March 14, 2010

Virtual Game Developer's Conference via blogs

Just a heads up to a series of great posts over at http://www.sirlin.net/ about the Game Developer's Conference. So far I've read Sirlin's report on the pre-GDC day, day one, and day two.

I follow Sirlin's posts on his blog. He's a game designer that knows street fighter in-depth (worked on balancing Super Street Fighter II Turbo: HD, which I really wish was available in Japan) that I learned about back in my days on alt.games.sf2. If you don't know what that is (most people probably don't) then don't worry about it; USENET is basically dead now anyway. But it was a great forum back in the day talking about Street Fighter and game balance in that area. A few of the people from that forum have gone on to lead interesting lives in the game development community.

Me, not so much. But I really enjoy reading about game design. One of the reasons I don't think I'll ever play any Facebook games (and to some degree, MMOs) is because when you look at how these things are designed, a lot of the time they just break down to skinner boxes. I'll stick to Street Fighter (competition and natural dopamine) and RPGs (interesting stories, some number crunching and optimization) thank you very much.

Definitely check out Sirlin's posts though, starting from the pre-GDC day, day 1, and day 2.

March 7, 2010

Japanese that Japanese people don't know

The other day I bought the book 日本人の知らない日本語, "Japanese that Japanese people don't know". It is a cute little book with comics, lots and lots and lots of ruby (furigana readings over the Kanji) written by a Japanese language teacher who primarily teaches foreign students. The idea is that foreigners have lots of crazy questions about the Japanese language that Japanese people just don't think about.

Having asked lots of those questions myself, I thought it would be a fun read. So far, it has. There is lots of ruby over the kanji, so it is very easy to read. Unfortunately, the vocabulary is pretty large, and by nature heads off into unusual places in the language (like counters for strange things, or the names of unusual utensils) so it isn't really appropriate for entry level Japanese language learners. That said, so far it hasn't really been all that hard to follow, so if you are an intermediate learner you might want to give it a try.

Actually, I take that back. Some things are hard to follow. The punchlines usually. The things that students say make intuitive sense to me - because I don't understand the natural Japanese language things that the readers are supposed to know. Sometimes the last panel of the comic just leaves me scratching my head.

The sequel just came out recently so I'll probably pick that up pretty soon too.

February 16, 2010

Cocoa Programming

I've been doing some Cocoa Programming for Mac OSX lately. I've been using Aaron Hillegass' "Cocoa Programming For Mac OSX" and have really had an easy time following along with the book. Before ordering the book, I tried to dive into OSX programming using online material, and while I was able to get some things done, I was having a real hard time trying to wrap my head around general concepts (how does the general cocoa interaction model work? how do I try to understand when to hook things up with connections in interface builder and when to code things? What things are done for me automatically?) and found that this book has been good at explaining these things.

The book itself is pretty easy to follow and has extensive screenshots, not normally something that I would think is important in a programming book, but for XCode and Interface Builder this is surprisingly helpful. Oh, I have to drag from this to that, or that is the pane in the inspector I need to be looking at. A surprsingly large amount of "programming" so far has involved knowing what key to type in which box in interface builder to get some control to watch some value in some object. And knowing which objects that Apple already provides has keys that can be watched to do what you want.

I'm coding on snow leopard (10.6) and the book was written for 10.5 so there are some disconnects there, but so far I haven't run into any errors with the code that I can't figure out quickly. The biggest so far has been an example in Chapter 11 which looks like it is a bit hairy to fix. The amount of commitment I need to make as a student to something that is easy (binding in Interface Builder) compared to writing a (granted, very small!) custom class and using it to basically just type cast is pretty big. It seems like a simple type cast operation could also be accommodated in the bindings / core data paradigm (and it is, using transformations, and a small custom class) but at any rate I have really been enjoying this book.

It makes it much easier to get a handle on where to start, and since I have programming experience (C / C++, Java user interfaces, and perl mostly) I have been able to get through about a chapter per session while doing the examples and challenges.

One of the controversial things seems to have been the introduction of "dot notation" in Objective-C 2.0. This post on Big Nerd Ranch explains pretty well how I feel about it. It is confusing to me. I like the @property and @synthesize tags added to the language a lot; being able to use dot notation sounds convenient, but only if the class is accessing properties. Otherwise it can be confusing. Is that a method call? Is it doing anything tricky with memory? Do I have to worry about it and check the setter / getter selector? I'm going to stick with bracketed notation until I get a better handle on these things.

I also like that Objective-C 2.0 introduced garbage collection, but I also want to do explicit memory management with release / retain for a while.

I've been really impressed with how easy it is to create user interfaces in XCode / Interface Builder. All I have to compare with is Java's Swing platform, and I never used any GUI interface builders with that. I know things are getting better in that area with NetBean's Matisse and some of the Eclipse plugins, but every time I have looked at those they don't seem to save you from writing much of the boilerplate code that you need to navigate user interfaces. With XCode and Interface Builder you really don't have to write much code and things are saved out as data.

I am sure that similar systems exist for Java out there by now, but I don't know where I would start with them and they are certainly external to stock Java vended from Sun (Oracle?)

The other thing that has really impressed me is Core Data. Apple makes it really easy to do the common things, and not hard to difficult things. In my experience with Java, it is as hard to do easy things as hard things (they are both surprisingly difficult.)

I've got a project in mind for Cocoa on OSX, which will probably take a few months (I do not have much free time!) but once I finish up with that I am really interested in looking at iPod / iPad development. It's too bad that there are major differences in the APIs available to the two platforms, but that might be the next thing I look into. I guess I would have to get an iPod Touch or iPad at that point though. :-)


January 31, 2010

BigShot Camera: a camera for kids and education


Computer Science Professor Shree Nayar at Columbia University has a pretty cool project in the BigShot Camera. It is a digital camera designed to teach kids about optics and electricity and all sorts of other things. I think it looks really fun. They include a power generation explanation that is exemplified by a hand crank that you can use to charge the camera up. It also has three different lenses that you can use to change the types of images the camera takes.

I think this is a really fun way to introduce kids (even high school students and college students…) science.

Too bad they aren't available for sale. They would make absolutely great toys. I should also note that Professor Nayar is a really great guy; when I was a grad student in Computer Science at Columbia University I had really good interaction and experiences with the faculty there. So I'm probably biased (don't bloggers have to disclose their biases now?) and just wanted to write something up quickly when I saw this project in the recent Columbia Magazine that I received. It also had a cool piece about the new Northwest Science Building that I really wish was around when I was there!


January 30, 2010

Thexder Neo (A.K.A. Jon is cool)


Back when I was young (hard for me to remember that far back, but I'll try) I had moved to New Jersey. Now, don't get me wrong, I really like New Jersey. Now. But then again, I also have a fond spot in my heart for Texas, and we all know what they say about Texas (Beers, Steers, and what now?)

Anyway, I was young, and a new kid in a new place. By the chance alphabetization of last names, I quickly befriended Jon, a great guy with a great last name. Anyway, I remember that Jon had an Apple IIGS. It was a great computer. I was jealous. My family had an Apple //e but that couldn't come close to matching the amazing 320x200 (well, 640x200 under special circumstances) graphics on that thing.

One of the games Jon had was Thexder. It was amazing. Great sound. Great graphics. And a giant robot. At the time my friends and I were all into Robotech (uh, Macross, sorry I forgot no true Anime fan would ever watch Robotech!) so this game where you could change from a jet (just like Robotech!) to a Robot (just like Robotech!) was awesome!! The game was hard. I don't know that any of us ever beat level 2. But we sure did play a lot of level 2. And the music. The music was great. To this day Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata is one my favorite classical songs. (It doesn't hurt that it was also the B-side for Little 15.)

So, for a good portion of my life I was convinced that Jon was cool because Thexder was cool. It is the transitive property of coolness and "my friend has a cool computer". Actually, truth be told that is still why I think Jon is cool. I imagine him hanging out in Tonetown, having Tass Times even now with Sabrina in tow.

Anyway, I decided today to browse the PS3 network on my Japanese account and see what they had. Mostly I wanted to buy Flower for the PS3 (I did, and got Lumines Supernova while I was at it) but then I saw Thexder NEO. What what what??

It is a remake for PSP and PS3 I suppose. I downloaded the demo. It was exactly how I remember it: really hard and frustrating with amazing graphics (now updated and 3d) and sound (still old and 8bit and awesome.)

I checked around, and it seems to be getting uniformly awful reviews (even on blogs!) That is too bad. I mean, I agree with the criticisms, but come on!

Jon is still cool!!


The further adventures of Flat Everett

(This post is very late, please forgive the tardiness.) In my previous post about Flat Everett we met our flat friend, and took him around Tokyo. Over the New Year's break we took two more trips with him. First off, Japan doesn't have a big Christmas break, but they do have a big break over the New Year's holiday. Usually people get the 30th and 31st off, with a few days around the New Year, going back to work around the 4th.

Over the break my wife's sister and her daughter came to stay with their parents, who live just down the street from us. One of the big events was a family trip to Tokyo Disneyland. We all piled into the car the morning of the 31st, and headed out to Chiba, about an hour away or so by car. The place was very crowded. Since the day before there were people waiting (out in the cold!) for the 6pm start of the Disneyland New Year's celebration. We weren't going to stay for the evening celebration - you have to win a lottery drawing to be invited for that - so just headed in.

I got a picture or two of Everett in front of the Disneyland entrance, and some of the 2010 New Year's signs, but didn't get too many other pictures of him. He was enjoying the rides from inside my bag. The most exciting ride we went on was Space Mountain. I'm sure Flat Everett enjoyed it, but I have never liked roller coasters, and had to go to the Nurse's Station (where R. works actually) and rest for two hours. Then I went home while everyone else stayed at the park.

I really don't like roller coasters. I know R. does though, so I thought I would try to tough it out with her. I barely survived. (Flat Everett seemed to have enjoyed it all.)

Flat Everett's First Temple Visit

The other thing that people in Japan do after the new year is go visit a local temple. The "first temple visit" of the year is traditional, and people buy various charms for good luck for the new year. I decided to take Flat Everett to one of the most popular temples in Tokyo, Meiji Temple. The temple is very popular, and when I went on the second (I think) Flat Everett and I had to wait about three hours total in order to get into the temple itself. The place was absolutely packed. I got a few pictures with Flat Everett, one in front of the temple archway (the wooden gate structure, called a Torii), and also in front of a collection of sake barrels that are donated to the temple by local businesses. The final picture is Flat Everett in front of the main temple structure.

That concludes my travels with Flat Everett. He has since moved on, and arrived in New York. I'm curious to see what sort of trouble he gets into in my old stomping grounds, New York City.


January 17, 2010

Review of Lawrence Watt-Evans' "The Unwilling Warlord"

So a few days ago I finished reading the second book in the Ethshar series by Lawrence Watt-Evans. It took a bit of time for it to get going, but I liked it in the end. The third book, The Unwilling Warlord, was quicker to get started. What I have really enjoyed about the Ethshar series so far is that the protagonists are more or less normal people. They don't want to save the world and generally just want to do what they can to lead a comfortable life. The second book in the series was a bit tougher to get into because I didn't like the (lack of) work ethic in the protagonist. I didn't have that problem with the protagonist of the third book. He seemed like a bit of an opportunist, but not lazy and not stupid. He takes a fairly straightforward approach to things, and the story one of the magic systems in Ethshar (Wizardry) in depth.

I really like the multiple forms of magic in Ethshar and am looking forward to seeing more stories in the world that explore more of the magic system. This entry in the series focuses on a gambler playing dice for small stakes, who finds out that he is the hereditary warlord for one of the small Southern Kingdoms. He's forced into service there and of course hijinx ensue when the small kingdom faces a war on two fronts. He falls back on his gambler instincts and decides to use magic to cheat.

That's basically the summary from the back cover, so I'm not giving anything away. I would really like to see a story set in this area a few years down the road to see what came of Sterren's story. I enjoyed the book quite a bit. I wonder how it has been that I didn't find Lawrence Watt-Evans' work before. I know it can't be because of the name; he's got a great name. He apparently has another well-known fantasy series The Lords of Dus. And a few others it looks like.

I've really enjoyed Ethshar though because they are a bit light-hearted and fun.


Stuff I've been (cooking and) eating lately

Last night R. and I invited our friends A. and D. over for dinner. R. was working, and I had the day off so I spent the morning and afternoon in the kitchen cooking up dinner. A few weeks back we had some friends over for a Christmas dinner and that went pretty well, so I wanted to try it again. I scaled back the menu a bit, but still it took a lot longer to cook everything up than I expected. I'm a pretty poor cook, so that probably explains it.

Anyway, what was on the menu?

  • Honey Glazed Ham. I liked the ham I made last time, and wanted to try a larger-scale version of it. The problem: when I finally went shopping for hams, I couldn't find one as large as what I would expect to find in the US. The ham I did get, a Rosenheim 750g gift ham was about a third of the size that I would expect of a US ham, and more expensive to boot. Ah well.
  • Buffalo Wings. R. requested this, and it was a good call. I was originally going to buy some ready-made wings, but R. didn't sound too happy about that, so I decided to go from scratch. I dug up a hot sauce recipe and cut up some chicken wings. Also, made the sour cream blue cheese sauce for the wings, and bought celery (never had the time to cut it though.)
  • Mashed Potatoes. Made these from scratch this time, since someone on Flickr chastised me for using frozen mashed potatoes before. It was really easy to make them from scratch (took longer though) and since I often have potatoes laying around I'll be doing this more often. Might try french fries sometime too.
  • Corn. From a can. I love corn.
  • Butter and Soy Sauce Sauteed mushrooms and carrots. I like butter sauteed mushrooms, so threw some carrots in there too.
  • Ambrosia fruit salad.
  • Chocolate chip cookies

Pretty good! Our guests arrived and brought a bottle of champagne, so we had to try that. Actually we swapped that bottle out for one we had in the fridge, and then later moved on to beer. Dinner went well, and I think everyone had a great time. We somehow ended up on Youtube.com watching old Knight Rider and Baywatch videos. Not sure how that happened. Then The Cribs' Cheat on Me with Johnny Marr.

So, dinner was great. Today I'm just relaxing (I feel like I'm coming down with a cold) so I'll take it easy, write some blog posts, and catch up on paying bills and finances, as well as some cleaning and washing I suppose.

What else have I been eating lately? Well, you know I can't miss out when McDonalds Japan introduces a new burger: the Texas Burger. Looks like it is a 650 calorie burger. The picture on their site looks better than the ones I've got, but that isn't surprising. They are doing a whole series on Big American Burgers with Texas up first. It looks like it will be around for about 3 weeks before they move on to the next burger, the Big America New York Burger. Third is California, and finally they have Hawaii. (See the list with pictures here.) The Texas one looks best to me, with Hawaii coming in second. I'm not sure what the differences are on California and New York, so I guess I'll go and translate their descriptions.


テキサスの荒野が目に浮かんでくるような、ワイルドな味わいのテキサスバーガー。スパイシーなバーベキューソースとピリッとした粒マスタードレリッシュの2種類のソースで、ジューシーでボリュームたっぷりの1/4ポンドビーフパティ(通常のビーフパティの約2.5倍)を、豪快にお楽しみください。生地を一つ一つ丁寧に手で丸め、色よく焼き上げた特製3段バンズは、弾力のある食感が特徴。サクッと揚げたフライドオニオン、チーズ、旨みたっぷりのベーコンのアクセントがクセになりそうな一品です。

ニューヨークの街角のカフェにある一皿を思わせる、スタイリッシュなニューヨークバーガー。この街が発祥といわれるクラブハウスサンドを本格バーガーに仕立てました。ジューシーでボリュームたっぷりの1/4ポンドビーフパティ(通常のビーフパティの約2.5倍)と、アメリカ生まれのモントレージャックチーズ、旨みたっぷりのベーコン、トマト、レタスの洗練されたハーモニー。粒マスタードソースのピリッとした辛味が程よいアクセント。特製グラハム(全粒粉)バンズとの相性も抜群です。

カリフォルニアの自然とそこに降り注ぐ太陽からの恵みを感じさせる、カリフォルニアバーガー。一番のポイントはカリフォルニア産赤ワインを使用した特製ソース。ジューシーでボリュームたっぷりの1/4ポンドビーフパティ(通常のビーフパティの約2.5倍)を芳醇な香りと深いコクで引き立てます。トマト、レタス、旨みたっぷりのベーコン、この地が発祥といわれるモントレージャックチーズとの豊かなハーモニーをご堪能ください。粉チーズをトッピングした香ばしい特製バンズも見逃せません。

世界で愛されるハワイの名物料理「ロコモコ」のおいしさをそのままハンバーガーに閉じ込めた、ハワイアンバーガー。深いコクのある特製グレイビーソースが、ジューシーでボリュームたっぷりの1/4ポンドビーフパティ(通常のビーフパティの約2.5倍)、ぷりぷりのタマゴ、旨みたっぷりのベーコン、チーズ、レタスを包み込んだ幸せなハーモニー。粉チーズをトッピングした香ばしい特製バンズも見逃せないポイントです。

Texas Burger:

The wild flavor of this Texas Burger will have the wilderness of Texas floating right before your eyes! You can enjoy two different sauces, the spicy BBQ sauce and a refreshing mustard relish along with a huge quarter pound of beef (2.5 times larger than the normal beef patty.) The elasticity of the trio of carefully hand-crafted well cooked buns is the special characteristic of this burger. And you're going to love the crunchy fried onions, cheese, and accents of bacon filled with umami in this burger.

New York Burger:

This stylish New York burger will make you think of a plate from a corner cafe in New York. This burger is based on the club sandwich that is said to have originated from here. It's got a juicy quarter pound beef patty (2.5 times the size of a normal patty) with the refined harmony of Monterrey Jack cheese that was originated in America, bacon full of umami, tomatoes and lettuce. It is accented by a spicy mustard sauce. It has an unrivaled compatibility with the specially-made graham (all flour) buns.

California Burger:

This California burger will make you feel the natural blessing of the sunshine that falls down on the state. The main point is the specialty sauce that uses white wine from California. The full quarter pound beef patty (2.5 times the size of a normal patty) is made with a mellow smell and deep flavor. You'll be fulfilled with the luxurious harmony between the tomato, lettuce, bacon with lots of umami, and Monterrey Jack cheese that was developed here. Don't forget the fragrant specialty buns topped with powdered cheese.

Hawaiian Burger:

We have locked in the world-famous beloved flavor of Hawaiian Loco Moco in this burger. A thick special gravy sauce is on the large quarter pound patty (2.5 times the size of a normal patty) with a jiggly egg, bacon full of umami, cheese, and lettuce make up this wrapped up harmony. You also can't look past the fragrant specialty buns topped with powdered cheese.

Huh, sounds like they are all mostly using the same ingredients. Still, it should be interesting to see what the upcoming hamburgers are like.


January 11, 2010

Lawrence Watt-Evans "With a Single Spell"

A few days ago I started reading Lawrence-Watt Evans' "With a Single Spell". At first, I didn't like it. It took a while to get into the book. I didn't like the protagonist. He was a lazy, entitled, selfish boy. I had a really hard time empathizing with him. I feel like I've worked for where I am. I was never the smartest or strongest in high school, but I was determined, and I studied hard. I didn't get great grades, but I got into the advanced classes, got some college credit, and kept that work ethic up through an (admittedly relatively unknown) undergraduate program, and went on to an ivy league school where I felt like I got a great education at the graduate level. Now I'm somehow in my mid thirties, married, own property, and live in a foreign country. I never once felt like I was doing just enough to get by, and have worked hard, and enjoy that.

So the first two chapters of this book were really hard to me to get into. I almost stopped reading. But I kept at it (not so much out of perseverance as much as a feeling that the first book was so good this was bound to get better. Also, I had to go to the restroom and wanted something to read…)

Anyway, yesterday, and a bit more today (on my day off) I found myself getting more and more into the story. It is a good story. I really like this world of Ethshar which seems to have a well-thought-out magic system and a plausible history and geography. I liked this book in the final acts when it really got into the wizardly magic bits of things. It reminded me of reading through the old Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition Dungeon Master's Guide with all the spells. What could you do with all those spells? How did they work? How would they fail to work? That is some really interesting stuff. I remember as a kid I would spend lots of time thinking about that, and planning out just how my moving castle would work. (I vaguely remember some sort of moving abode spell, can't recall the name now) and stuff like that. This book hits on some of those areas.

I also like the idea about the implications of a single spell and how it can be very useful when well-used. I always thought that the cantrips in AD&D could be more useful than people thought…

Anyway, I did enjoy the second book in the Ethshar series, but definitely the first book grabbed me more. I enjoyed this one enough to go and buy the third book, The Unwilling Warlord (although truth be told, I got it from fictionwise.com instead of Amazon, which just kills me as an Amazon customer. I can't bring myself to purchased a DRM-encumbered version of an ebook when I can get it without DRM.)

So, uh, four stars? Our of ? some stars? I enjoyed it, maybe you will too!


Movie Reviews: Up and Avatar

Grandpa Carl's flying (in the sky) house

A bit before the new year, R. and I went to see the latest Pixar movie, カールじいさんの空飛ぶ家. Simply "Up" in America, and "Grandpa Carl's flying house" in Japanese. I've noticed this trend before in Japanese movie titles, where the title is more expositive than the American title. Like, for example, 2012 might be "The day the world ends: 2012" or something like that. It is a little strange, but certainly makes the general idea of the movie a bit easier to grasp.

I don't see many movies in Japan: it is expensive here. There also just isn't the same culture we have in the US of heading out to the movie theater and showing up ten or fifiteen minutes before the movie starts. Every movie I've seen we have either bought our tickets online, or shown up one to three hours early to get the tickets. It is also expensive. R. and I have been seeing a few more movies recently because with her job at Tokyo Disneyland she gets an employee discount at the Disney-owned Ikspiari themed shopping mall that brings the ticket prices down to about $12 each. So we probably will be seeing more movies there.

I'll try to write a little bit about them here. If you want to keep reading, be aware that there are probably spoilers for Up and Avatar. Click the read more link to keep reading.

read more (1935 words)

January 5, 2010

Lawrence Watt-Evans' "The Misenchanted Sword"

Note that I actually purchased the ebook from fictionwise.com. And it was cheap: about $2 when I got it, but now it is back up to $6 it looks like. Huh.

I found this book through Joseph Mallozzi's blog / book club. It sounded interesting, and I liked that the author took the time to answer the questions. The general impression sounded good and it sounded like an interesting book in the fantasy genre that didn't just throw around the same plot and cliches. (It has new cliches and a distinct refusal to accept the common fantasy plot.)

I really enjoyed the book, and found it a refreshing look at a fantasy setting. I really like that the focus of the story was not on saving the world and defeating an overpowering enemy. It focuses on a character and how the character is changed by magic and war. I am always interested in books that take conventions of the genre and do different and new things with them. I'm also interested in good standard treatments though. I am not sure that I could count the number of treatments of Lord of the Rings that I've read.

The story is well written and goes by quickly. The story really focuses on one character more or less but the other people you meet along the way keep things interesting also. I enjoyed the book enough that I went and bought the second book in the series. Apparently this is one of the author's less successful series, so if the second book is also good I think I'll look into tracking down some of his more popular stuff.

Anyway, another book to get if you notice it somewhere!

December 27, 2009

2009 Christmas Dinner at Tateru Yoshino Shiba Park Hotel

Every year, R. and I go to a nice dinner for Christmas. I really look forward to that every year. This year, I wanted to try a Michel Star rated French place in Tokyo. Well, the Tokyo part is because I live here, and the Michelin Star part is because I've never eaten at one of those places before, and I found Joseph Mallozzi’s blog, who is a producer on Stargate Universe (which I like) and coincidentally did a great write-up of amazing food in Tokyo. I was jealous. So for my revenge, I decided to go eat some nice food of my own. If only I had the budget to do this every night for a week or so. But I don't.

So, R. and I went out to Tateru Yoshino at the Shiba Park Hotel. It was probably my favorite of all the Christmas dinners that we've done for the past three years. For comparison, the other two were at the New York Grill, and the COUCAGNO in the Cerulean Tower. They were both very good, but I remember feeling like I would explode after both of those meals. This time, the portions were smaller or I've gotten fatter because I didn't feel like I would explode. We also drank less this time (only one glass of champagne and one bottle of wine) so I wasn't nearly as drunk as the other two times. We had a wine tasting menu at COUCAGNO which was great, but too much to drink.

Of the places that we have eaten, this one was at the lowest elevation, at only the first floor. The other two were forty or fifty floors up. The food was great though. The evening was full of truffes, but I have had so few of them that I can't really evaluate whether they were good or not. The stand-out dish to me was the fish (the Amadai, I don't know what it is in English or French.) It had a great crispy shell and was just marvelously delicious. I also really liked the cabbage dish, and R.'s deer with chocolate. I would have preferred that to my bird, which was also quite nice, but I'm glad we tried a bit of each. The cheese wasn't so great for me, since I am not a big cheese fan, but R. really enjoyed it. The dessert (the real one, with the ice cream and cake-like crunchy object) was also great. Overall it was a really nice dinner. We also split a nice bottle of white wine, which of course I have now forgotten.

I'm not sure what we will do next year - I want to try to get reservations at the Molecular Bar but who knows?


December 26, 2009

Adventures with Flat Everett

Flat Everett is a new friend of ours that arrived in the mail the other day. My cousin (non-flat Everett) had a school project where they make a flat version of themselves, and then mail them off to friends. Then the friends will show the Flat Person around the town they live, and take a few pictures, that sort of thing. Sounds like fun! It is a good reason to spend a bit of time around the town where you live.

One of the things that my wife and I sometimes do is have dinner at a nice sushi restaurant that her family has been going to for many years. They know the head chef there, and he's a really nice guy. The sushi place is about an hour out of Tokyo, so we needed to catch a train. We headed out to Shinjuku station, which is one of the busiest train stations in the world.

From Shinjuku station, we took the strangely named Romance Car out to Sagami Ono. We didn't have enough money to get a separate seat for Flat Everett so he rode (fairly comfortably I think) in the seat-pocket. Once we arrived, Flat Everett met two Japanese women dressed up like Santa. It was just before the Christmas holiday and so there was lots of themed Christmas advertising and trees. People in Japan don't celebrate Christmas like people in America do. Christmas is not a national holiday and people go to school and work on Christmas day. Christmas Eve is a time for couples and couples will often go to a nice dinner and exchange presents. People don't usually give presents or toys to each other on Christmas though. They traditionally have Kentucky Fried Chicken (they do a lot of business on Christmas and Christmas Eve, due mostly to strong marketing campaigns in the 70s and 80s) and a Christmas Cake. I haven't had a Christmas Cake yet, but all the big department stores take pre-orders for Christmas Cakes a few weeks before Christmas.

We walked to the Sushi place (a nice restaurant in the local department store) after doing some shopping, and Flat Everett met the Sushi Chef there. He also made friends with my niece. The dinner was great, and we all went home very full. Unlike Flat Everett, I am starting to turn round. I need to see what Flat Everett does to keep in shape.


The day after Christmas my wife and I had the day off so we decided to go out to one of our favorite places in Tokyo (the 54 story Mori tower's Mori Art Museum) and Flat Everett came along with us. We've gone there a few times in the past year, at least three or four, and there is also a great view from the top of the tower over Tokyo itself. I had also, a few weeks prior, made reservations at the nearby Tateru Yoshino in the Shiba Park Hotel (a French restaurant that received a Michelin Star rating the past few years) in the evening, so we planned to make a day of it.

There is a big Spider sculpture outside of the Mori tower, and Flat Everett got a picture there too. The thing is large, and creepy. At night it is lit up a bit, and is intimidating. It also moves slightly with the wind, and has moved six or so inches in the four or five years since the tower opened. Walking past the spider, we eventually get to the entrance of the Mori Art Museum, and Flat Everett wanted a picture there also. Inside the museum there is a strict policy against taking pictures, so we don't have any pictures there. The exhibit we went to see was the Medicine and Art exhibit, which looked at the study of medicine as art. There were lots of drawings of human anatomy through history, including three drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci. It was a very interesting exhibit.

After the museum, Flat Everett, my wife, and I went up to the City View to get a look at Tokyo at night. One of the most famous sights in Tokyo is Tokyo Tower, a tower built in 1958 modeled after the Eiffel tower. We got a picture or two of Everett in front of the tower from the City View area, and then headed out to dinner. Our dinner was in Shiba park, and to walk there (about two miles) we would need to walk right by Tokyo Tower. So Flat Everett got to take a look at the tower up close. Since it was the day after Christmas, there was still a lot of Christmas decorations up. A lot of people come to Tokyo for Christmas with the girlfriend or boyfriend to just see all the Christmas lights and decorations. Tokyo Tower was no exception, with a big Christmas tree and lights and a little light show on the hour.

Right before we arrived at the hotel, there was an older Temple Gate with some statues in the gate. Flat Everett wanted a picture of that as well, although it didn't really turn out all that well. Flat Everett didn't join us for dinner, but it was really great.

I think we might try to visit a temple before Flat Everett moves on and visits a friend of ours.


December 23, 2009

A Pre-Christmas Dinner

I've been in Japan for a few years now, and I've really enjoyed Osechi Ryouri (the food Japanese people eat at the New Year) but this year, I really wanted to have a traditional American Christmas Dinner.

In our family we usually had Turkey and ham at Christmas. We also usually had corn, peas, sweet beets, mashed potatoes, buttermilk biscuits, and ambrosia fruit salad. I'm not sure why, but my family really loves ambrosia fruit salad. It is basically fruit coctail with marshmallows and miracle whip and way too much sugar.

That sounds like a pretty intimidating menu for me, since I'm not much of a cook. I usually make pasta, curry, tuna sandwiches, salad, stuff like that. I have made turkey before, but that is about it. So I pared the menu down a bit and decided on this:

  • Turkey. But I'll cheat: R.'s grandma wants to make turkey for Christmas, so if I buy her one, she'll make the stuffing for mine too. Great!
  • Gravy. Because, you know. Gravy.
  • Honey glazed ham. Doesn't look like it is too tough, and I love honey and ham and sweet stuff and pineapples. I don't see how I can screw this up.
  • Mashed potatoes. You can make those frozen ones easily and they taste great. Also, R. went to IKEA recently and brought back a bag of frozen mashed potatoes. Coincidence? I think not.
  • Corn. I love corn. And it is also easy to make if you have a bag of frozen corn. Which I do. Because I bought it. For tonight.
  • Cookies. I even made a bunch in advance. Chocolate chip (the best), sugar, and gingerbread men.
  • Ambrosia Fruit Salad. Like I said, it is an "our family" kind of food. I did make it a bit less sweet though.
  • Peach and Blueberry pie. Because it looks like it will be delicious and probably I won't mess it up. Because I bought a pre-made graham cracker crust, and frozen peaches and frozen blueberries. And I've got sugar and flour, and really, what else could you need? (Cinammon, and some other spices which I had already for the cookies. nice.)

So I actually started working on the cookies a few days earlier. They turned out amazingly great, if a bit flat. I need to work on that. I love the chocolate chip cookies, but wish they were a bit thicker. I think I can fix that though. Somehow. More flower, or more sutff to leaven the flour. Or who care. They are great! Just jam two of those things together.

In the morning I started on the pie. Why the pie? Figured I could re-heat it when we needed it and keep it in the fridge after it was done. Yep. It was easy enough: drain the fruits, add flour and sugar, mix them all together, throw into the pie crust (pre-made, I know, I am so lazy) and then throw them into the oven. It turned out great looking. (And later: it was great! But probably not really a real pie. But tasty.)

After the pie I started in on the turkey. Add some water, baste in brandy (Suntory style.) Every 15 minutes. And made sure the water doesn't disappear. Not so bad. Two and a half hours of that. But, on the plus side, it turned out great. Also, after the turkey was done, R. made some gravy from the neck and giblets.

After that I started in on the whipped cream for the ambrosia fruit salad. I wasn't able to find any miracle whip in any of the import specialty stores in Tokyo, so I just bought the 48% cream whatever it was. And a whisk. Then took one bowl, filled it with ice, and put a slightly smaller bowl in it. Then I started to whip. Whip it good. And man, that took a while. Like 10 minutes of whipping. Eventually thought the cream thickened up, and it looked good enough that I added some sugar and vanilla. (Side note: holy crap no wonder Americans are fat! I can't believe how much sugar and butter I used in all the cooking I did.) After whipping you just add the marshmallows, drained fruit, and well that is it. Refridgerate. Server later. But not too much later because you know, this is real cream here. (There is no way we will eat all this fruit salad before it turns into some sort of inedible something or other.)

After that was done and while the turkey was still cooking, I started on the glaze for the ham. Basically honey and butter with a bit of molasses (since I had some left over from the gingerbread man cookies and it seemed close enough to the dark corn syrup the recipe called for) heated in a double broiler. I didn't have one of those, so I went with the poor man's double broiler: one pot with water, one pot that is a bit smaller in that pot. Worked well. Enough. Man that sauce was strong. After baking the ham though, you really didn't get too much of the flavor, only a bit, and it was about right.

The mashed potatoes worked out well, and the corn too. Those are pretty easy.

Once the turkey was out, R. came home (oh yeah, I also vaccuumed and cleaned around the place) and started in on the gravy. I popped the ham into the oven and we let that go.

Just about 3 minutes before that was ready, my friends called from the station and were lost, so I went and picked them up. And we had a great dinner. Our friends brought some wine (we went through a bottle of Champagne, and the red and white that our friends brought) which we polished off, and then had dinner. The pie reheated really well, and the cookies went over better than I expected. The ambrosia was, as expected, too sweet. And it was a lot less sweet than what we usually have.

So the food went over well. Cleanup was a bit tougher. R. was passed out on the sofa, but that happens after drinking with a not unsurprising frequency so I didn't worry about that too much. Thankfully we sprung for the dishwasher (which are not very popular here or some reason) and after two loads pretty much I got through all the stuff. But our fridge is stuffed. And I am totally looking foward to the leftovers.

I am really impressed that we pulled this off. We've had two other dinner parties (curry and nabe) but this was by far the most planned. And the one that I had to do the most work for. And I really enjoyed it. Guess this post just comes off as a bit "what I had for dinner plus lots of bragging" and well, that is what it is. But it was good dinner, and I was able to eat better than I expected.


December 22, 2009

Up next on the ebook reader: Lawrence Watt-Evans "The Misenchanted Sword"

Lawrence Watt-Evans' Ethshar book series page.

But cheaper at Fictionwise.com. Sadly. Come on Amazon, get some good low-price options going here! I love impulse buying books that can be digitally delivered!

Over at Joseph Maolozzi's blog they did a book-of-the-month club selection of The Misenchanted Sword: A Legend of Ethshar (Legends of Ethshar). I haven't read the book, but it sounds very interesting, and I really enjoyed the interview (although I did do some skimming to avoid spoilers.)

The book is available on Amazon, but over at Fictionwise.com they have a non-DRMed version of the ebook for a mind-blowing $2.80. Wow! That is an impulse buy! So I impulse bought it. Now I have to load the thing up on my ebook reader and start reading. I am currently reading some objective-c programming stuff on there, but some good fantasy is so much more attractive than dry pointers and object oriented stuff. Well, maybe. In either case, "here there be dragons", as the old unix long-beards say.

December 21, 2009

Cooking (Cookies) by the Book

I committed to cooking dinner for my wife and some friends this week. One of the things I want to do is have some traditional Christmas desserts. So I decided to try making some Gingerbread Cookies. I've never really been a huge fan, but they are usually around at our house for Christmas. And if I was going to cook those, I could use it as an excuse to bake some of my favorite cookies: Chocolate Chip Cookies.

I also figured I would throw in some sugar cookies because I know those are fairly easy and hard to mess up. First up were the chocolate chip cookies at my place. I have used the oven there to make brownies before, but never cookies. It's a convection oven, so you need to modify the recipe a bit (make the temperature a bit lower, or the time a bit quicker, or both.)

We also don't have many things in the way of utensils. No electric mixer for us. So beating the butter and sugar together took a bit more time and effort than I expected. I did eventually get it though. And the batter eventually started to look like cookie dough. I cooked the first batch a bit longer than I should have, and all the chocolate chip cookies turned out a bit thin (maybe I need to put in more flower or baking soda.) Still, I tried one of the cookies and it tasted great. R. tried one too, and said it was good. (But too sweet was the unspoken, and later spoken, implication.)

In the afternoon we went over to R.'s parents place since her sister and our niece is there for the holidays, and we thought it might be fun to make cookies there with her. At R.'s parent's place they do have a mixer. A drink mixer. A kind of one-handed electric mixer motor. We actually have one at home too, but lost the mixing heads during the move. So I wasn't able to try it at home. Using it here, the thing definitely is not powerful enough to deal with cookie dough well. It got super hot and then bad smelling. I know enough about electronics to know that once things start to smell funny you stop using them. Or soon you will be forced to. So I finished a lot of the mixing by hand.

I hadn't used molasses before. The stuff stinks. I'm amazed at the end at how good the things turned out. Threw some salt and pepper in there too. And lots of other spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, that kind of thing.) After making the dough for the gingerbread cookies, I washed stuff out and started in on the sugar cookie dough. That dough was a lot simpler but took a lot more muscle because there just was not much in the way of liquids in there. One egg, and a teaspoon of vanilla extract.

After running four batches or so through the over, R. and her sister started in on the gingerbread men. We eventually got that stuff working and put two batches through and then started to decorate a few. The cookies (sugar, gingerbread, chocolate chip) all turned out great, if a bit thin, and maybe a bit burnt on the edges. We've got a whole bunch of cookies for the Christmas (well, the 23rd, since that is the Emperor's birthday and is an actual day off) dinner. Now I've only got to manage to bake a pie (I'll cheat an use a pre-made crust and pie top) a turkey (I've done that before though, and am getting help on the stuffing) a glazed ham (but super small and I doubt I can mess that up) mashed potatoes (from IKEA! Seriously!) and some peas / corn / carrots. I think it will turn out great.

And if not, I've got loads of cookies.

December 18, 2009

Foreign takes on Akihabara: fight!

Go and read this post over at Colony Drop by Sean, and then read the comments.

I like Akihabara a lot. The first time I went there was back in the 1989 (I believe) when I came to Japan with my dad. I bought a portable CD player (a ridiculously impossible thing at the time) with the money I had been saving. I marveled at the computers in the shops. We had an Apple //e, I was just beginning to do some programming in Basic and Pascal at the time. The color MSX computers on display at the time were amazing. I had never known anything about Japan before my first trip there, and afterwards I was interested.

A few years (well, a decade and a bit) later when I finally moved out here in a professional capacity, and Akihabara has changed. I miss the focus on computers, and the whole area seems like a high commercialized anime marketplace now. I was into anime in high school and college, but it never really stuck with me. I have been reading and translating manga for many years, mostly because that is something I can do at my own pace and it is easy to work in translation in small chunks of free time, so I'm familiar with the culture. But it isn't really anything that I am too interested in. As a professional programmer though, I miss the focus on more unique hardware and DIY computer projects. That still is there - and hey, stop by the Linux cafe next time you are in Akihabara - but that really seems like less of a focus now.

I also am big into Street Fighter, and really enjoyed when SF4 was on play test at the Hey! arcade there.

Anyway, the comment thread is really interesting. I haven't ever met Max Hodges but know of him through the ex-pat blogosphere and like what he writes. I have no idea who this Sean guy is. I've seen Patrick Galbraith in Akihabara before, but I'm not really into the whole moe thing. Doesn't mean I look down on it; I'm just not into it.

But wow, total ex-pat nerdfight.


December 7, 2009

Top Chef: Tuna Sandwich

I've been watching Top Chef season 6 lately. I really enjoy that show. I like eating good food, but I don't know much about good food. I just like to eat it. I also like to eat bad food, which is great because that is the kind of food that I know how to make.

So the other day I was at home, R. was out at work, and I wanted to eat something. I decided to cook. I made a tuna sandwich. I used the toaster oven and it was great. Also, Heinz Tomato Ketchup with Tabasco Sauce is totally great. It makes all sorts of stuff taste better.

November 30, 2009

Nick Harkaway's "The Gone-Away World" and Bich Mihn Nguyen's "Short Girls"

Nick Harkaway's "The Gone-Away World"

I picked up this book a while back, and once I started reading it I had a hard time putting it down. This was my first time reading anything by Nick Harkaway, and I found his writing style to be a bit verbose, but very refreshing.

The setting is interesting; a broken world after a scientific disaster that allows the fantastic to leak into (or completely overrun) the world we are familiar with. The story isn't as much about the fantastic creatures and events, but about how people deal with things, and in particular, the protagonist and his circle of friends. There is also a very interesting comment on society and capitalism and the role of corporations.

Also, ninjas.

I really enjoyed the book, and in a way it reminded me of works by Haruki Murakami (one of my favorite authors) where there is some underlying fantastic element to life. It is much more obvious here, but I felt the same sense of an awakening wonder as I read.

Bich Mihn Nguyen's "Short Girls"

I also recently read "Short Girls" by Bich Mihn Nguyen. I haven't read anything by her before, but was intrigued by the cover (which depicts a ... short girl) and despite the warning not to judge books by their covers, went ahead and picked it up. I enjoyed the book, but it was a bit tough for me. The book centers on a Vietnamese immigrant family, and in particular the first generation daughters, Van and Linny, and their father.

Since I'm in an inter-cultural marriage, the focus on Van and her marriage to a American (of Chinese descent, but many generations out so just a regular American I suppose) was very interesting, and yet difficult for me. I can understand some of the sources of friction in inter-cultural marriages, and that whole aspect of the book led to a lot of introspection.

I enjoyed the book overall, but it isn't on my standard list of "entertainment" (science fiction or fantasy) books, but instead is more of an interesting piece of fiction that goes into a pile for understanding the American experience when you aren't American. Or trying to make your own American experience. I'm interesting in those sorts of stories more now that I'm in living in Japan and trying to come to terms with what that means for me and my family, and wondering about whether we will ever move to the US, and in that capacity deal with issues like these.

The book does deal with adult issues (marriage, adultery) and looking back, was not the happiest thing I've read lately. I still enjoyed the book a lot, and you might want to give it a try if you are interested in America and cultural assimilation / adaptation.

November 20, 2009

Very interesting Stardock Annual Report

I like Stardock a lot. They started out as a windows accessory developer, and then branched out into games. Now they are running an online distribution network for games and other stuff called Impulse. Their president, Brad Wardell, seems like a great guy.

I bought Galactic Civilizations 2 from them and really enjoy it. (Man, I wish I had a Windows machine so I could actually play it, but I don't have any windows machines any more.) I also bought a few other games from them over Impulse, and their weekend impulse sales, where they put really good discounts on games for just a weekend, are really tempting. Too bad I don't have a gaming PC any more. Hopefully I'll address that shortcoming in 2010 or 2011.

You can read their 2009 Annual Report (warning: PDF link) and I highly recommend it. Very interesting. I think it was the first annual report I ever read front to back just because it was interesting.

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