August 18, 2008

Ebook reviews: Peter Watts' Maelstrom and Behemoth

In the past I read and wrote up Peter Watts' Starfish. The review comes off a bit negative I think, which isn't quite right because immediately after Starfish, I found the other two novels online and started reading them (sequentially, not in parallel.)

Maelstrom has a different focus than Starfish, and went into more detail about the networking system and pervasive spread of genetic algorithms and emergent behavior. I was really impressed by the computer science aspects of the novel. I don't think that genetic algorithms as they stand now will develop as described, but the vision isn't completely off base, although some of the anthropomorhism applied to the programs is a bit hard to believe.

Maelstrom was also an easier read than Starfish because the characters were more likeable (despite being the same characters mainly as in the first novel.) I really got into the series from the second novel and had a hard time putting it down. The novel ends setting the scene for the third and final (?) novel, Behemoth.

The final novel has more of a focus on Biology and chemistry, and brings the focus onto another character that is hard to like. In fact, the third novel might have been a tougher read than the first novel even. Other than a few scenes with that one character, the novel was fascinating. The entire trilogy viewed together is really impressive, although there is too much sadism for me to want to read again.

I really recommend these books if you can look past unconventional characters and some unappetizing sadism.

July 22, 2008

Tor.com has gone live, all ebooks from their giveaway made available for a week

This is just a really short post to point out the blog entry on the now-live Tor.com that has a collection of links to all the free ebooks they released and all the desktop wallpapers.

I think they are only leaving those links live for a week, so you should check it out soon. It looks like they are also working on selling ebooks in some way, which would be great. My personal dream-scenario: Tor.com hooks up with Amazon.com to sell DRM-free ebooks on the kindle and any other ebook reader as simple downloads. I don't know what format I like best, but one that works with FBReader is what I want.

Hooking up with Amazon would be nice because when I think books, that is what I think, and they have a nice infrastructure set up already for web distribution (from their MP3 business) and they know how to deal with large volume internet shopping.

Still, even if they set something up on their own, that is cool by me as long as I can pay a few bucks to get DRM-free ebooks that I can read on a variety of devices, and most importantly have the assurance that I can keep reading them in the future. That is the big reason to avoid DRM in my mind.

July 21, 2008

Things I never expected to actually say:

I broke my wookie!

So actually I broke my wookie. He was in my bag, which is apparently a wookie-hostile environment, and when I pulled him out today he was broken. I never expected to say I broke my wookie! but it was the first that that popped into my head when I pulled my wookie out of my bag.

I got my wookie a while ago when Pepsie was running a campaign where they were putting Star Wars cell phone characters on their drinks. I like Pepsi, but I hate that I can't find real Pepsi in Japan. I can only find the awful Pepsi Nex (I would link to it, but Pepsi Japan only has a flash site so I can't deep link.) It is ... bad. It is a zero calorie pepsi, but it isn't as good as diet pepsi. I wan real pepsi. But I can't find it.

Anyway, I bought a cute star wars ep III soldier for my cell phone, and got a nice wookie for L., because I thought she might want a matching Star Wars figure for her cell phone. She doesn't. She accuses me of being a geek. I admit to my geekitude. She laughs. But she doesn't take the wookie. He goes into my bag.

While I'm not looking, the trooper gets him. Damn you, Order 66!

In short, I broke my wookie.

Ebook review: Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End







So in my continuing line of ebook reviews, I present Vernon Vinge's Rainbows End.



Actually, this won't be much of a review. It is freely available (at the link above, but I also have an Amazon.com link for the pretty cover) on his website and I highly recommend that you read it. This is a "near future" type book, before the the singularity (which honestly, I believe in as a concept, but I don't think we are anywhere near the point that we'll have to worry about computers taking over our world - I work with computers and they continually confound me at how non-intelligent they are!) and much before Vernon Vinge's other works.



It is an excellent novel. Go read it now. I've bought a lot of Vernor Vinge's novels, and I think they are great. Maybe that is just because he's an ex-computer science professor, but he's written some really interesting stuff, even his earlier works (like Marooned in Realtime) which I think are kind of under-appreciated.

July 18, 2008

Ebook review: Peter Watts' Starfish

Peter Watts: Starfish

This book is a 1999 first novel.  It is set primarily deep in the sea, near the volcanic vents where there is strange sealife that glows in the dark and have made other adaptations to the crushing pressure. 

At first, I had a really hard time getting into this novel.  I didn't like any of the main characters.  I didn't like the writing style either: it was hard to follow, weaving in and out of different viewpoints, and throwing lots of things at your without explaining the world or setting that the story takes place in.  Sometimes that can work well, and sometimes I prefer to have my sci-fi explained to me so I know what universe I'm in, what the rules are (hard sci-fi where it helps to know about quantum mechanics and the pauli exclusion principle?  soft sci-fi where technology is a black box?  fantasy where magic works?  fantasy where magic works but has rules?  and so on.) how to situate the characters. 

In fact, even up until halfway through the book, I really was having a hard time following things, and I didn't want to make the effort because I didn't like any of the characters.  I didn't like them at all.  I didn't empathize with them, and I didn't think these were interesting or fun people that I would want to meet in the real world.  I think that looking back on things, with a perspective of about a week, this was intentional on the part of the author.  I think all the disjointedness was trying to foster a feeling of pressure, stress, and discomfort because those are the feelings that they characters were going through.  I think it makes a bit of sense now.  By the end of the novel I still didn't like and didn't empathize with the characters much, but I was interested in them and wanted to see where the book was going.  I completely changed my opinion of the book from a real stinker to pretty good science fiction, and if I came across the other two books in the series, they would be on my "read" list.  I would actually like to buy ebook versions of them, but I don't think I'd go for paper versions (since I've documented that my space for meat-space things is dwindling rapidly.)

One of the things that changed my mind is that Peter Watts seems to know what he is talking about.  That isn't too difficult usually, because when we are not in our area of expertise it is pretty easy for other people to sound intelligent on a topic that we don't know much about.  In this case though, Peter Watts touched on neural networks a bit, and I do know a lot about neural networks.  I've used them in some experiments and am in one of the areas of computer science where things pop up (very very rarely, and only in fields tangential to my main core competencies) that use neural networks.  I was really surprised at how well the author understood neural networks when they are often treated as black boxes, and worse, attributed far too much "intelligence" for what they are (generally a collection of lots of simple sigmoid perceptrons or the like.) 

Even more randomly, I'm currently reading "The Language Instinct" by Steven Pinker, and a few topics from that popped up.  Actually, that made me wonder how much more I missed in this book because some of the things that were thrown in and just barely touched on were pretty accurate biological references to things I've also read about in Pinker's book.  In some of the more difficult hard-to-follow sections, a random character/voice "Broca" pops up, which is a reference to the section of the brain that controls one aspect of language.  I would have missed that completely because there is no explanation at all for this, but it works beautifully if you know the background.  I'm sure there is a lot of stuff from psychology that I just completed missed as well, but I was impressed that for the areas that I do know something about, Peter Watts has a completely believable interpretation in his book.  That is just nice to see. 

Anyway, I'm giving a mild recommend to Starfish only because I think it is a bit obtuse and hard to get into, but in the end is an enjoyable read.  I have to warn you that it ends on a pretty big cliffhanger, so you will probably want to read the follow-up novel.

Now for the good news: four of Peter Watts' books are available completely for free as ebooks!  I actually wish there was some way that I could buy them for about $2 each, which is what I feel is a good price for an ebook the way that I've been using them lately (I read for fun, not comprehension or retension, and use them to pass the time on the subway.)  It doesn't look like there is a way to donate on the site where the book are hosted, and I'm really surprised that these recent novels are available for free.  Where is the revenue stream there for the author?  I would like to support work that I enjoy, so I have no problem with paying for books, as long as I can get them DRM-free and at a reasonable price. 

The books are available on FeedBooks, which has a large collection of free ebooks (old, or licensed under creative commons licenses.) 

July 9, 2008

Ebook Reviews

Warning: I've got more Amazon links on the book covers. I like having little pictures to go with the words though, and this seems like a reasonable way to do it. If you buy stuff from the links maybe I get some money, but since I think that will go to my US address, it probably won't be that useful to me...

I've been using my OLPC to read ebooks lately. In particular, I signed up for Tor Book's free weekly sci-fi ebbok giveaway (register here, which I found out about through the Slashdot posting) and have received a whole bunch of books from them.

In the past I've read ebooks on my Handspring Visor and Treo 600 that I've gotten from the Project Gutenberg library. As a side-note, how depressing is it that basically, things before 1923 have had their copyrights expire and are free for public domain use, but everything else is questionable. If the work was published before 1964 and hasn't had its copyright renewed, it is public domain, but anything after 1964 is under copyright until the death of the author plus 90 years. I will be dead before I can legally use what is essentially, the culture in which I grew up. There is a nice list of "recent" science fiction at Project Gutenberg listed on the Thunder Child site.

Also, the Baen Free Library is an excellent source of science fiction - and their Webscriptions Service is great too - I've used it a few times to buy nice DRM free books. I highly recommend Rick Cook's Wizard books for some computer geek fantasy. The first one is free, so you might as well check it out. There are compiled and Lisp jokes mixed in with Dragons (well, my personal feeling is that Lisp is full of Dragons anyway, but...)

So, I'll use this post to review some ebooks that I've read.

Harry Turtledove: The Disunited States of America

I've read one or two other Harry Turtledove novels, and they all basically have the same premise: what if people went back in the past and gave powerful weapons to someone during a war. The "alternate history" sort of novels. This one is a little different and it uses the concept of parallel worlds to get the reader to a setting that is similar to our world, with one change. In this case, the simple framing of the premise is: what would happen if the Federal Government in America failed, and States retained all their powers as individual nations.

I didn't realize this but it turns out that this book is the fourth in the "Crosstime series" - so there are other ones that come before this. I haven't been too interested in much of Turtledove's work since I read one or two of his novels, but generally I like his writing style, but don't think the ideas are too interesting and there usually isn't much in the way of subtlety. I enjoyed this book, but I'm not too fond of stories where the hero is a young teenager (which this book features) although it isn't as bad as the standard Japanese trope of "The fate of the world rests on a moody young teen" (who needs to save the world using a Giant Robot, or Magic Sword, or Henshin powers.)

It was worth reading as a free book, but I'm not interested in checking out the other three books in the series. Still, if you like Turtledove's alternate history style, you will probably like this book. Check it out!

William Poundstone: How would you move Mount Fuji?

I haven't been reading this one on the OLPC, but I've been reading it on and off. A friend of mine recommended it, and it is a very interesting read. It isn't a book as much about interviewing techniques as say, Programming Interviews Exposed, but it certainly is useful for people preparing for interviews. It also has a really interesting retrospective on puzzles in interview situations, and a history of IQ testing, and touches on the early founding of Silicon Valley.

The book isn't really about the actual puzzles that pop up in interviews as much as the history and background of the interview style. There is also an interesting chapter about how he thinks interviewing should be done. I'm not a big fan of puzzle questions in the interview since the whole process is very stressful, and I don't think that these questions test how good a person will be for a job as much as how good the person is at solving puzzles. I think you are better off looking at how well someone performs on questions that are relevant to the job, so for programmers and CS area jobs I like computer science / algorithm / design / coding questions. Those can be pretty difficult as well, and still be relevant to the job. If you are relying too much on puzzle questions, you are going to get people who prepare for puzzles, but I don't think the kinds of things that pop up at a job are as well defined and clean as puzzles.

Anyway, this book does have a lot of sample puzzle questions and very good explanation of the solutions to them, and it also has a very interesting overview of interviewing in general. I recommend it!

John Scalzi: Old Man's War

John Scalzi's Old Man's War is another book that I heard about on Slashdot somewhere - in fact, the article that let me know about the Tor ebook giveaway thing - and people said really good things about it. I actually joined the Tor book giveaway late, and I can't seem to find an archve function on their site, but I was able to dig up the link through some tricky websearching. I made a point of making this the next book to read on my OLPC, and it has gone by quickly (about three days of subway commutes and some at-home reading.) I'm now definitely going to buy some more John Scalzi books.

Also, he has a blog that looks interesting, so I've added that to my blog reader.

I really enjoyed Old Man's War, and I see that he has about three other books in the same universe. I'm going to order them for sure. Acutally, I have really enjoyed reading this book on my OLPC, the form factor is about right (there is some stuff I would do to make it better, but it is pretty nice) and the OLPC is so versatile (I use it for studying Japanese with Anki and can use it to take notes, look up words in Japanese, etc.) that it is convenient to take with me on an everyday basis. If I will have it with me anyway, it is about as easy to read on it as it is to read a paperback, and I don't have to worry about storing the book later, but I can still keep it indefinitely. I really wish that Tor was selling their catalog like Baen does. I would buy all Scalzi's book right now. Instead I'm going to wait for a little bit and make a big Amazon order I imagine. Alternatively, it would be nice if Amazon sold the Kindle in Japan, but honestly I think I prefer the OLPC if I'm going to lug something around. The OLPC is more open to hacking and is already a very multi-functional device for my needs.

I class Old Man's War up there with Starship Troopers and The Forever War, two excellent books about war in the future. I don't know if it will have the impact of either of those two books, but I think if you liked either of those, you really should read this one too.

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.

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".

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.

December 9, 2007

Praise for Portal

About two weeks ago, I decided to buy Valve's Portal.

Now, generally I don't play many games, but I have been reading two blogs that focus on games which have both been giving high praise for Portal. The first, Shamus Young's Twenty Sided has a lot of gaming (both pen-and-paper RPG and computer type) information, and is home to the amazingly funny DM of the Rings.

If that wasn't enough, another blog I read has had good things to say about Portal also. The other blog is Japanmanship, a blog by a game designer from England who lives and works in Tokyo. His blog is a great read for any foreigners in Japan, and also lots of interesting stuff about game design.

So after hearing so much about this game, I decided to give it a try. This is a bit commitment on my part: I have pretty much given up on the entire First Person Shooter genre. I never really played many FPS games. I started with Pathways Into Darkness on my Mac IIci but that didn't work too well. It was scary, and I got lost, and there were mean monsters trying to kill me. I get lost easily enough in real life, and it isn't any better when people are shooting at me. I never got very far in that game.

I then went on an played
Bungie's Marathon
on my PowerMac 6100av, but ran into the same problem: people were shooting at me, it was scary, and I got lost.

Ever since then I just haven't played many FPS games. I don't really like 3D games in general. I like the constrained world of 2D games, and the nice pixel graphics. About the only game that I do play any more is Street Fighter II (in the latest incarnation of it that is any good: Super Street Fighter II' Hyper: Anniversary Edition.)

I finally decided to give FPS games another chance though when I bought Portal. Actually, I bought the entire Orange Box since it was only slightly more expensive and includes a few more games that are supposed to be top-notch.

I really can't say enough good things about Portal. I'm quite late to the party I'm sure, since people were playing and writing about this game back when the Orange Box was actually released, but I'll throw in my two cents as well.

First, the pacing is excellent. The game starts off with simple tasks, and clearly shows what you can do. The progression and learning curve is very well paced. I know it is because I am more or less hopeless at these games, and I found that I was able to figure out what I needed to do without resorting to looking things up on the internet.

I also never felt like I was lost: the levels were well designed and I generally knew what I had to do, or where I needed to go. I really loved the puzzle-game dynamic as well. I wasn't being chased by bad guys, and things felt more like an extended Tetris than a stressful first-person shooter. By the time I got around to the last "level" I was using all the tricks the Portal gameplay mechanics allowed for, and really enjoying it.

The other thing that really hooked me is how they managed to tell a great story that was just absolutely hilarious. I love the disembodied GLaDOS computer voice, and the gun turrets are super cool too. I almost felt bad about knocking them out of commission.

By the end of the game, you are treated to an absolutely amazing song. It was composed by Jonathan Coulton who you really should check out: he's got some geeky and funny stuff. I'll write a post about it at some point, once I sort out my top recommendations. Due entirely to the Portal end-song, I ended up spending $70 on the DRM-free Jonathan Coulton "box set" of MP3s. He also distributes his stuff under a Creative Commons license, so you can get a lot of his stuff for free, but I've been listening to a bunch of his stuff and thought it would be nice to support the non-traditional music distribution model.

Anyway, my recommendation is to play Portal. I've actually started playing Half-Life 2 from Orange Box, and am enjoying it as well, but I really wish I had my portal gun. And that people would stop shooting at me. And that I wouldn't get lost so often. I do have to admit though, I am getting lost and confused much less frequently than usual for the genre, which I attribute to the Valve designers putting a lot of thought into the level design.

August 18, 2007

Fireworks Festivals

On Thursday some friends from work and I went to the Jinguu Fireworks Festival. This is a large fireworks festival that takes place in the middle of Tokyo, near Yoyogi Park and Jinguu Temple. They put up about 10,000 fireworks. The four of us left work and walked over from a nearby train stop, parking ourselves in a big parking lot with a few thousand other people.

Of course, like all festivals in Japan, or in fact, just any old time in Japan, we've got to have beer. There are no problems with public drinking in Japan; vending machines that sell beer are common. I was once surprised when on the subway, at about six o'clock, a salary man returning home from work popped open a beer while on the subway. We also picked up some snacks on the walk to the park at some of the stands set up conveniently to sell this kind of thing.

I enjoy fireworks, but there is definitely a different aesthetic when it comes to Japanese and American fireworks festivals. It isn't exactly true to say that Americans like things big, fast, and furious while the Japanese prefer to take things more slowly, sending up the fireworks one at a time for individual appreciation, but it isn't too far from that either. I also think that Japanese fireworks shows go on for a long time, usually about an hour long. I have a hard time sitting on the ground for that long, but that's just me perhaps.

After the fireworks, we stopped by a Yakitori place and had a great dinner. (None of this is helping me lose weight at all.)


Two days later, on Saturday night I planned to go to the Setagaya Fireworks Festival. To tell the truth, I wasn't looking forward to another fireworks festival, especially because this time I would be going alone. There were two main reasons that prompted me to go: first, I had just purchased a Jinbei, (甚平) a kind of traditional Japanese casual outfit, and I don't think I'll have many chances to wear it. Sure, that's a minor reason, but it is a reason. The major reason is that I live in Setagaya, and pay resident taxes in Setagaya, and they are expensive. Really expensive. So if my county is putting on a show, fireworks or otherwise, I'm totally going to go and see my tax dollars at work. So I went!

This fireworks show is only about seven minutes away from where I live by train, or about a forty minute walk at a slow pace. I take the train up to Futagotamagawa, which I consider a fairly small, uncrowded station. It was jam packed. One of the great things about festivals and fireworks shows is that you see lots of people wearing traditional Yukata and so on. That is always fun.

On the walk down to the river there were lots of little stands set up selling foods and stuff. I picked up some meats on a stick -- Japanese people love all sorts of foods on sticks, I'll write about that sometime -- and bought way too much. This one place was selling pork, chicken, and beef on a stick, with either salt or sauce flavoring. I bought one of each, and in the end only was able to eat three of them. Man, my eyes were too big for my stomach then.

I walked about a third of the way home from the starting point, sat down, and watched the fireworks. I must admit that they did a good job. They had some funny smiley-face fireworks and also a few cute cat ones. The cat ones were pretty hard to make out, but they had a hint of whiskers, and little pink triangle ears, so if the angle was right on the explosion they looked like cats.

After the fireworks ended, I decided to walk the rest of the way home, and got to Baskin Robbins in time for an ice cream - the first in about a month. I've got to be careful, this could become habit-forming.

August 12, 2007

Summer Sonic 2007 Music Festival: Day 2

On the second day I woke up a big later since I didn't have to go through the wrist-band exchange shuffle.  An uneventful trip back to the Chiba area.

"Blue Man Group"

The first "group" I wanted to see was the Blue Man Group.  They were up on the Mountain Stage, the largest of the indoor stages.  Blue Man Group have been around in New York for a long time, and I've always wanted to to see them.  The stage had two large screens to the left or right onto which they projected the action, so you could really get a great view from just about anywhere in there.  The show was surprisingly well suited to this kind of music festival: the drumming and stuff is great, the humor is universal, and they had a bit where they played famous songs (Devo's Whip-it, etc.) with little gags at the end.  They also had a kind of demonstration of useful moves that you can use while watching a show: head shake, hand pump, etc.  I really enjoyed the show, and it really set the mood for the rest of the day.

"Tilly and the Wall"

The first real act of the day was Tilly and the Wall.  I haven't heard any of their stuff, but I've heard lots of good things about them on the podcasts that I listen to - mostly Shifted Sound and NPR's All Songs Considered.  Also a few people over on the Bishop Allen forums like them, so I was interested.  They are also from the surprisingly active Omaha scene, and are connected to Bright Eyes in some way.

The most interesting thing about them is that they do not have a drummer.  They have a dedicated tap-dancer, and each of the ladies (there are three of them) had special little wooden stages set up which were wired for drum-like sounds.  It was really impressive.  They also seemed to be very happy to be in Japan, the lead guitars guy said that it had been a dream of theirs to play Japan, and he really sounded like he meant it.  Anyway, these guys are on my radar now, and if I get a chance I'm going to pick up one of their albums. 

"Hadouken!"

Next up was Hadouken!  They are an interesting-looking group out of England which caught my eye on the schedule because of their name for obvious reasons.  Risa bought their album a while back and really likes them so she rushed way up front.  I hung back a bit, and then as they got going (and were much more heavy / rap / metal than I expected) it started to get pretty wild.  I stuck around for a while, but left early so I could catch another group that I've heard about from NPR that looked very interesting to me.

"The Polyphonic Spree"

The Polyphonic Spree is a large orchestral rock fusion band, with about 20 people on stage, a small chorus, horns, woodwinds and strings, and even a harp.  They have been accused of being too happy, but I don't think that is a problem.  I really liked their song, and seeing them live was pretty amazing.  They were a real high energy act.  They are definitely on my list of albums to get.  Actually, along with Modest Mouse, this was my favorite act of Summer Sonic.  Highly recommended.  I didn't really know much about them going in, but that wasn't a big problem: the orchestral format, with such a wide variety of instruments, was really interesting to listen to and watch. 

Most surprising, one of their final songs was a cover of Nirvana's Lithium.  It was a really good cover, and I really got into it.  Completely unexpected! 

Update: I just bought the Polyphonic Spree's latest album, The Fragile Army, and the Japanese version has three extra bonus tracks (good thing, since albums are so expensive here.  This one was a reasonable 2,200 yen though) one of which was that excellent Lithium cover.  I'm really glad I picked this album up. 

"Bright Eyes / Karaoke Sonic"

Next up was Bright Eyes, with Connor Oberst, one of the guys that really set up the Omaha music scene explosion.  I also do not know Bright Eyes' music well, but have heard a lot of their stuff on the podcasts that I listen to.  I was looking forward to seeing them a lot, but after all the standing around I had already done I was getting pretty tired, so I took a break.  Right next to the Sonic stage, where I've been spending most of my time, was a little break area with some benches and a secondary "Side Stage" area that was doing all sorts of strange things during the festival.  One of them was some sort of group of people that put on stare contents, Staremaster, in fact I think I saw a battle between Tsukika and Araki Tomoe, but I am not positive about that.  I distinctly remember avoiding watching a contest that had Love Sexy Otawaya vs. someone else.

Anyway, I should backtrack a bit to earlier in the morning.  I took a break before Modest Mouse and at the same sidestage they had a Karaoke Sonic setup.  I wandered by the registration desk, and one of the women there asked me if I wanted to sign up since there were still a few spots left.  I was really, really tempted: I enjoy Karaoke, and there are a few Japanese songs that I like to sing.  It would probably go over well.  At the time though, I had two misgivings: first, there were a bunch of bands that I wanted to see, and this would probably take some time.  Second, the only song that came to mind immediately was Dragon Ash's "Grateful Days", which is a great song, but I haven't been going to Karaoke at all lately. I knew that on the final third of the song I would stumble since it is a fairly fast-paced rap and that wouldn't be so cool.  So I declined in the end, but it was a close call. 

Well, later in the afternoon when I went back for a break I sat down and started to watch the Karaoke Sonic thing.  The big surprise came when they introduced the guest panel of judges, and included in the group was Razon Ramon of "Hard Gay" fame!  I know I've touched on it briefly before in this blog, but I don't really get Japanese humor that is on the television.  It just doesn't really seem funny to me.  I think there are cultural differences, and probably I just don't have enough background to understand a lot of the humor, but in general I am not impressed with Japanese comedians.  Hard Gay is another story though: I do think he is funny.  I mean, the main gag, that he is a totally gay guy doing completely inappropriate things in inappropriate situations, is fairly easy to understand.  I actually like that a lot of his schtick is trying to teach kids and do other good acts for people, all while being a complete gay stereotype that I don't really even think exists in Japan.  At least in New York, I know where I can go if I want to bump into leather-clad S&M gay men, but in Japan I think that stuff is confined only to for-pay sex clubs and does not surface in everyday society. 

I also kind of like how the character brings up some discussion of homosexuality in Japan, where it is just usually not spoken about.  I don't think people here are homophobic, they just in general don't think about things that outside the mainstream "group" dynamic.  So it is a bit interesting from an investigation of common social norms sort of theme.

Anyway, I was really, really disappointed now that I had not signed up for Karaoke Sonic.  Even if I botched my song completely - and a few minutes after sitting down I realized I could also sing Sorimachi's "Poison", the theme song to the GTO drama from many years back - I would still get a chance to meet with and talk to Hard Gay.  Also, compared to the morning, this afternoon session was packed: there were maybe a hundred people watching.  That would be kind of fun, to get up in front of all those people and sing.  Even worse, I decided to stick around to listen to the banter and see how well the competitors sang, and I am positive that at worst I would have come in second place.  There were only about six people (some of those were actually two people in pairs, but six competitors) and I would have gone a long way on "white guy singing in Japanese" alone. 

There was one foreigner from New Zealand, but he was pretty strange: he was asian, and kind of bad pronunciation on his song, a My Chemical Romance ballad about parades or something.  It was a pretty bad song to choose because it was slow, very repetitive, and boring: the beat wasn't fast, and it was really sappy.  Those are the worst songs to Karaoke (easy to do though.)  There was a Japanese guy who sang a British song from a group that was playing Summer Sonic, and he was good, but not great.  Two other girls sang a song from the 80s and went over well, and two more women - officially foreign ers from China, but they lived in Japan for quite a while - that went over well also.  The other memorable competitor was the winner, a Japanese woman who sang The Spice Girl's "Wannabe" with extreme vigor and vim.  She won, and I doubt that I would have done better than her, but I could have at least come in second, and I'm sure I would have had an interesting conversation with Hard Gay.  Man, I'm really kicking myself over that. 

Next time there is some sort of public Karaoke Competition I don't care what sort of objections I come up with, I'm going to enter. 

"Cyndi Lauper"

I wasn't sure what I should go see in this slot, but in the end Cyndi Lauper won out for the nostalgia factor.  I can't really say that I was ever a huge fan, but I heard a lot of her stuff on the radio when I was younger, and I wanted to see how she was doing now.  I was really surprised because the place was packed for her show.  I guess there are a lot of Japanese Cyndi Lauper fans out there.  I had never seen her live so I had no idea what to expect, but she was very energetic and chatty.  While living in New York she often went to some sushi bar where the guys there taught her some Japanese, and so she was using all the words that she could remember, just simple things like "genki" and "daijyoubu" and so on.  It was pretty cool though. 

She was running all over the stage, and in between songs would segue off into strange stories that I'm sure nobody really understood.  Even as a native speaker, understanding was an issue because these were really tangential and non-sequitur type things to say.  I guess she is in her 50s now, but she wore a short skirt, and playfully flashed her hot-pink panties at the crowd a few times.  It seems strange to think of someone at her age acting like that, but she was really having a good time, and so was the crowd. 

Her final song was "Girl's Just Want to Have Fun", and she went back behind stage and pulled on about twenty people from other bands and so on to dance with her.  It was really wild, the crowd was really into it and everyone was having a great time.  Her show was, surprisingly to me, a really good one.

"Cornelius Group"

Cornelius Group is another group that I've heard very good things about, but don't know much about myself.  They are a kind of downtempo, relaxed, media band that sets their music to experimental type movies and such when they play.  They had a pretty intricate set-up on stage with a big screen for projected video behind them.  It was very nice, but this kind of music and "experience" is something that I would rather be able to take in while seated, relaxing, and maybe with a drink or two.  The music that they play is something I wouldn't mind having on in the background, but not something to which I would want to devote my full attention.

"Pet Shop Boys"

The final band of the night, and the entire festival, was Pet Shop Boys.  I've always been a fan of the Pet Shop Boys, but not a rabid one.  The first CD that I ever bought was Pet Shop Boys' Actually, and in Japan at that (when my dad brought me here for like a week when I was 14.)  They also had a very intricate stage setup for video projection.  It was just the two Pet Shop Boys themselves, Neil Tennant who provides main vocals, keyboards and very occasionally guitar, and Chris Lowe on keyboards.  They also then had two dancers, all they did was dance, and two more backup singers, who also did a lot of dancing, and a total Diva female singer.  The others were, as you might guess, completely hot men who often went shirtless.  I'm sure the women in the crowd loved it. 


They put on a really good show with very intricate choreographed dance moves, and three costume changes.  Very impressive.  It was apparently the last night of their World Tour, and they really put a lot of energy out there.  They also sang that interesting U2 mashup cover of "Where the Streets Have No Name". 

Final Thoughts

I was surprised that there were so many good covers.  I guess the groups that I picked to see also have some sort of connection to the music that I remember fondly, so it shouldn't be too much of a surprise, but it was really great to hear the Cure's "Just like Heaven", Nirvana's "Lithium", and the U2 mashup cover of "Where the Streets Have no Name". 

After the entire weekend, I was just exhausted.  It was lots of fun, but really tiring.  If there are some bands that I like going next year, I'll try to go again.  It is for sure a good deal for the money compared to most live shows in Japan.  One other thing that I think is important is to start to familiarize yourself with the bands that you plan on seeing a month or two in advance.  I would have had a lot more fun had I been more familiar with some of the bands that I went to see.  Still, a really fun experience. 

Summer Sonic 2007 Tokyo Music Festival: Day 1

(日本語版 )

Summer Sonic is a two-day summer music festival held in Chiba's Makuhari Messe and nearby Marine Stadium.  It is a huge event, with probably around 80 bands playing over two days, and unofficial concerts on the side as well.  This was my first time every going:  I really wanted to go last year since We Are Scientists were playing, but I had a conference to attend and was back in America at the time.  This year, I didn't have as much of a connection to the bands, but there were some great acts, and it is a real value for your money compared to the standard Japanese live show fare, which is about $45 for a ticket to see one band (maybe two if you are lucky.)  The two-day Summer Sonic Pass was about $275, and you can see about sixteen shows if you are tough enough...

I had to wake up at about 7am to get to Makuhari.  It takes about an hour if you hit the right trains, or an hour and a half if you get the local ones, taking Oiimachi line to Oiimachi, transferring to the Rinkai line to Shin-Kiba, then taking Keiyou line to Maihama Makuhari.  At the station there were crazy numbers of people, and they were making announcements about how it is crowded, buy your return ticket in advance, etc.  Exiting the station there were lots of people with hand-made signs asking to buy tickets and so on.  Also, there were lots of older guys (almost positively Yakuza) doing ticket scalping trying to sell tickets.  They were also buying extra tickets.  I have no idea what the markup on this kind of thing is, but those guys were around for the whole festival.  I don't think they could have made that much money because I never saw anyone buy from them, but who knows.

It was a pretty long walk from the station to Makuhari Messe (the convention center), where I exchanged my ticket for a two-day wristband pass.  I wandered around for a bit and then headed over to the Marine Stadium since the bands I wanted to check out in the morning started on that stage.  It was crazy hot, probably about 36 degrees celsius very humid, not a cloud in the sky with a fierce sun beating down.  I had put on lots of sunblock since I'm whiter than a scared ghost, but I was still worried about getting sunburned.  Over at the stadium I walked around for a while, bought a Pokari Sweat and kept wandering around.  Completely by coincidence I ran into Lisa and Kana, who I knew were coming, but didn't expect to easily be able to find in the massive crowds.  We had more than an hour before the first act, so we headed over to the Beach Stage (literally on the beach!) where Lisa said I should be able to get a small towel from the Tower Records stand (to help with protection from the sun!)

"Onsoku Line (Speed of Sound Line)"

While at the beach stage we saw the opening act Onsoku Line, a three man group of rap-style music.  They were pretty good, and certainly were fitting for the beach stage.  It was lots of fun even though I hadn't heard of them before.

We headed over to the Marine Stage and got a spot very close to the stage - maybe like 6 rows of people back.  It was crazy hot.  I had my towel wrapped around my head and under my hat so my neck wouldn't get burned.  Almost everyone else did too.  Did I mention that it was hot?  Before the shows really started to get going, some dude came out to warm us up.  I didn't know who he was, but he was maybe half or something because his English was quite good, although the whole thing was mostly in Japanese.  After he did his thing (MC in charge) Nishioka Sumiko (you can see some of the other characters she has played, as well as a bit as her current SM Mistress character in this youtube video) came out and did a kind of routine.  It was kind of funny, but like most Japanese comedians the comedy comes from just shouting at people something vaguely inappropriate (you guys are all pig bastards!) She has a kind of leather-wearing Mistress like domination schtick.

"The Pipettes"

Next up was The Pipettes, a female singer trio from England.  They had a backing band who wore cute monogrammed sweaters, but the act is just the three women, who are singers.  They are like a blast from the 1950s, wore cute polka-dot outfits, and had completely choreographed dances with intricate hand movements for each of their songs.  The really funny thing is that their song lyrics were mostly completely at odds with their poppy happy sound.  They reminded me of Lily Allen in a way because of that.  I really thought they put on a great live show, although I'm not really interested in buying their album because musically I just wasn't grooving that 50s sound too much.  It isn't bad, it is just at the price of albums out here, I've got a lot of other things to spend my money on before I head after these girls.  I really did enjoy the show though.  Lots of fun.

"OK Go"

Next up was OK Go.  I knew of them because of their Youtube Video for Here it Goes Again, which is really great.  I didn't know much else about these guys, but they put on a good show, had some pretty heavy rock sound, and weren't bad at all.  I like their style.

"The Editors"

I first found out about The Editors when they toured through Japan with We Are Scientists.  I really liked them then, they reminded me a bit of Joy Division.  Actually, when I was chatting with Keith from the Scientists he introduced me to the guitarist and the bassist of the band.  They seemed like nice guys.  This time the guitarist was wearing a kind of Power-Rangers type shirt that really went over well in Japan I think.  The Editors put on a really great show, and the lead singer was crazy nuts with his strange arm movements and stuff.  He was twisting his arms around behind his back, moving around strangely, all that stuff.  It was pretty cool.  They really rocked it hard, and if you don't have their album "The Back Room" I recommend you pick it up.

After the Editors, I was exhausted from hours of standing in the hot sun, so we all headed back to the indoors Makuhari Messe area for a break and lunch.  I really wanted to check out Puffy AmiYumi, but instead I had lunch and took a bit of a break.  If I had really killed myself and ran around like crazy I probably could have seen a few more bands, but that makes things seem more like work.  It was more fun to relax and see the bans that I really wanted to see and not worry too much about scheduling, just try to have a good time.  Lunch also involved waiting in lines and just took too long.  I did have a nice lunch though: Fried Yaizu don, which was a fried maguro fish on rice.  It was really good too.  While the convention center was air conditioned, it was so hot and there were so many people that it wasn't really all that cool.  Still, after about an hour, I had finally cooled down a bit and quite sweating. That wouldn't last for long though, since next up was

"Interpol"

Interpol was playing on the Sonic stage, a medium sized indoor stage.  I've always like Interpol since their first album "Turn on the bright lights" (still their best, IMHO) and since they are also a New York band I have a special place in my heart for them.  Their show was really good.  I was up front so had a really nice view, and they played lots of songs that I knew so it was really great. I really think that Editors and Interpol make a pretty nice pairing.

"Dinosaur Jr."

After Interpol I stayed at the Sonic stage for Dinosaur Jr.  I used to listen to these guys way back in high school, I would remember Eric and I in the car driving back from track practice after school with these guys on the radio.  They broke up a while ago, but recently the band has been re-formed with new members apparently.  I should have known this, since it is their style, but the distortion and feedback was just crazy.  The volume wasn't any louder than any of the other bands, but with all of the feedback the high pitched sounds were just unbearable.  I really needed some earplugs for this one.  I closed my ears and listened to the first two songs - including a surprising cover of the Cure's "Just Like Heaven" - and then went next door to relax and sit down for a while.

"Modest Mouse"

Probably the band that I was most looking forward to was (or second most, hard to tell) was Modest Mouse.  I really love their new album "We were dead before the boat even sank".  I was really amazed that Johnny Marr, the famous guitarist from The Smiths, was playing with them, and right up there on stage in front of me.  I never thought that I would have the chance to see Johnny Marr live, but there you are.  They played a lot of songs that I knew and just put on a great show.  One funny (or sad?) thing that happened is that the lead singer Isaac Brock went down into the crowd once, and when he came back up to the stage someone had taken his hat.  In between every song break he was talking about his hat.  First it was "Hey man, give me back my hat" and then it progressively got more aggressive like "Man, do you know how hard it is to find a hat that you like?" and "You can't just go taking people's hats for nothing!", "This isn't the Isaac gives away his hat 2007 tour!" and "Man, I don't care if you say you can just comp these things, it doesn't matter if it costs $20 or $1, you can't just go taking people's stuff" and finally "Fuck you in the face, motherfucker!".  I'm with him on that sentiment: that's just shitty to take some guy's stuff just because you want it.  It really sucks that fans act like assholes sometimes.  The show itself was really great though.  They put on a hard-rocking show, and sang a lot of good stuff, and oh my god, Johnny Marr!  It was great.  They were my favorite act of the day, and probably of the two day festival.

"Travis"

I finished things out with Travis I don't really know Travis well; I've heard them on the radio and various podcasts that I listen to, but I don't have any of their albums.  They really sounded great with a nice sound and very good harmony.  I am interested in picking up one of their albums, but I don't know where to start really.

After Travis, I headed home on the super crowded trains.  It took about an hour and a half, and of course the train was super packed.  By the time I got to the Rinkai line though I was able to sit down.  There is at least one good thing to be said about taking a super expensive line that normally people don't ride: you can sit down.  I collapsed into bed, hoping to rest up these old feet for another day of the same punishment tomorrow...

August 10, 2007

Something about Heroes annoys me

I have been watching the NBC show Heroes lately. It is a great show. I really love Hiro, he's a great character.

In general, I really like this show. There is one thing that really bothers me on the show. There are a few people in the show that speak Japanese. The main ones so far have been the Japanese characters, who are all great. It was one of the first times that I've heard George Takei speak Japanese, which was great.

The problem is that there are also some Western people that speak Japanese in the show, and their accents are terrible. Absolutely awful. That alone wouldn't be so bad. What is really horrible is that in one scene where there was some extended white-guy Japanese-speaking action, his accent was horrible but his vocabulary was very good. Nobody that has such a good vocabulary and grasp of Japanese could possibly have such a terrible accent. You would have to be able to tell that your own Japanese sounds wrong and horrible.

Anyway, aside from that the show is great. I'm watching Episode 17 now and sad that I'll soon be up to the "season finale". When will more Heroes be aired? I'm looking forward to it. (That and Battlestar Galactica and Dr. Who.)

August 5, 2007

A quick trip to the Setagaya Art Museum

A friend of mine, Mie, who I met at the wonderful Saraba bar in Jiyugaoka, works at the Setagaya Art Museum. The other day she told Lisa that they were having a fun exhibit at the museum. A guy who writes children's books would do a reading, and then there would be a mini-parade complete with musicians walking down to the nearby Okusawa Temple. It sounded like a lot of fun, so Lisa, Kana, and I decided to check it out.

I had never been to the Setagaya Art Museum before, but have been meaning to go since I'm sure that my tax money supports the place. It is located in the middle of Kinuta Park, about twenty minutes worth of train and bus rides from where I live. I could probably get there in about the same time on a bike, if I had a nice comfortable big bike instead of the little small short-trip fold-able bike that I have now. Anyway, we all headed down there.

We probably would have enjoyed the walk through the park more if it wasn't swelteringly hot and humid. August is a pretty tough month in Japan because just walking outside is enough to get you sweating like a demon. The museum is very nice; much larger than I anticipated, yet still small enough to have a local feel to it. When we headed in, we couldn't find any information about the parade thing, which was slated to begin shortly. Actually, we thought about it for a bit, and figured that walking from here back to Okusawa would take like an hour, and in this crippling weather probably wouldn't even be safe for the age group that was targeted. The lack of information about the event only confirmed our fears: we were at the wrong museum.

Going up to the information desk, we asked about it and indeed, we were in the wrong place. Mie told us that the thing was going on at "her museum" but did not make it clear that she meant the (perhaps ten minute walk from my home) Miyamoto Saburo Museum Annex. I've seen this place before: it is like someone's regular house was taken over by a museum. It is also another place that I'm interested in going, but haven't had the time or motivation to visit yet.

Since we came all this way for some culture, we decided to check out the Aoyama Jiro exhibit. Aoyama Jiro (any relation to the Aoyama Iichome subway stop?) was born in 1901 and pioneered collection of Chinese and Korean ceramics. It was interesting for me because my younger sister is a ceramicist herself, and also Jiro designed book covers, which were totally fascinating.

One thing that really threw me off about the book covers is that the characters were written from right-to-left. At first, I thought I just couldn't read Japanese for some reason, then I thought "Oh, these are the masters and they are printed mirror-like for some sort of printing reasons", but then a closer investigation revealed that the characters were not flipped, just written from right-to-left. I was really confused! I never knew that Japanese was written from right-to-left before exposure to the West. Based on the dates of the magazine covers and such, that form of writing was still going on as late at the 1950's, although my friends all tell me that no, that only happened before the 30s or so. I don't know; I checked the dates on the covers, and there were some there from the 60s even. I suspect it is just an art thing though, and that for the most part the country switched over to a left-to-right writing system earlier. Of course, it never shows up in computer text (man that would cause us computational linguists some trouble!) because computer systems originally were all imported from the West, didn't handle Kanji originally, and by then people had probably switched over.

The exhibition was nice, I really enjoyed it. I'm planning to go back to the museum sometime. Also, we poked a lot of fun at Mie for not being more clear next time we ran into her at Saraba!

July 17, 2007

A Quick Trip to the MoMA

I came to New York for a few days for a friends wedding, and while here I stopped by for a brief visit at the Museum of Modern Art. I really enjoy the MoMA, and have visited there often. For the wedding of my friends Ron and Michelle my sisters and I got them a membership to the MoMA, which they have kept up ever since. I had about two and a half hours in the afternoon, so I stopped by.

The big exhibition that they have currently is 40 Years of Richard Serra Sculpture. I've seen some Serra pieces before, once in the Guggenheim in Bilbao, but wasn't really impressed with this exhibition. I liked his pieces in the sculpture garden, but the rest of the things that were exhibited didn't seem well utilized in the museum space. I think a lot of his stuff does better in a less formal environment, where you have more of an experience that isn't focused on the sculpture itself, but on the harmonization with, and contrast to, the surrounding environment.

I really enjoyed pieces in the Automatic Update exhibition. Particularly, 33 Questions a Second, an interesting piece that randomly generates questions in rapid succession using some natural language processing techniques.

Over in the Architecture and Design Galleries, usually my favorite part of the museum, they had a great exhibition juxtaposing modern and old design. There were some really great examples in there, particularly the iMac / TV combo I highlight to the left. I also have an iPod / Radio combo shot that is cute. There were a lot of interesting functional design examples, and interesting examples of industrial design. That floor is always lots of fun to check out.

In the same area was an interesting look at Helvetica, the first font in the MoMA collection. Coincidentally, my friend Ron told me about an interesting documentary about the typeface that is something I would like to track down and see.

There was another nice exhibition called "What is Painting?" with contemporary art from the MoMA collection. I thought that one was well worth checking out. As always, a short trip over to the MoMA is always worth the effort, even if it has the most amazingly hard and tiring floors of any museum in the city. I swear they've learned the secret of gravity-control plating and artificially increase local gravity there by about 20%. My feet are always sore after even a short trip to that museum.

Who needs the Kwik-E-Mart?

As part of the promotion for the Simpsons Movie, about 12 7-11 stores have been converted into Kwik-E-Marts, the mythical convenience store from the show. Since there is one in New York City, and I happen to be there right now for my friend's wedding, I made a point to go out to the Port Authority Bus Terminal to check out the Kwik-E-Mart.

They have a lot of merchandising going on, and many limited-edition items for sale. The most interesting are the Squishy-labeled Slurpees and the Buzz Cola and crazy pink sprinkle doughnuts. Those doughnuts are huge: a box of six comes in a box that would be a dozen doughnuts anywhere else. I had one and could not believe how huge the things were. The Buzz Cola is a regular type of Cola in the Coca-Cola mode, but I don't know who actually manufactures it. I'm sure they are making a killing though: the place was packed with people taking pictures and buying up the Simpsons-related stuff.

I particularly liked the Jasper poster on the Ice Bag freezer (note the "Jasper Extra" sign), and there are also interesting Giant Pez Dispensers, but I couldn't bring myself to buy one. Not only can I not cart something like that back to Tokyo, where would I put it??

There is also a Kwik-E-Mart in Dallas, TX, so I'll try to get some pictures of that when I head over there tomorrow before getting on the plane back to Tokyo.

Also, please note an appropriate usage of donuts here, unlike what I often see in Japan, where donuts are made out of strange and unusual things. (Well, not that strange, but still, frosting or at least sugar should be required!)

July 16, 2007

Books: Ian M. Banks' Excession

I generally have a few English books on my shelves that I am saving for transcontinental flights to pass the time. On this past trip to Italy, before getting on the plane on an impulse I purchased SAGA Jun'ichi's Confessions of a Yakuza: A Life in Japan's Underworld (translated by John Bester.) It was a fast read, lots of fun, but not heavy reading overall. I don't know much about the Yakuza, so I can't comment on that aspect, but it is an interesting character study. I'm now a bit more interested in that side of Japan, but I don't know that I'll pursue that interest with any intensity.

On the flight from Italy to Japan, and then Japan to New York via Chicago, I started reading Ian M. Banks' Excession, a complex science fiction novel set in his Culture universe. It was a very interesting read, focusing mainly on the response of the large scale artificial intelligence system of the Minds of the Culture ship to an unexpected impossible-seeming phenomena.

I've read a few other Culture novels, Consider Phlebas (good, but not great), The Player of Games (also good), Use of Weapons (this one was very memorable, very good), and now Excession. There are a few more novels in this universe which I'll try to track down; Banks is a very enjoyable author and he really has quite a wide range of plot types.

While in New York I picked up five additional books, so I should have plenty to read on the trip home. Once I get back to Japan though, I had better concentrate on trying to finish Murakami's Kafka by the Sea, which I'm slowly reading in Japanese.

June 11, 2007

Emulating Wizardry I: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord on the GP2X

Not too long ago, I wrote about my old-school CRPG party-based gaming obsession. Randomly coming across a version of Wizardry I-III for cell phones in Japan rekindled my interest, but sadly my cell phone "terminal" (端末) is not compatible so I can't play it. It was very aggravating, because I know that there is a chance to play Wizardry while I'm in the subway - which is usually about two hours a day.

Instead, I decided to look around, and found another great old game, Dragon Wars, playing that at home on a laptop is a bit too difficult to do frequently. When I get home I am tired, and usually just plop down for dinner and some tv before going to bed. Something that is portable would be very nice...

Since I started thinking about playing older CRPGs, I thought that the most likely approach would be to get a Sony PSP or Nintendo DS and look at the state of emulation on those consoles. I'm not really a Sony fan, since they have had problems in the past with excessive Digital Restrictions Management / Digitally Restricted Media / DRM in the past, and I know that they discourage people running homebrew software on the PSP by releasing firmware that makes it difficult to run unsigned code. Things seemed a bit better on the Nintendo DS, but still requires some hardware solutions for using SD cards, and certain versions won't boot run homebrew software.

Then I found the GP2X, an amazing little portable linux device that runs off of a regular SD card, has a very nice 320x240 screen, and two ARM processors at 200 MHz that can be clocked faster and slower. The system is open, supports homebrew out of the box, uses open source software as a base, and has a plethora of emulators available for it.

Read on for more information about my (successful!) quest to get Wizardry emulated on the GP2X.

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June 2, 2007

Bitten by the CRPG Bug, memories of hex-editing savegames

A long time ago, back in the days when the big fight was whether an Apple //e or a Commodore 64 was a better machine (the answer is Apple //e, but I might accept Atari ST as well) I used to play a lot of Computer Role Playing Games (CRPGs.)

Click the link to read more about computer RPGs and stuff. There is some actual useful information for people who want to cheat at the old game "Dragon Wars": I include hex offsets and directions for how to give your players some extra experience points for leveling them up. A lot.
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