May 6, 2009

Shamus Young's PixelCity Screensaver

I'm a big fan of Shamus Young's Twenty Sided Tale blog. It is very well written, generally very interesting, has geeky computer stuff, fun game-related stuff, DRM related ranting, and generally is just a very interesting blog. I don't really know how Shamus does it; it looks like he is married and has N kids where there is an N that exists such that N >= 1, writes funny stuff for his blog, and has very high quality posts overall. I've been trying to make my blog a bit better by emulating some of Shamus' posts: write clearly, use pictures whenever possible, and try to pick interesting topics.

I generally am only able to use pictures, and only then infrequently. But I'm trying. For some really interesting and funny stuff, see the DM of the Rings, an exploration of what Lord of the Rings would look like if it was a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Very tongue-in-cheek humor.

What I'm interested in publicizing this time though is a very interesting programming project that Shamus took on in the completely unflattering light of the public. Programming is a lot of fun, but you certainly have to be of a certain mindset to enjoy it. In a way, programming is like building a city from the ground up: you have to start out planning the zoning, the roads, the infrastructure, utilities, then the kinds of buildings you need, how to build them, how to manage them, etc. It is even more like building a city from the ground up when you are writing a program about building a city from the ground up, which is exactly what Shamus did. His series on PixelCity starts out with a simple goal: automatically build a city completely algorithmically. Wait, actually that isn't really such a simple goal.

Anyway, start with the link above and read through the whole series. By the time you get to the end you should have a good understanding (from a high level) of what programming projects are like. As a reward, you can download a Windows Screensaver that builds a city for you and then flies you around it. It is seriously cool. He has released the source code to the community, so I expect that a Mac and Linux version will show up soon. If not, that is something that I would be interested in looking into, but until I get my wedding planned and done, I don't have much time for those kinds of projects. I'm lucky to find the time to put out a half-coherent blog post every once in a while.

So, if you are interested in what it looks like, check out this very nice video Shamus posted on YouTube:

May 5, 2009

Review of the BBC Series Survivors (2008)

I recently watched the BBC Series "Survivors", which is apparently a remake of a 1975 - 1978 British TV show. It came out in 2008 an concerns a virulent flu outbreak that kills off all but about 1% of the population. Put this on the TV and see if you can convince people that it is a documentary on the current state of the H1N1 "Swine Flu" epidemic going on in Britain. You probably won't get too far with it, but it really is a pretty scary presage of what could happen.

I enjoyed the series quite a bit. It has a lot of the flavor of 2006 TV Series Jericho, itself an end-of-the-world descent into de-civilization via not disease but nuclear war. Both deal with similar issues and are a lot of fun. They also both remind me of J. Michael Straczynski's Jeremiah, a TV series about a post-nuclear world where ... Hm, I get the feeling that this could go on a for a while. So I'll cut it out now.

Anyway, I enjoyed Survivors a lot. It has apparently been renewed for a 2009 season, so that is something to look forward to (along with the BBC standby of Doctor Who.)

I usually try to put in a few pictures because I know that people won't read blog posts without them, but I didn't manage to get any pictures this time. Bummer. Just imagine a very empty Britain, like something out of Children of Men, or 28 Days Later or ... wait, I started doing it again.

May 2, 2009

Setting up an AFP (Apple Filesharing Protocol) on Ubuntu and a Firefly iTunes Media Server

One of the things I've been meaning to do for a while is set up my Ubuntu machine to share out the music I have on it. I run Amarok on the machine and love it, but that doesn't help when I'm super lazy and don't want to reach over for the linux machine keyboard when I have a perfectly good laptop in my lap*. (* Of course, I do have a VNC server set up on the machine so I could VNC in and start up Amarok that way, but it somehow feels like cheating.)

First step in getting the machine to share out music: set up an AFP server do the other machines in the house (mostly Macs) can see it. That was a lot easier than I expected: just follow the instructions on this post. Great! That seemed to work well. I think. I already had samba up and running on the machine and I am guessing that is what is currently showing up in the Finder. I'll check it out on R.'s machine when I can pry her away from it. The one thing that I did do was to change ATALK_MAC_CHARSET to 'MAC_JAPANESE' and ATALK_UNIX_CHARSET to 'UTF8'. It was pointed out over on this Japanese blog entry that that would be a good idea. I also set up a share for my data folder. I was impressed that this went so smoothly because you need to compile the service from source in order to enable encrypted passwords on the server. It went really smoothly though.

Once you have AFP set up, you need to set up Avahi to broadcast the server. This guide is a really nice explanation of how to set up Avahi. So once that is done, you can move on to the next step in the process: and set up Firefly on the system. That setup was also really smooth, with the exception that for some reason, if you change the default password the service does not seem to work. I have no idea why that would be the case, but do have a vague memory of the same thing happening a few months ago when I set it up. Annoying, but not such a big deal. Once I hit up the webpage for the service, set up the proper directory for the music, and did the scan, the share showed up in iTunes just fine. Nice.

April 30, 2009

My first, and last, Kart Racing Experience

So last Sunday the guys at work set up a Kart racing outing. If you drive from Tokyo to Chiba, about an hour and a half from where R. and live, out in the boondocks, you can find a small Kart Racing track. I have never been Kart racing before, but R. has, and when we were randomly in Italy for 24 hours (bad -- or good -- planning on my part, don't ask) we saw a Kart race and R. was just enthralled. So I thought we should join the group and give it a go. It would be a fun way to spend an Sunday evening.

We drove out there, taking the really amazing Tokyo Aqualine Tunnel and got there a bit early. I didn't know until then, but R.'s Mini Cooper's GPS unit has a TV tuner. So we watched some TV. Also, it has a remote control. Seriously? It is very hard to get any farther than an arm's length away from the GPS unit in that car even if you tried. But still, a remote control. Wow, we are lazy.

Anyway, we had a total of 19 people. That means we had to split into two groups. The fast group, and the slow group. We determined who was in which group by a time trial. Before that we had a 15 minute practice period. I have never ridden in these little carts before, and I'm bad with motion in general. I get car sick easily, I hate landing on airplanes, basically everything at Disney Land or any of those amusement parks makes me throw up, most elevators make me a bit quesy... So sitting a few inches off the ground, zooming around and making hard turns is probably not something that would be good for me. So on the practice laps I was very slow. I wasn't sure if what would happen on the turns. I was worried that taking one at high speed would mean I would flip over. Scary. By about the tenth time I got passed on a corner though, I began to figure out that maybe I wouldn't flip over if I was going a bit quicker through the corners. So on the time trial I gave it more gas, and promptly spun out. My best lap time in the time trial was the second worst time in the whole group, so I was solidly in the second, slow, group.

R. made it into the first, fast group.

The slow group was first. I finally decided that I might as well try to gun it as much as possible. The race was set up for 22 laps. By the third lap I actually figured out that I basically only had to let up on the gas on two corners. I started actually passing people. I went from second to last to first. With five laps to go, I thought I had it won. Then I spun out and fell back to 3rd place. I was just barely able to make it to first place with 3 laps to go. I am honestly really impressed that I managed to do that. Unfortunately, the last five laps or so I was starting to feel pretty ill what with all the cornering and skidding and fast moving and whatnot. So basically after I finished, took the picture with the flag, I got out and felt like throwing up. I didn't though, and I managed to get some water, and about two days later I was feeling find again.

R. did well for her group, came in 4th. As the winner of the slower group, my best lap time was only better than about half of the best lap times of the people in the first group.

All told though, it was a lot of fun. Except for the sick part. I'm glad I was in the second group and not the first, but I know that is not something I will be doing again.

Esther M. Friesner's The Sword of Mary: A Sequel

I posted earlier about the book Psalms of Herod, and generally didn't come away from it with a good impression. The main detraction is that it is not a self-contained book. It just ends, abruptly. It was just by chance that I picked up the sequel, The Sword of Mary: A Sequel (at least the title makes that clear.) I had heard good things about the two books on tor.com in the comments of some thread, and so I picked them up. If you only have the first book though, I think you would be very disappointed. It just ends, halfway through. It would be like you started reading The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings, Part 1) and then that was it. Over. Frodo and Sam break off from the party and head to Mordor on their own with clearly nothing resolved and a lot left to happen. But that is where it ends. So be sure you pick up the second book if you do start this two book series.

That might be easier said than done though: it looks like it is a hard book to get your hands on. I'm conflicted on these two books because they deal very seriously with sexuality, power, sexism, politics and the judiciary (more in the second book than the first) and religion as a foundation for social order. These aren't fluffy summer-reading topics, and a lot of the world described in the books is grim and downright depressing. I think they are interesting in that it highlights some issues with blindly following through with tradition without thinking and analyzing it, but the two books seem a bit on the salacious side. I have to admit though that I did enjoy the story and by the end was rooting for the (initially quite annoying) protagonist. Friesner has also done a very nice job of world-building; she obviously put a lot of thought into the economics, politics, and control structures of her world. She doesn't go in depth into the history of her world, but it is hinted at, and I like how you get the feeling that there is the thought and complexity behind the world in the books.

The ending of Mary's Sword is also a bit abrupt, but is satisfying. I did enjoy the story though, and while I had a tough time getting into Psalms of Herod, The Sword of Mary picked up a lot quicker. It should though, because it already had an entire book to set it up!

So, a mixed review. If you invested time in Psalms of Herod though, you really should finish it out with The Sword of Mary.

April 26, 2009

iPhoto 09's Faces Feature

I recently bought iLife 09 and have been using the Faces feature in iPhoto a lot. The Faces feature will look through all your pictures and identify people's faces. Then you can put a name to the face, and gradually iPhoto learns to spot pictures of that person. It is an amazing feature. Facial recognition has been a promised feature from Artificial Intelligence since the 80s, and this (along with Picasa's Name Tags) is the first really commercial product that I have seen facial recognition in. Since I'm a computer scientist by trade, I'm well aware of how these kinds of things work beneath the covers, and while there has been some press coverage saying that this feature isn't ready for mass release, I disagree. I think it does a good job, has a great interface, and more than that, is really fun to use. I find that once I put a name to a face, I want to go through and see what other pictures I can find that the person is in. I also have been adding metadata to my pictures in some way (going back to file name for really old pictures) that show who is in a picture, so it is interesting to see how well iPhoto compares to my tags.

Once you have added a bunch of names to faces, iPhoto has a nice cork-board of faces that you can click on to find all pictures they are in, or have iPhoto show you more pictures that it thinks they might be in. Adding names to faces is very easy. When you see a picture, you hit the "Name" button and then get a picture like the one to the left. People who have a known name have their name below their face, and for people whose name isn't known you see either "unnamed" or iPhoto asking "Is this X?" where X is someone you have already named. It is really impressive. iPhoto does a very good job of noticing faces - it doesn't always notice all faces, but it gets most of them - and it does a good job of suggesting names when it thinks it might know who someone is.

Once you have named a few people and they show up on the list of faces, you can easily scan through lots of pictures and confirm or deny iPhoto's guesses. You can go through and quickly click once to confirm a face, or twice to deny it. You can also name a guess as someone else with a control-click if it threw someone else into the list of guesses. It makes it really easy to go through and check all the pictures iPhoto thinks someone might be in. Then once you have done a round of confirmation and rejection it will re-search the database for more pictures. Getting it to get down to zero suggestions for each person is addictive. Of course, even if there are no more suggestions, that does not mean that all pictures of that person have been found. If you are going through yourself and find some untagged pictures, you can tag them and then iPhoto will do more guessing based on the new data point. For obsessive compulsive people you might stuck in a loop where you want to go through every picture and make sure that everyone is named. That might not be a good thing...

iPhoto is also wrong sometimes, and guess that strange things might be faces. In the middle picture on the right, names have been blurred to protect the innocent and stomach-face-bearing people. Also, iPhoto doesn't know when a face is a human, or whether it is just a face-like object to sometimes hilarious results.

Things that disappoint me about this feature in iPhoto: there should be better intergration with the Address Book. After a software update, iPhoto will suggest people from your address book, which is great. It does this based mostly on email addresses to keep track of people, so you can add someone's email address from address book and you won't get duplicate name suggestions. I wish that in address book though that it would know about the faces in iPhoto and you could get the faces gallery on the Address Book entry. As it is now, you have to go into iPhoto yourself, pic a picture, then drag it over to Address Book. You also lose the nice face cropping that iPhoto does for you. That's too bad. I hope that in future updates that put that kind of functionality into Address Book.

Another issue is that iPhoto 09 adds Flickr and Facebook support, but at least in Flickr it doesn't look like they send the extra faces meta-data. They should make a Flickr "note" around the face with the name, or at least put a list of the recognized people into the photo. As it is now I feel like I have to go in and manually type the names into the description field, which is exactly what I was trying to automate out of the picutre. (uh, no pun intended.) I haven't checked if they do that for Facebook yet. Also the upload interface isn't as nice as what I have been using, Connected Flow's Flickr Export. That has a lot more options and gives you a much better update on upload progress. I'll probably keep using it since I prefer it - you can create new sets with a description and it just generally is more powerful.

Otherwise I am really happy with Faces. It is a fun way to spend time going through your old pictures. I'm afraid that now I'm addicted to trying to name everybody that has ever been in one of my digital photos...

April 15, 2009

OSX Password generator script

http://www.codepoetry.net/products/passwordassistant

Found a nice script to open up the OSX password generator window. Might come in handy if you need to generate a bunch of passwords. I'm still looking for a good replacement password safe for OSX / linux / windows (preferably one that works on all three.) I have been using Keyring (an open source Palm application) for ages, and still have my Treo 600 as basically a portable password store (but I don't have it with me at right this moment, so this script will come in handy.)

April 14, 2009

Sakuracon 2009

By pure chance our hotel was next to the Seattle Convention Center. The week before was the big comic book convention, ComiCon. The day we left Seattle was the first day of the Sakura-con, an anime-themed convention in Seattle. Apparently. R. and I had a few minutes before leaving, so we popped into the convention center and took some pictures. She was too shy to take the pictures, but really got a kick out of seeing everyone dress up. I took all the pictures, and I asked every person if it was ok. Everybody was super excited to get their picture taken, and they almost always posed in some way appropriate to their character.

Click to see pictures and ...    read more (747 words)

Psalms of Herod and Architects of Emortality

Psalms of Herod

This flight out I didn't read many books. I only started one, Esther Freisner's "Psalms of Herod", but I didn't even finish it on the plane. I ended up finishing it on the road sometime. I didn't really like the book. It is set in some unspecified point of time in the future of a very heavily Christian-influenced world, perhaps somewhere in America based on how the language is written. The main character is a woman, Becca, who starts to question the social order that she lives in. The roles of women are strictly defined, and highly controlled by the paternal authority figure. There isn't much that a woman can do on her own in the world of the book. Something peculiar has also happened to women biologically so that they are only fertile twice a year, which comes into play with some of the rituals that are set up for them.

The book starts slowly. Very slowly. I wasn't sure I would finish it because I was having a lot of trouble getting into it. Once things started going a bit quicker I was drawn in enough to finish off the last half of the book fairly quickly, but it was a close call. I don't like the society described in the book, and while it is very reminiscent of "A Handmaid's Tale" and is trying to warn against a strong role of religion in society it just isn't something I'm interested in reading in fiction for fun. You don't have to go far in our world today to find religion and oppressed women in non-fiction, which is what I would prefer to read if I wanted to take up the subject. Still, there is an interesting science fiction story here, and using science fiction to explore areas of the human condition is one of the things that can be done well in the genre.

The book itself doesn't have an ending. Very disappointing. It is continued in the sequel, "The Sword of Mary", and the way things end in this book is just terribly disappointing. Do not pick it up unless you have the second volume on hand if you intend to actually finish it. It also has some very adult themes (sexuality, oppression, rape, child abandonment, etc.) so you might to give it pass based on content also. I do have the second book myself, since I had the series recommended to me from somewhere (a thread over on tor.com I think?) and am interested in finishing it, but I can't really recommend the book.

Here is a review that seemed to like it though.

Architects of Emortality

A more traditional set-in-the-future science fiction book. A murder mystery in the 25th century with a Victorian flavor lent by the character of Oscar Wilde. I did enjoy this book, but I never did come to identify with the main character. Also, you will probably enjoy the book a lot more if you are well versed in 19th and 20th century literature. I am not well read in that area myself, and I'm sure I missed a lot of the fun that went a long with things. I'm not sure what the whole point was having two of the police characters named Holmes and Watson - it was clearly a reference to the Sherlock Holmes novels, and was even commented in the book, but I missed the greater point. One thing that annoyed me about the book is that I was never able to really sympathize with the character from whose viewpoint we see the story. I think that was probably intentional as the main character, and by far most appealing one, was clearly Oscar Wilde, and there are strong reasons for the story not being told from his point of view. It bothered me that the thoughts I was often reading from the narrative sometimes struck me as petty and annoying. I feel like I was missing something there, but overall it was a fun book set in an interesting future world where genetic engineering has been taken to a pretty far extreme. Bonus: no brain swapping VR and singularity computer stuff in this book. I feel like I've had enough of that for a while (although I love the Charles Stross books, I have a limited appetite for virtual reality novels.)

From SFO to Seattle

R. and I were in Seattle. Click "read more" to see a bunch of pictures and words about it.    read more (1775 words)

March 26, 2009

Bishop Allen at the Rickshaw Stop, San Francisco

I am a huge Bishop Allen fan. I've liked them for years now, and saw one of their first shows in New York probably 6 years ago. Any chance I get, I try to see these guys play live. They are huge fun. On Saturday (four or five days ago) I flew into San Francisco to spend a week and a half in Palo Alto at work and it just happens that by chance, my faves Bishop Allen were playing a show in San Francisco last night! I finished work up a bit early and hopped on the train. Of course I went early since I wanted to catch up with Christian and Justin if they were hanging around. When I walked into the bar, I was shocked to see someone I wasn't expecting: Michael Tapper, who I know mostly as the drummer for We Are Scientists, but maybe a year or three back they parted ways. Sounds like he's been drumming for Bishop Allen, which is completely awesome, so I spent some time chatting with him. Later on I bumped into Justin and Christian, but I didn't have my camera handy then so no pictures.

The first band was the Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band, who were ok. Next up was the Miniature Tigers who I really enjoyed. I will try to pick up some of their music when I get a chance. They had one song, "Japanese Woman Living in my Closet", about the incident that made the news a while back about a Japanese woman that was caught living in a man's closet for more than a year. I thought that was kind of funny. They have a nice melodius song, a bit of humor, and are perhaps a bit sarcastic, or at least twist convention around a bit for matching lyrics and song.

I really enjoyed paying $15 and seeing three bands. That is a real bargain compared to Japan, where I usually have to pay $50 and I see only one band. Michael was saying that he thought $15 was a bit steep, and I was just super excited about how cheap it was! I guess you really get used to the local market.

Bishop Allen was really good. I hadn't had a chance to pick up there new album, Grrr..., until the concert so I didn't know all the songs they played, but they also had some great songs off of their debut album Charm School (a great album) and The Broken String (another good album.) I recommend going to the Bishop Allen website itself and ordering from there - you will probably get the same price but more of the money will go to the band than if you buy from other places. They also sell the one-EP-a-month albums there, which are pretty fun. I think they are all generally of very high quality.

The music was great. They had a lot of energy, and were tight. There was a nice sound system, and the crowd was great. They were really into it. The people near me were actually really into (well, one girl in particular) and was dancing around like mad. I was doing a fair bit of dancing, jumping, and screaming myself. I hadn't seen these guys since they played my PhD thesis defense party (well, it was actually the closing show for the Tank in NYC, but that isn't how I remember that day) three years ago, and I've really missed the music scene I used to be pretty connected to when I was in NYC. The girl who was next to me even tried to get me to do some swing dancing type stuff (and I was awful at that when I was trying to take a few lessons back in Dallas) and (since this is San Fran., and she was pretty butch, probably of the feminist persuasion) forced me into a few spins. It was lots of fun. Apparently Bishop Allen has gotten pretty big when I wasn't looking because they really packed the place and people were really going nuts. I worked up a pretty good sweat myself. Two encores. The second was a spur-of-the-moment "Ghosts are Good Company" with Christian and Darby. Very nice.

After the show, I stopped by to chat with Christian and buy the latest album (gotta support the bands you love!) and then caught a cab back to the Caltrain station. I didn't make it back to the hotel until 1:30am, but it was totally worth it. I only wish that R. would have been able to make it. I'm sure we'll have a chance to see some of the bands that I love in the future too, but I haven't been able to convince BA to come to Tokyo yet. Well, that isn't true - Justin and Christian are really receptive to the idea, but they haven't been able to get any of the touring and booking stuff to happen. I'm starting to think that I should talk to some of my friends that have connections in the industry to see if I can get someone to invite them out. I would love to see them at Summer Sonic or Fuji Rock...

So if you don't know about Bishop Allen, you clearly haven't been hanging around with me for too long. Go hit up their website and buy Charm School - it is a great place to start and an absolutely amazing album.

Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen's Wheelers

This is a book that I picked up on my last trip out (from Half-price books I think) and I finally got a chance to read it on the flight from Tokyo to San Francisco. It was a good book, I enjoyed it. It was a nice departure from the science fiction that I have been reading lately because there was no mention of "singularity" and almost no computer use. Lately it seems like I am only reading singularity-based computer virtual reality books with personality downloading into mechanical matrixes because we have basically perfected storing models of conciousness. Those books are fine and good, but it was nice to get back to a more traditionaly space ships and aliens sci-fi novel. Still, for that genre this book was a bit out of the ordinary: it is one of the few that I can remember that limits itself to our solar system.

I enjoyed the biological / evolution / ecological system aspect of the book. It turns out it was written by professors of mathematics and a biology, so it makes sense that they put a lot of thought into those areas of the book. It took a while for me to get into it, but once I got into it things picked up. It looks like this might be hard to get ahold of, but if you see it around you might enjoy it. I thought that the aliens in the book were interesting and well thought out. I think the idea of putting aliens in our solar system now is a pretty gutsy move, and it is fun reading sci-fi that is set "in the neighborhood."

A visit to the National Art Center in Tokyo

Right before hopping on a plane to go to America for business, there was a day off and R. and I went to the National Art Center Tokyo (but I thought it was the New National Art Musuem? the English and Japanese seem to tell different stories.) I was excited to go to the museum because I had never been before, and I knew it was architecturally interesting. I really like the exterior (and interior for that matter) and have seen it from Mori tower in Roppongi Hills before. I had no idea what was going on, but when have you ever gone wrong by visiting a cool museum?

For me the big thing was walking around the building and checking out the space. I really love the organic smooth flow to the building. It has a nice, roomy interior and an interesting play of light and shadows inside the building.

The exhibition was Artist File 2009, and was pretty cool. I really liked SAITO Meo's work in particulat, even though some of the text-heavy stuff was hard to understand. The paintings had themes, all using the same shape with two different series shown. It was cool. Very detailed, very nice. There was also a series of fake encyclopedic flora, things like "suicide flowers" or other flowers that are representing concepts. Those were much more interesting if you took the time to read the justification and explanations, but it was difficult for me to do. I enjoyed puzzling out what I could though. There were other interesting things, some nice portraits (large format) and abstract paintings that had nice colors (inoffensive, easy to look at, but not as challenging or interesting as SAITO Meo's stuff.)

If you are in Tokyo and have some time, I really liked this museum. I recommend it, check it out!

March 23, 2009

Apple's FrontRow

Front Row main menu
Front Row Main Menu

Front Row TV Menu
Front Row TV Menu

On this trip to the US, I brought two machines with me: my work laptop (older, small Dell running WinXP, ugh) and a bigger, middle-aged MacBook Pro 15" laptop running OSX. OSX is really great. I can not praise the automated backup facility it comes with enough. I also love the E-mail client, and all of iLife is pretty amazing also.

One thing I have never really played with though is Frontrow. So I thought it would give it a try. My MacBook came with a cute little remote control, and after putting the mac up on the desk and settling back in the chair with my other laptop for some work last night, I started Front Row up. I was really surprised with how easily it worked. I threw all my media files into a folder on the Movie folder, and navigating there was really easy. The remote works very well. I can read things from across the room. The only thing I couldn't do was delete a file after watching it, but that isn't really a big deal.

I was really impressed with how smoothly things went for playing video. The only problem is that it uses Quicktime to play files, and so isn't quite able to play all formats that I would expect. For example, I have a few files encoded into OGM (Ogg Media format), the open-source container, and Quicktime didn't know what to do with that. I got an error "the video could not be played: the format was not recognized". That is understandable - I never put any OGM codecs on the system, even though I can play the files with the VLC media player.

Perian is a codec that should let me play .mkv files, and perhaps .ogm. I'm not sure about that, but I installed and downloaded it anyway. The Xiph Quicktime components purport to support Ogg Vorbis in QuickTime. After installing that I could get the music to play, but no video. Too bad. Still, most of the stuff that I have is in an AVI container and more and more of it is coming as h264 content, which QuickTime handles just fine.

I'm really impressed with the FrontRow interface. I think once I am rich I will eventually get a Mac Mini and hook it up to the TV for media-player duties.

Back in the USA

I'm back in the USA for three weeks. I flew in yesterday (Saturday) from Tokyo to San Francisco. It was a quick flight, 9 hours. That seems quick to me because usually I fly to New York, which is closer to 14 hours. Anyway, the flight was nice. What was really great is that this is the first time I had ever had a pair of noise canceling headphones - I have a pair of big Sony headphones that I've been using at work - which really cut out the cabin noise. I was really surprised at just how loud it was in the cabin after I had had the headphones on for a while. I watched one movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still (the new one with Keanu Reeves), read a bit, played some Tapper on my GP2X, and slept a bit. The movie was ok. I have never seen the original though, so I don't have anything to compare it to. I loved the cameo by John Cleese.

When I got into SFO I got some coffee, rented a car (Pontiac G5, seems fine but has poor visibility out the back. I should have taken a car without a spoiler.) and headed to the hotel. Then I slept for hours and hours...

I now have my cell phone working - a AT&T Go Phone, so I just added $25 to it and provisioned it with a number. I did some work in the morning, watched the Heat - Pistons game, and now will relax a bit, read some, and maybe do some more work in the evening.

Best of all: I got tickets to Bishop Allen show in San Francisco on Tuesday! I'm super excited about that!!

I have also already eaten a cookie and three brownies. I know I'm going to gain weight, and R. is going to be angry with me for getting fat...

March 20, 2009

Review of Charlie Stross' Atrocity Archives and Glasshouse

I've finished two more Charlie Stross novels recently. The first is Glasshouse. I highly recommend it. A far-future sci-fi novel, instant transfer wormhole gates, personality downloads, backups, and editing. The main hook is: in a society where mass memory editing has taken place, how can you track down things that might have been completely erased from collective history? It was a very interesting read and has some provoking things to say about memory and history.

The second book is the Atrocity Archives. I also really enjoyed this book. I went in without knowing much about it except for the keywords Lovecraftian, Turing theorem, and some relationship between the two. This is really good for people who have a computer science background and have read lots of fantasy fiction. The book uses a system of well-defined magic mixed with technology. There is another series that I really like that does things the other way: Rick Cook's Wizardry Series. In that series a computer programmer is transported to a world of magic. It has rules and as a programmer he's good at doing things in structured environments. In the "Bob Howard Laundry" series in the Atrocity Archives we have the opposite approach: magic leaks into our technological world, and is also accessible to computer programming-type people.

The book is actually two short stories smashed together, which makes the book really seem disjointed. That bothered me until I realized that it was intentional (just smashing some existing writing together - a lot like my phd thesis...) and then I didn't have any issues with it. There is a sequel (The Jennifer Morgue (Decorating & Design)) that I am interested in reading now also. The book was lots of fun, and pretty funny also. Highly recommended. (Seems like that is how all my book reviews end...)

March 6, 2009

Credit Crisis Visualized


The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.
A really nice video visualizing the credit crisis. This American Life has also done three really great podcasts on the credit crisis with the guys from NPR's Planet Money .

Crazy stuff going on out there. Great little explanation in the video though.

March 3, 2009

A good thing to know...

Here is something useful for me to know:

At home, if I run the stove in toaster mode, the microwave, the heater, the rice cooker, the usual complement of computers, the other usual appliances, and I hit the "bidet" button on the toilet, I can blow the circuit breaker.

And it gets *very* dark...

February 25, 2009

Jeff Bezos and Kindle 2 on The Daily Show

I'm a big fan of The Daily Show. Imagine my surprise when I came home to watch Monday night's show and - what what what!? Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com? Why didn't I know about this!? Anyway, the interview is funny, but the Kindle doesn't come out in the best light in this interview. I was surprised really, because I think Jon Stewart is usually very good, but it seemed like he didn't know much about the kindle. I thought he would be all-up-ons this ipod-like genx technology. He seems to be a big fan of reading, but maybe he also likes old-fashioned books. I do too, but I also like the idea of having a portable library if I want that option. :)

I think it is really cool that Jeff went on the Daily Show to promote the Kindle 2. I took a few screenshots, and added what I thought were funny moments. The first shot Jon acts surprised when "Kindle 2" isn't a movie. He gets lots of movie guests. In the second shot he was poking fun at shipping costs, and Jeff introduced the Amazon Prime program ($79 a year, all orders shipped 2day shipping at no further cost) and Jon gave him a bit of ribbing about that. If you order a lot from Amazon it is a great deal. If not, then it isn't such a great deal. But just wait until gas prices rise a bit more...

The third shot is the actual Kindle hand-off, and the fourth shot just has the crawl info for Jeff. Thought it was interesting.

What a surprise. R. said I was entirely too surprised when this came on, but I don't see the director of her hospital on the Daily Show. :)

A trip Hirosaki in the Winter

I'm always complaing about how I am busy and don't have any time. It is true that I am busy, but time is one of those strange things that you can definitely find more of if you have a good reason. Last weekend I took a kind of spur-of-the-moment trip up north to Hirosaki. The main reason for the trip was to get out of Tokyo and see some snow. I also thought it would be a nice trip to get a change of pace. I've been working pretty hard lately and it would be nice to get away from computers for a weekend and relax a bit. When my friend Ian suggested a trip up north, I thought it was a great chance for a change of pace.

I have been in Japan for three years, but haven't really travelled very much domestically. Thinking back, I'm a bit surprised at how little I've travelled. I'll try to fix that once R. and I get on a better schedule together. So Ian and I visited the local travel agent and got a great deal on train tickets plus an overnight stay at an onsen (hot springs resort) in Hirosaki. I haven't been up north for siteseeing much - I did go to Sapporo once for a conference, and did a little bit of travelling then, but I haven't done any tourism in the northern part of the main island. One of the goals of going there now is to see the snow, because we don't get much of it in Tokyo.

On Saturday morning Tokyo train station was absolutely packed with lots of young people carrying skis and snowboards, headed west to go skiing. Not as much people were headed north, but our train was still pretty full. After about an hour, we arrived at Sendai, and from there on things were snowy. It was amazing once we got up in the mountains because you could barely see out the window. It was snowing and things were just a white blur at the speed the Shinkansen was making. I really enjoy train trips, and this was no exception. As part of our ticket package, we got a voucher for coffee on the train, and like most coffee on Shinkansen it wasn't the best in the world, but it was coffee and came in a cute Suica cup. Also, I was amused that one of the trains on our trip was apparently executable. The trip from Tokyo to Hirosaki was supposed to take about five hours all told. The main bulk of the trip was from Tokyo to Hachinohe, on the Shinkansen taking about four hours, and from there another hour and a half or so to cut across West to Hirosaki. Unfortunately, when we got to Hachinohe (which means the 8th Door. There are also towns called 2nd Door, 6th Door, etc.) the trains were not in service because of high winds and snow. Instead they were using busses. So we got on a bus. It was supposed to be headed directly to Hirosaki, but instead at the last minute was changed to stop at Aomori. That probably added an hour and a half to the trip and the passangers were not very happy about it. Two old guy started yelling at the JR guy in very unpolite Japanese. The bus was packed - people in every seat, including the unfortunately souls who had to sit in the aisle on these lame fold-out seats that did not look very comfortable.

The bus probably averaged about 40 KM/H. It was slow. We stopped at two rest stops. There was nothing to eat there except for the standard types of omiyage (gift foods) so for lunch we had strange cake-like things and other gift-type foods. It was a long, long trip, but we eventually arrived at Hirosaki at about 4:30pm. Then we had another bus ride, about half an hour, until we arrived at our onsen, exhausted, tired, and out of daylight.

If you check the maps (hopefully on the right, or maybe a bit up above this) the trip is basically a mostly straight shot from Tokyo north-east up to Hachinohe. That is all on the bullet train. Very fast, very nice. Then from Hachinohe we take a normal commuter train (express style, called the Super White Bird I think) over to Aomori, the biggest city in the north-east. The final leg of the trip is on a tourist train with beautiful big windows called the "Kamoshika", but as I wrote above, train service was suspended and we were in a bus. For like 3 hours. And we stopped at small rest stations. And there was no food. Ian and passed the time playing video games, him on a cool PSP 3000 playing Star Wars Battlefront II while I was playing Tapper on my older, less well-known but more linuxy GP2X. Actually, I enjoyed the bus ride to the extent that long bus rides can be enjoyed.

Once we got to our Ryokan, we were tired and so hit the onsen. I'm sure I've written about onsen (the Japanese hot springs that people here love so much) before, so I won't revisit that topic again. I will note that this place had a 露天風呂 (Rotenburo, outdoor hot spring) which we made use of. Walking naked outside in the cold, with lots of snow falling and on the ground was a bit tough, but the bath is only about a six second walk from the indoor bath, so it wasn't too bad. The suddent dip then into 42 degree C hot water probably isn't a good thing to repeat over and over (and I am suffering a bit of a cold after the trip!) but it was great to sit out in the hot bath and watch the snow fall a hand's reach away.

We had a great dinner (included in the price of the trip) which I forgot to take picture of. It was very good though. Then on the way back to the room stopped to see a live Tsugaru Shamisen performance. The guy was pretty funny, and put on a good show. Then on up to the room and bed.

One of the main goals I had was to get out and see some real snow. I grew up in LA as a kid, and didn't ever see snow. When I was around 13 years old we moved to New Jersey and this white stuff that fell from the sky when it was cold was amazing to me. Then I moved to Dallas, and after that New York, neither of which get all that much snow. Tokyo sees even less snow than New York. But Touhoku (the north-east region of the main Japan island) is full of snow. Not as full of it as Saporro, but full of snow. So I wanted to get out and walk around in it. Ian and I were on a kind of tight schedule, but got up at 6am, hit the onsen again, got some nice breakfast (which I did get pictures of), and then went out for a 15 minute walk to the nearest temple. The temple, 岩木神社 (Iwaki Temple), was great. It was up a hill, full of snow, and just seemed really neat. I wish we had more time to walk around and see the temple grounds. They had a sign set up near a hanging bulls-eye target saying that if you could hit it with a snowball (from the path) then you would have good luck. I completely missed the thing. But I like interactive temples, so it is all good.

The walk back was cold, but we eventually made it. Just in time to check out and head back to Hirosaki station. We really wanted to see some of the Hirosaki sights, but due to a variety of comical mix-ups, didn't really have all that much time. We did get a chance to see the Neputa museum though, which I was really excited about because I've seen some TV broadcasts of a festival in the area where people build these great lighted floats and walk them around town. The musuem had a bunch of these on display, and they look really great. I would like to go back to Touhoku in the summer for one of those festivals. There are apparently two main ones, the one in Aomori (which is crazy big) and the one in Hirosaki, which is not quite as well known and is somehow slightly different. It is probably like the difference between the New York Jets and the New York Giants: I'm not really too clear on it, but some people are rabid enough to kill each other over it (apparently.)

After a nice trip through the museum and some shopping for gifts - お土産 (Omiyage), which are required after every trip out of town. You need to buy enough for the people you work for and pass them around. It is the only enforced social contact that we have at work with people outside our groups. It is really cool actually, because usually once or twice a week someone comes and gives you a small cake, or cracker, and you can chat about what things are like way out there where they visited (usually an hour or two away by bullet train.) The region we were in is the #1 producer of apples in Japan, so most things were apple-themed. Pretty good stuff.

The trip back we were able to ride the great tourist train. Big windows, a nice viewing lounge, comfortable seats. Really nice. Unfortunately, we hadn't booked ahead for the train from Aomori to Hachinohe, and we were a bit late making the transfer. We were in the "open seating" train, and since all the seats were taken, we ended up standing for the hour or so it took to get to Hachinohe before we could catch the bullet train home.

All in all, a really nice trip out for the weekend. I'm really surprised that after living in Japan for three years, I haven't done more of these short weekend trips. As long as the trains are running they really go pretty quickly, and you can get pretty far for a good deal when you do the package hotel + meals + train tickets plan. I'm really looking forward to taking R. out to go snowboarding sometime.


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