machine, until I got one of the last of the PowerPC PowerBooks: a PowerBook G4 with the superdrive and 1440x960 display.  I'm using it this very minute to type this up, and it is my primary work machine at home.  (I have actually at work a MacBook Pro Core Duo 2 machine, as well as a Dell  box with linux on it, and a ThinkPad 60p that runs windows.)  The venerable IBM ThinkPad A31, with three internal hard drives, has been running as my entertainment center for the past two years, hooked up to a 24" 1920x1200 LCD monitor.  It is a great machine, but with a 1.8GHz P4 Mobile chip, it is starting to show its age, and can't play a lot of the video files that I download now.  Since I'm in Japan, I download a lot of American TV programs to keep me up-to-date on what is going on over in America.  The A31 has no chance at playing anything in h.264, and can't do any sort of HD content. 

So I finally gave in and bought a new system.  I thought I would get a media-center type system, and go with a desktop so that I can upgrade it as time goes on.  I was planning on getting a Shuttle box, but the prices for those are pretty high.  I spent about the same as I would on a shuttle box, but was able to pick up the beautiful Antec Fusion black case, which is designed to be quiet (it is very, very quiet) and cool.  On the downside, it can only take one 5.25" device, and two 3.5" devices, which is a bit limiting.  I would love to have four hard drives in there for some sort of nice RAID setup, but I'll settle for two very quiet drives instead. 
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December 26, 2007

A delicious Christmas Dinner

Ever since I saw Lost in Translation I have wanted to eat at the New York Grill, the restaurant in the Park Hyatt Hotel at which Bill Murray's character is staying. It is a bit out of my price range, but I thought I would take my girlfriend there for a Christmas dinner.

I put in a reservation about a month back, and since it is Christmas (I suppose) they were only serving a set menu. We started off with a Rose champagne, and then ordered a bottle of 2006 Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara off of their wine of the month menu. It was really delicious.

The dinner was a four course affair, and was absolutely delicious. It started off with shrimp in a caviar sauce. The shrimp were delicious. The second course was an artichoke soup with candied hazelnuts. The nuts really remind of Christmas for some reason: my mother collects Nutcrackers and usually sets out a few for Christmas, which means the taste of walnuts. They aren't quite hazelnuts, but it is close and felt a bit like home.

The third course was a delicious roasted John Dory (a kind of fish I've never had before) along with some great truffles and wild mushrooms. The fish was a bit salty, but I thought it made a great contrast with the previous soup. The next dish was a steak from Sendai. I don't know if Sendai is famous for their beef or not, but this steak was just delicious. It was tender and juicy, with an excellent sauce. Now I really want to try some Kobe beef in a similar style to see how they compare.

Finally, the evening ended with a nice chocolate fondant and vanilla ice cream along with a coffee. I don't usually drink coffee, but this was a special occasion so I'll deal with the caffeine headache tomorrow when I don't have another caffeinated drink. The dessert was very nice, but actually I was very full from all the food, and it was a bit tough to finish it all off. Of course, I did end up eating everything, but I do slightly regret it. I guess it just means more time jogging when I get back onto my regular schedule.

The view from the restaurant was really spectacular. From where I was sitting I could see Tokyo Tower, which surprised me by disappearing for a portion of the night. They turned the lights off, and when they turned them back on there was a heart made of lights near the base. The blinking red lights from the surrounding skyscrapers were nice - they made a somewhat surreal background. On the way out I noticed that the Shinjuku Government office towers were lit up all pretty - most likely for the Christmas holiday.

I highly recommend the New York Grill. It is expensive, but it was worth it.

December 21, 2007

The Hollywood Writer's Strike

I have to admit that the Hollywood Writer's Strike has had almost zero impact on me, seeing as how I live in Japan and don't have access to American TV.

There has been one thing that I miss though: new episodes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report (with Steven Colbert?) I like those two shows a lot, and realized that without them I just do not have a good idea of what is going on in the news lately. I do watch about ten or fifteen minutes of the NHK news in the morning, but that mostly focuses on Japan, and usually the US news that they have on is "US News that impacts Japan". So they will have something on about how Bush thinks that the Korean Kidnapping problem is a big issue, and North Korea should really cut it out. While over in America, nobody even knows that there is a North Korean Kidnapping problem, and they certainly don't know that it refers to people that were kidnapped back in the 70s (or 60s, I don't really remember.)

Anyway, according to an AP news report I found on Yahoo! News, the Daily Show and Colbert Report will be resuming production on January 7th. I'm pretty sure they are both opposed to returning to the air without their writers, and they had a great quote about that:

In a joint statement, Stewart and Colbert said: "We would like to return to work with our writers. If we cannot, we would like to express our ambivalence, but without our writers we are unable to express something as nuanced as ambivalence."
Man, those two are funny. I'm actually a bit sad that they will be back on the air without the support of their writers, but it will be nice to have a good source of news once again.

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