December 7, 2008

A busy day - another typical blog post

This is another really typical blog post. Nothing interesting here.

I had a lot to do today, and didn't get enough done. In the morning I got up at a reasonable time for the weekend - 9:30am, and called the family back home. It is hard to find good times to call America because usually in the morning I've got to go to work and can't spend too long on the phone. After chatting with Alana and Mom I started in on folding the laundry, which had been waiting for me since Saturday. My wife was catching up on sleep, since I think she didn't make it home from her work-related drinking party until very late.

I had a bit of work to do for NTCIR (an academic workshop I'm involved in) and standard checking up on email and the web, then I spent some time writing blog posts. I've been meaning to write about a bunch of things, and finally knocked a few of them out. There's still more on the list, and I'm not sure why I'm writing these things since I don't know who is reading, but I think it will be nice to have these things down for posterity. In eighty years maybe it will be interesting for me to go back and read these things. Assuming the technology still exists to access such ancient data. :)

R. cooked up some spaghetti for lunch, and we worked on the leftover meat sauce that I made a while back. It was good. She added some spices to it, so it was a bit hot too. Nice though. Then she headed out to work and I went to the local Jusco to buy some clothes for running: it has been getting cold lately, and I want to keep jogging, so I needed to get some good sweat pants and a light jacket.

More bad things to put in doughnuts

While shopping, I ran by the Mister Donut shop and saw another doughnut combination that I just really don't think should exist. I wrote about unusual food combinations before and think this is another good example: a Shrimp Gratan donut that has shrimp, a white cream sauce, macaroni, and mushrooms. That doesn't sound bad really, I just don't want that in a doughnut shop.

Jogging

Once I came back from that, I needed to test out the cold weather running gear so I took off for a jog. Since it was still 4pm, there was a bit of sun out (only for another hour though) so I thought I would try to find a new loop. I had a nice 6.8km loop, and a nice 4.3km loop, but nothing longer. We live in a nice area for running (for Japan) I think: we are right on the Tokyo Bay on a little canal that runs up between us and an island that is used for loading and unloading boats and storing trains. There is a big park on the island. I can see the loading docks from my balcony, so I've been trying to find a way to get out there and jog alongside the open bay. Today was the closest I have ever come, but I failed. I don't think that loading docks are really open to the public.

You see two pictures of the route that I took that were recorded with my cell phone. It has a nice little GPS program that can do all that stuff. The website that displays the data isn't very good though and it drops a lot of the little location dots. Bummer. I tried to get over to the bay twice, and was stopped by dead ends or major highways. I'll have to check the area out with Google Maps more and see if I can get over there somehow, because the view must be great.

Running back up the canal area at night is really nice: you can see the Monorail glide by over on the other side of the canal, there is a nice big horse racing stadium that is lit up sometimes, and there are some nice towers that make neat reflections over the water (including ours.) Hopefully I'll be able to keep on jogging through winter. The new running clothes worked great, and the jacket was too hot, so I almost ended taking that off. Should be great for even colder weather, and Tokyo usually doesn't get down to much below 0 Celsius, so I think I'll be fine.

After the run I came home, took a shower, vacuumed, did the dishes (man I have got to take a picture of our dishwasher. It is comically small - only slightly wider than my outspread hands) then had some leftover curry.

Dealing with HD Video is much harder than it should be

R. has been trying to make a DVD of a video she took for her friend's wedding, but she used this completely high-tech 1080p HD video camera. (Not ours, borrowed from her sister.) I couldn't get that thing to transfer data onto my OSX machine, couldn't get it to transfer data onto my big ThinkPad, didn't want to try to do it on my linux machine, and had major problems doing it with the little ThinkPad that R. uses, but finally that went through. She burned a few DVDs and finally asked me why she couldn't watch them. Hm. Good question. Checking the DVDs out, it is clear: the program that she used to edit the DVDs only seems to burn to a format that can be ready by Blu-Ray DVD players, of which we have none. She just wants a normal DVD. I have iMovie on my Mac which can do that, but it can't read the files spit out by that camera.

So she asked me to do something about this. I spend some time with the "HD Writer 2.5" software that Panasonic included with the camera (and which wouldn't install on the beefier ThinkPad) and found a way to export to MPEG-2. That is a pretty reasonable format, so I was pretty sure I could get that to import on the Mac. Annoyingly, you have to export each scene one at a time. Then getting the network settings on all the machine right so I could copy them over the internal network took more time, but finally I got the files moved over to the Mac, and...

Wouldn't you know it OSX can't read MPEG-2 out of the box due to probably licensing issues. I needed to buy a $20 add-on to get Quicktime to read MPEG-2. So annoying. Once that was purchased and installed, I could import the MPEG-2 files. Great! It is only going to take 299 minutes.

Oh man, you've got to be kidding me. I'm going to bed. I hope this thing finishes by morning.

What I had for lunch and other misc

Yeah, I know, the stereotypical "What I had for lunch" blog post. Well, you have to put up with these sometimes. This is a recent food post and a few other random notes.

First up: food.

Breakfast

The other day I stopped by McDonald's for breakfast. They have a bunch of "Mega" stuff here, where they basically just try to make things really huge and big. The most well-known is the Mega Mac, basically a big mac with the beef patties doubled up. I'm not a big fan of Big Macs normally (the cheese is terrible) so I haven't tried one of those yet. I did see a "Mega McMuffin" though, and tried that one morning. Two sausage patties, an egg, bacon, and the McMuffin muffins. It was pretty good. I usually just get some toast, eggs, or cereal at home, but once in a while I might go with this again.

Lunch

The concept of pre-made lunch boxes, bento, is really popular here. You can walk into any convenience store and there is usually a selection of 5-10 different types of little microwavable lunch boxes. I'm co-organizing a track at the upcoming NTCIR Information Access Evaluation Workshop and we have 4-5 hour organizational meetings for that every once in a while. The other day we had a meeting, and I thought I would snap a picture of the lunch box that they supplied us with. It was also pretty good - but everything was cold. It is very common in Japan to eat things cold that in America I wouldn't consider eating cold. (Then again, I was never a fan of eating cold pizza.) Usually things like roast beef fall into that category, and often there are meatballs or other things in these bento that I think should be hot. Throw the whole thing into the microwave and you are golden, but it is also common just to have it cold.

Anyway, this was a nice bento. We eat stuff like this pretty frequently here.

Dinner

For dinner I've been cooking a lot myself lately. Unfortunately, I don't really cook well: I plan to take a cooking class next year once I have cut out some of my obligations and free up some time. I particularly want to take a real cooking class because I insisted on getting a real honest-to-god oven (you do not get those in Japan generally) in our apartment. It cost thousands of dollars. Completely ridiculous (granted, it is a microwave - convection - conventional oven and plays like, music and stuff) but I absolutely demand an oven because my previous attempts at making brownies in toaster ovens failed completely and I really want to be able to make brownies if I will be living here for 30 years.

So now that I have this crazy oven, I want to learn to use it. And generally cook more because I do enjoy cooking. Some of the things that I have in my cookbook (I have to update that someday) are dirt simple, and a spaghetti meat sauce like my mom used to make is on the menu. Simple, but you can make a whole bunch of it at once, and it is good.

Update on Quarter Pounder in Japan Situation

The other food thing is a quick update on the Quarter Pounder situation in Japan. Recently these two "Quarter Pounder" shops opened up and proved really popular. They only sold quarter pounder and double quarter pounder meals. Japanese people love things that are new and limited edition, so for the month that the shops were around (one in Shibuya, near where I work) and one in Omote-sandou (super high-end shopping place, like Park Ave.) were pretty crowded. The really funny thing is that most Japanese people had no idea that these were McDonald's shops. The Quarter Pounder has never existed here, so I think the general consensus was that these were new fast food restaurants. Anyway, last week the Shibuya shop disappeared (and I assume the Omote-sandou one as well) and a bunch of signs went up at McDonald's shops everywhere: "Surprise! Qaurter Pounder was us! Now you can order them at all McDonald's Shops too!"

Most Japanese people I've asked so far were shocked. They had no idea. I guess the equivalent would be some cheap fast food place opening up that is fairly stylish and serves good sushi in the US. Then after a month, "Surprise! This is McSushi, and now you can get it at every McDonald's in America!" Not that that will ever happen, but still.

Random other stuff

Last week I stopped by my old workplace for a meeting. Checking my old office, my name is still on the door. It has only been three months, so I'm not completely surprised, but I'm sure it will disappear after a while. I think that the last time I visited Columbia University my name was still on the door of my old office - that is about 2.5 years. I'm pretty sure it is gone now since everyone that I was working with at the time is gone now. 2.5 years is a pretty good record though.

While at my old workplace I took two pictures of the fall leaves at the Imperial Palace. One of the really great things about the Japanese National Institute of Informatics is that it shares a building with Hitotsubashi University so there is a small gym with showers, and the Imperial Palace is really close. I used to do a 5km loop around that place a few times a week and miss it (but there is a great 6.8km loop right near my new apartment, so I still have a place to run.) The fall leaves look pretty nice out there.

Finally, there are two new buildings going up right near where I live. It looks like one will be ~20 floor office building, and the other a residential tower. I think it won't be bigger than the tower we are in though (26 floors, not that we're that high up) so that is cool. I would hate to have our brand-new building eclipsed by another brand-new building next door. :)

Marketing in Japan

The other day while walking around my local supermarket, there was a stage set up. I thought this was a bit odd, but no stranger than anything else I have seen around Tokyo. On the way out, things had started to happen: people had gathered around, and a strange-looking mascot had shown up. He got up on the stage, and some people talked about all the great products that come out of Aomori Prefecture and then the mascot started to dance along to a song promoting Aomori products. There has been a lot of trouble in Japan over the past few months about false advertising attached to food (foods that are mis-labeled and include foreign meat or juice or whatever, or things that are labeled as good past their official expiration date, some issues with poisoned food from China, etc.) so people have really been trying to buy locally and stick to brands with high quality. I guess this might be a push in that direction, but the dancing mascot and song about (just in general - nothing specific) Aomori branded food was interesting.

The second one I'll point out is a bunch of new Final Fantasy posters I've been seeing around the subway stations. I believe that this is tied into a new artbook (or possibly postcard art book, I'm not clear on that) that is coming out in a few days. The posters are advertising "Final Fantasy Drink Potions" - I've seen these before back when the last final fantasy came out, little drinks made in the shape of the potions from the game. I think it is pretty geeky-cool, so I'll pick some up even though I haven't played a final fantasy since Final Fantasy VII. I really would love to play more video games, but I just haven't had the time (but do see my most recent post on World of Goo.)

Mini Manga Reviews 2: Crossfire and Yotsuba volume 2

Continuing in my series of mini-manga reviews, we have Miyuki Miyabe's "Crossfire" and the second volume of "Yotsuba to".

Crossfire is a pretty nice and easy read. There were two words that I learned, basically accelerant (促進) and pyrogenesis (I think that is the English for it - someone that can cause fires with their mind.) The author, Miyuki Miyabe is known for murder mystery and suspense novels. This one has a bit of a supernatural tint to it, since the main character has the ability to start fires. (Hence the title.) I think that makes things a bit interesting, since I like to read about things that are bit divorced from the normal reality that we live in. If I wanted to read about arsonists, I could find that in the newspaper just by looking hard enough. The manga was a pretty quick read, and has furigana for most of the complicated words, but is probably more of an intermediate than beginner level. I thought it might be self-contained, but it ended on a clear cliffhanger, so it looks like I'll have to keep my eyes open for volume 2. This manga was just released back in September so it is fairly new. There is also a DVD movie version of what looks to be the same thing, but I'm not enthralled enough to want to search that out. I might rent it if I come across it in Tsutaya though.

Next up is the second volume in the Yotsuba to series. I really like this series: it is funny, each chapter is short and self-contained (makes for good reading when you only have five or ten minutes here or there, which is generally the situation I am in) and the Japanese itself is pretty basic. It has full readings given for the kanji, so it is very accessible to beginners. I also think this series is great for foreigners because of the whole "unusual aspects of Japan" that is explored from the point of view of a naïve (or possibly very stupid, putting her on a level I can relate to :) ) young girl. Highly recommended.

As always, you can click on the links to the left to hit the Amazon.co.jp pages for the books, but they have my referrer ID in them so I clearly am trying to make money off of you. :)

December 2, 2008

Those guys over at 2-d Boys are really cool: buy World of Goo

I like the idea of independent and fun games. I don't really have much time to play games, and I am horrible at 3-d things. I get lost in the real world, and I don't want to emulate that within a sandboxed virtual 3-d environment. With monsters running after me. Trying to kill me. That is not fun, that is stressful. Two years ago I started to play the First Person Shooter "F.E.A.R." but it was too scary for me. I never got very far in it. I got a bit farther in Half Life 2, but I still keep getting lost, and it becomes not very fun. And I hate those ceiling hanging things.

Anyway, the other day I heard about the high piracy rate for World of Goo (over 80%?) I had vaguely heard of the game before, and I think played the entry into one of the Independent Games Festivals that started the seeds for making the real game.

Since the game is reasonably priced, only $20!, and the bit that I played before was fun and interesting, and there were no monsters chasing me and trying to kill me, I bought the game. You should too: World of Goo. It is a really good game. I've played the first two levels (I know, I should really play more and get a real review out, but I just don't have the time!)

But the coolest thing so far is that when I bought the game and payed with PayPal, things didn't go well for me. I got a reply from PayPal, but not from 2d-boy. So I went to their site and went through the automatic tools for saying "I paid, but didn't get my download link". That didn't work either, so I sent an email off, and then thought, "well, that will take a few days, so I'll just go to bed."

Before I could finish up with other net stuff though, withing five or ten minutes, I got a reply from Kyle Gabler at 2-d Boy who told me that PayPal was doing some server mantainence, and passed on the download link. I was amazed. You are lucky to get a real human at most companies, and I would never expect a message from one of the founders!

One of the other nice things is that you can download both the Windows and Mac versions (and Linux soon!) That is nice for me because I have about 5 computers laying around, and end up using different ones for different things (based on what jobs I'm working on usually.) Also, a great thing about the game is that there is no DRM. It is easy to install, and doesn't treat me like a theif. I'm glad I bought it. It is a fun and cute game, totally recommended.

November 24, 2008

Fall leaves in Koishikawa Park

Yesterday, R. and I went to Koishikawa Park (小石川後楽園) in the middle of Tokyo, near Tokyo Dome, for an afternoon picnic. It was a holiday weekend, so the place was packed. Actually, I'm not sure that it wouldn't be packed on any normal weekend either, but since it is also the time of the year when the fall leaves turn colors there were lots of people there. We bought boxed lunches at a nearby convenience store, and some beer, and headed out to the park. It is a really beautiful place, just amazing that a park like that can be hidden away amid the skyscrapers and bustle of Tokyo. There are lots of parks like this really. They are medium sized, but seem much larger than they are due to creative landscaping.

Check out the Flickr Set for all the photos but generally I think that things looked really nice. The leaves are turning some nice colors, and I really like the mix of traditional park with modern backdrops: Tokyo Dome and tall buildings in particular are interesting to me.

While we were eating on one of the benches there was a Bunraku (Japanese traditional puppetry) show on a small stage erected for the event. I would have liked to watch it, but the place was packed and I couldn't see a thing. I did get a decent picture though.

After lunch while we were walking around I saw a woman in a Kimono, and asked if I could take her picture. She was pretty surprised, but called her friend over (who I hadn't seen) so I ended up with a nice shot of two women in Kimono. Nice! Also, it is amazing how many people were taking pictures with camera phones. There were people with crazy big lenses on DSL cameras, but more people with crazy small cameras taking pictures also. My new phone also has a high resolution camera (5MP, more than my point and shoot 4MP camera camera, but the pictures on the phone are really bad at anything more than 2MP.) My new phone actually has two cameras on it, which I find really funny. My camera doesn't have two phones on it.

Anyway, I don't have much more to write about the picnic: it was a nice break in the middle of the city. There are lots of little parks like this - I've been to Shinjuku Gyoen before, Hamarikyuu park, and the central park equivilent as well. I enjoy finding new places liket his though. I'm going to have to spend more time walking around my new apartment and find out what we have in this area.

The leaves are really starting to take on nice colors, and pretty soon it will be winter. I'm not looking forward to the cold winters, but they beat the nasty summers.

A Surprising Birthday

Two weeks ago, I turned 34. I actually thought I was turning 35, but a bit of addition convinced me that I am indeed now 34, and I have another year to go before I hit 35.

I was very busy two weeks ago with work: there was a big bug in a system that I work on, and I was frantically trying to get the problem resolved before the holiday season. (The issue was finally resolved last week.) Work was keeping me busy, and I was fighting off a cold as well. I hadn't thought much about my upcoming birthday because of the recent job change, and my continuing work with the NTCIR conference, I was barely getting enough sleep at night. The weekend before though I got a package from my twin and younger sister which reminded me: "oh yeah, it is my sister's birthday is coming up, so that means that my birthday is coming up too." That's one of the good things about being a twin: usually your twin will remind you of when your birthday is.

On Thursday night, I was planning to head home and have a nice evening with my wife, but things were a bit busy at work, so I gave her a call to tell her that I would be a bit late. On the phone she told me that she was at Jiyugaoka, and when would I be there? I was a bit confused, but then when she asked whether I had read her email, I realized that I must have missed a message from her. Sure enough, she said that she had made reservations at a place at 7pm in Jiyugaoka (where I used to live) and if I moved quick, I just might get there only slightly late. So I closed out my work email and hopped on the train.

Back at Jiyugaoka, only slightly late, I met up with R. and we headed out. I thought she might have made a reservation at Lobros, a newish place that I had wanted to try for a while, but we kept walking. I was pretty sure that she had called up my friend Amadou who runs Saraba, my favorite bar in Japan and arranged for him to open up shop so we could drink there. Since Saraba is currently on hiatus, that was super cool. Sure enough, we made our way circuitiously to Saraba, but to my complete shock the place was packed with my friends! What really surprised me is that my friends from work, Dave and Ian, were even there! Just about an hour before they ducked out of work (at a reasonable hour) in such a way that I just had no idea that anything was up. I was later told that I didn't act surprised enough when I entered the bar, but I was just so schocked I didn't know how to react. My first reaction was to get a beer and drink it. (Normally a fairly good reaction to have in Japan.)

I had a great time that night, and it was great seeing all my friends. I wish I could have seen some of my other friends that live in America, but logistically that is just difficult to manage even on a non-surprise basis. :) So thanks to everyone that made it a special night. This is one birthday I won't forget for a while. Especially because R. made a night photo album with actual printed pictures in it!

Fukuya open house and Fukutoushin subway line pictures

Last weekend (I can't believe a week has already passed and I didn't have time to write up something quick about this!) I went to an open house that my friend Tomoki Fukuya did the interior design for. I was interested because I haven't seen the Fukuyas in a long time, and the house itself sounded very interesting. The house is 3.1 meters wide by 15.4 meters long: basically, a long, thin house. One of the challenges Tomoki faced was making a small space feel open - probably something that happens a lot in Japan. The top two floors are residential (rental) space, the first floor is an office space, and the bottom floor is a retail space. I didn't really take many pictures - I should have, but I always feel strange pulling out the camera and snapping pictures - and now I wish I had.

I really liked how there was lots of storage space all over the place, it seemed really big and the lack of walls really made the place seem large. The bathroom was cool too: all glass (but there were blinds if you wanted them) that let in the light from the full window. Also also really liked the staircase and the bookshevles there. The concept was that kids would sit on the stairs and read, so the stairs are dual-purpose: you climb them, and sit on them. I was surprised that the place was a rental property instead of one up for sale. It seems like the place was going for a very reasoanble rate: about $1000 a month and it wasn't too far from the train station. About a 5 minute walk, and it is about 20 minutes from Ikebukuro on the Tobu Toujou line.

The house itself kind of reminded me of the Austrian Cultural Institute in New York, a really cool narrow building.

On the way home, I took the Fukutoushin line back to Shibuya. That was the first time I had taken that line - it just opened up in June, and generally I don't go very far off of my commuter pass, so that was kind of interesting. There is also a new station entrance in Shibuya station that I thought was kind of neat. There are other renovations going on in Shibuya but I just never go through that part of the station so I hadn't seen this area yet. The colorful signs are really great.

It was also interesting to see people sitting around all over the place with little clicking counters they were using to count how many people were using the the different exits and corridors in the station. They really do a lot of profiling in this city to manage the congestion. So far though, from what I can gather, the Fukutoushin line hasn't been too successful: it generally connects places that other lines also go to, so not many people have been using it. It was pretty empty when I took it too, so I wonder what is going to happen there. I'm glad that the line that I normally ride is pretty empty because it means I can sit on ride in. That is a lot better than my old commute, where I almost always had to stand, and it was usually crazy crowded.

Review of Charles Stross' Accelerando

Continuing my string of book reviews (or more likely, just bragging that I read a book) is Charles Stross' "Aceelerando". The book was published in 2006 (I think) and is a very interesting read in the Science Fiction "Singularity" genre. I have written a bit about the Singularity concept before and don't particularly think it will happen anytime soon: the idea that technology will become so advanced that human will not be able to understand it, and become surpassed by or transcend through technological means just doesn't seem realistic to me: I know too much about computers to think that there will be any really advanced Artifial Intelligence anytime soon. I think that is forty or fifty years out at least before we start seeing real learning systems that do not depend on humans to supply them with a framework to run inside.

This novel focuses on one family as they travel through the singularity point. Stross as an author is a joy to read: funny, and he has a great knack for explaining technology. He throws in a lot of references to computer science concepts, and does something that is rare in media: he doesn't make technology do ridiculous things. Hollywood movies are the worst, but you come across it even in science fiction as well. Of course I only notice it when the author writes about things that I know about, and I'm sure that generally any expert in a field will find problems with the popularizations of things that they know about, but it is really nice to see things done well.

This novel has a bit of a flavor of Neuromancer, and is reminiscent of Rainbow's End as well. The book kind of flirts with the unreliable narrator gimmick that I sometimes like and that sometimes annoys me, but you are never quite sure after reading it exactly how the narrative structure is set up. There are interesting questions about conciousness and what it means to be human and sentient, but that isn't anything new to these kinds of novels.

It also has a very interesting take on the Fermi Paradox that I did find original, but I haven't been scouring the world for books that address this issue (although see also A Fire Upon The Deep (Zones of Thought) for more on that.

I really enjoyed this book, and think that anyone interested in the Cyberpunk / Singularity stuff will find it interesting too. Best of all: you can get it from Amazon (like I did) or you can download it for free from Charles Stross' website. That is really great that he has made the book available for free. I wish I had known that because then I would have read that first, then probably bought some of his newer stuff. I do have one more of his books on my pile of "to read" books, but it would have been nice to get some of his other stuff. I really like what I have read so far though, so I plan to buy his other novels (assuming they have reasonable priced versions on the Amazon Japan site - which isn't always the case.)

November 16, 2008

A new, advanced phone (nice) with an awful intercface (boo): DoCoMo P906i Review

After two and a half years in Japan I am retiring my "sweets" AU phone and switching to a new P906i phone on the DoCoMo network. I am switching networks because my wife has been on DoCoMo for years and wanted me to switch so we could be on family plan where calls are free between family members. That is great for us, but also means I can talk to my wife's immediate family for free, which means I have no good excuse not to talk to them - and talking to them in Japanese is a bit stressful.

Anyway, a week ago I decided to take the plunge and switch from AU to NTT. It took most of my Saturday afternoon last week, where I went to the AU shop, told them I want to move to NTT then picked up the number portability forms and went to the NTT shop. Canceling service was easy, they didn't try any of the retention tactics that you get back in America. So that was nice.

When I first got my phone three years ago I just got the cheapest phone they had - a one yen deal with the basics (GPS was the most advanced feature it had.) For my new phone I wanted more features. The main thing I wanted was a GSM capable phone with the capability to work in America, Bluetooth, and the Electronic Wallet feature so I can put my commuter pass on the phone. That really limited selection down but there were one or two handsets that fit that criteria. I sprung for the 906i, a kind of bulky flip-open model with a beautiful screen and all those features. Actually I kind of want an iPhone but the software for those is still pretty bad (Japanese email is still really bad) and it doesn't support the Electronic Wallet feature either (or 1-seg digital TV but I don't really care about that.) Also, while Risa wants an iPhone, she isn't willing to leave NTT for one.

The new phone has great hardware but the interface is atrocious. It is awful. I thought my AU phone was bad, but this one is worse. In my old phone to see my own profile I just pressed up. That was really convenient because I put my home phone number there, which I don't have memorized. To see my profile on my new phone I need to press the menu button, then press 0, but that isn't shown as an option. I actually had to read the manual to figure that out. Worse, my profile does not show my home phone number. I have to hit the "edit" command, and then my "extra" information pops up.

This phone has three types of email. Normal email, R messages and F messages. I do know the difference between these (I think F are Free messages from NTT) or even care really. Why the added complexity?

After almost every command, the phone requires acknowledgment. If you take a picture it throws up a box "I took a picture" and you have to press Ok. After sending an email "I sent an email". I know! That is what I asked you to do! Don't force me to click stuff unless there is a problem!

One of the main features I was interested in is bluetooth. It looks like the phone can only use BT for headphones though. I wanted to send files with BT, particularly pictures. I can use it to set up internet access though, which sounds useful.

The phone has at least three ways to wirelessly transfer data, none of which work for getting data into my Mac. It has a standard IR Port, the aforementioned Bluetooth, and also some mechanism used for RFID data transfer that can be used with some phones to transfer pictures or address book information. So far they are all useless to me.

The preference settings for the phone are insane. There are about 20 menus for main settings, each with 10 more settings, many of which have another menu of 10 or so. They provide a search function to find the setting you want. I have only scratched the surface there.

P906i tech specs:
  • Main display: 480x854
  • Front-panel 1-bit display: 128x36
  • Camera max resolution: 2592x1944 (looks like crap though!)
  • Video max resolution: 640x480
  • Has a MicroSD card, up to 8GB MicroSDHC (I've got 4GB)
  • Bluetooth, but can only use it for headphones / headset, can't transfer files with it. (To my knowledge.)
Typing in English is not possible. Well it is but there is no completion mechanism for English. My AU phone at least you provide you completions for the words you used before, but not this phone. There might be a setting for that, but it is just easier to write in Japanese.

You can set the phone to use English menus, but I don't recommend it. The menus are more confusing in English than Japanese, and worse it defaults to the useless English input method in that mode, so I went back to Japanese pretty quickly.

The phone isn't all bad though - it has a beautiful screen and the GPS navigation, a different program than my previous phone, is really nice. I think the Electronic Wallet will be really nice once I set it up, but I wasn't able to transfer over my commuter pass on initial setup so I will have to see the JR People about that.

The camera is stupid crazy. It is 5MP which is just insane because the sensor is way too small for that. My old Cannon at 4MP takes much nicer pictures. I have reduced the size so maybe it will take nice 2MP pictures. A few of the pictures on my Flickr stream are from this phone now, and they seem pretty good.

I tried the 1-seg digital tuner and it works. That is probably the last time I will use that.

It is supposed to have nice games and stuff available for purchase, but I don't think I will even bother. The web browser is also supposed to be nice so I think I will try to set up Mixi on it, but I do not anticipate using the web browser a lot: I just am not often in situations where I need to access the web and I don't have a computer nearby.

Overall I like the phone a lot, but think the software and UI are just awful. It will work fine for what I need but falls very short of my expectations from looking at the specs. I could have gotten away with a $50 instead of this $400 monster, but at least the cost is broken out over the 2-year contract without any interest.

November 15, 2008

Quick Manga Reviews

One of the interesting things about working at Amazon Japan on the 14th floor is the shelf of free books you can peruse. There are lots of manga, so I started randomly grabbing volumes here and there. Here are some random reviews (click the links on the left to go to the product pages on the Japanese website - fair warning, if you buy something I will get like, 2 or 3 yen or something.)

So I thought I would write some very quick, very basic reviews. The first manga I read was けんぷファー (Kenu fau? Supposed to be some sort of German word) volume 1. It is completely awful, and totally cliché. The story starts with our hero, whose name escapes me, wakes up and is a girl. A high school girl (well, he was a high school boy so that makes some sense.) He has a stuffed animal that talks to him (some sort of tiger) and tells him that he was chosen to be a Kenpu fau who fights other Kenpu fau, who are all apparently high school kids. The reason they fight was never explained, but clearly that is supposed to be the interesting mystery to the story that draws people in. It just annoyed me because the fictional world makes no sense. Also, there are many gratuitous panty shots and the like. Why does the guy get a high school girl's uniform when he transforms for no reason? Yet in the middle of the story, he says he has to go shopping for clothes because he doesn't have any women's clothes (except for the magic schoolgirl outfit?)

It rates half a star. Out of however many stars you want (at least 5 though probably.)

Next up is よつばと! (Yotsubato) which is apparently written by a well-known author, Kiyohiko Azuma who also wrote another well-known series Azumanga Daioh. The reason I ordered this manga is because in one of the chapters, the main character Yotsuba creates a robot out of a cardboard box. The author designed a toy for Amazon that uses Amazon boxes, which I wanted, and then when I tried to order it Amazon recommended the first volume of the manga. So I bought it.

What is the story? It is a cute look at Yotsuba, a young (naive or stupid?) girl who has everyday adventures. It is very easy to read, with full furigana, and simple enough that anyone can understand it. I think it is very accessible to foreigners because the humor is based on this young girl not knowing about her surroundings - a somewhat familiar situation for a foreigner in Japan. I read the first volume fairly quickly, and ordered the second volume. I haven't started in on it yet, but plan to read it on the subway.

My wife told me that I shouldn't read it on the subway though because people would think I am a nerd. Since I am a nerd, I didn't take her advice, and plan to read it on the subway.

German Models in Tokyo

The other day I met some friends - a lot of friends, about 18 of us - and went to dinner in Harajuku at an all-you-can-eat Okonomiyaki place. It was lots of fun. Sadly, I didn't take any pictures, but one of the people that I met was really interesting: Lydia Nguyen, a half-German half-Vietnamese fashion student / model hanging out in Tokyo on a work holiday. She gave me a postcard with her website on it, so I'll link to that here so I can have the information around.

It turns out my friend Ami, a fashion design student, is looking for a model so that worked out pretty well. I never thought I would be hanging out with models in Harajuku, but I guess my life has taken a turn for the better. :)

November 5, 2008

Another site with SF ebooks for free

Check out StarRigger.net for some free SF ebooks. I haven't heard of this series, but I've downloaded the first three books, and if they are fun I plan to donate to the author. This just makes it so easy to check new stuff out.

November 4, 2008

Simplifying the menu

At work this afternoon a friend brought in a bag labeled simply "Quarter Pounder". Our office is out in Shibuya, and randomly what used to be McDonald's turned into some random post-modern simplified version of McDonald's called simple "Quarter Pounder". I guess they are promoting the Quarter Pounder coming to Japan (wasn't it always here?) by changing two shops, one in Omote-sando and one in Shibuya, into Quarter-Pounder only joints. I stopped by for dinner more out of curiosity than anything else. I actually really like the idea as a short-term thing: it addresses the concerns brought up by The Paradox of Choice.

The interior is all black, with nice modern (well, modern from the point of view of the 80s) furniture, and everyone has black uniforms. It reminds me of some sort of Clockwork Orange view of restaurants of the future. The menu is great: Quarter Pounder with Cheese, or Double Quarter Pounder with cheese. You get a medium fry, and a choice of Coke, Coke Zero, or a hot coffee. All for the low price of 500 or 600 yen. You also can get them without cheese, which is awesome.

While I like the idea of simplification, I don't know realistically how long that place will have customers with such a sparse menu. I did notice more people than usual getting take-out from there today, but I think, like me, they were drawn in by the novelty factor.

Also, I can't believe how many people they had out there holding signs and proclaiming the arrival of "the number one most popular burger in America now available in Japan!" I'm sure this will be all over the ex-pat Japan blogosphere (Marxy at least already posted about it in the Meta-no-tame blog.)

November 1, 2008

I used the library!

For the first time since moving into our new Apartment, I used the in-building library. I would like to go down there and spend some time reading, but I'm really too busy to spend time reading for fun.

Anyway, I have to review about 8 papers for the upcoming NTCIR Workshop so I brought my laptop down to the library where they have three or four carrels set up with wired ethernet and desk space. I don't have much desk space in my place (almost all flat space is now occupied with mail and other stuff that I want to clean up, but R. and I haven't had time to sit down and do that.)

So it was nice to spend a few hours at the library downstairs getting some work down. I wonder where the books that are in there are from. It is really more of a reading room than a library, but there still is a big collection of books (mostly of the coffee-table type.)

Anyway, no major updates aside from that.

October 26, 2008

A quick update, and get more convenient, Japan!

Ever since I changed jobs, I've been pushing pretty hard to keep up with all my commitments. I'm organizing a track for the NTCIR 7 workshop so after work at my new job, I head home and spend anywhere from two to six hours on NTCIR-related stuff. The big push has been for this week, when I have to get the evaluation results back to the participants. I've just about finished the coding I need to do that, and then I have to spend a few hours working on some human-in-the-loop semantic matching.

So that has been keeping me very busy. I hope things will get a bit better after this week, but I am pretty sure that I'll be busy until after the workshop in December.

But there are a few things that are worth noting. First, I don't know how I had missed the show The Middleman, but it is a funny show. I heard about it on tor.com from someone there. It is a sci-fi take on Superheros and Supervillians, and is a perfect live-action match for The Venture Brothers.

Otherwise, I haven't been watching much tv, but R. has been putting the Fox Channel on TV when she's home. I really like listening to Dr. House in dubbed Japanese.

So there are two other notable events. Really, I've been working 12+ hours a day, so very little has been going on. These little stories are all I have.

The other day I decided that I would cook some curry. I went out shopping and saw that there is now "low fat" curry. There were 50% off and 30% curries. I was pretty sure that 50% would be pretty bad, so I gave the 30% a try. Back home while preparing the meat, I saw that R. has some meat scissors, which I just love. They are so convenient. So, I cut up the meat, set the curry going, and then tried to wash the scissors. Huh. Funny. The blades don't come apart for easy washing.

Later on, I asked R. about that. "Why don't the meat scissors in Japan come apart for easy cleaning?" "What are meat scissors? We don't own any such thing!"

Oops.

And just yesterday, as R. and I were going out of the house to get lunch on a nice Saturday, we stopped down by the mail room in the apartment building because I wanted to mail something out. I was about to drop it in the outgoing mail slot and R. stopped me. "What are you trying to do?" "I'm trying to mail this." "By putting it in the junk mail garbage slot?"

Oooh. That explains why a bunch of the forms I mailed out over the past three months never seemed to actually arrive. Come on Japan! Outgoing mail in the building is really convenient! So are meat scissors! Let's get moving here!

October 21, 2008

Cramp!

I was shocked awake at 5am this morning when I got a massive cramp in my right calf. It has been about a year since that happened.

It seems like once a year, one of my calves decides to deliver a massive cramp to me, just to keep me on my toes. Ouch! Two hours later my leg is still killing me.

October 14, 2008

The F1 Grand Prix at the Fuji Motor Speedway

For L.'s birthday a few months ago I got L. and I tickets to the F1 Grand Prix in Japan. I don't know much about F1 Racing, but I know that L. likes cars, and when we randomly stumbled upon some F1 Cart Racers in Italy, she was captivated. Maybe the real thing would be fun too! Also, I like technology and cars, and the F1 has plenty of both.

So, we both made time in our way-too-busy schedules and spent Saturday and Sunday at the speedway (and on public transit: it takes about three and a half hours to reach the Fuji Motor Speedway by rail and bus from where we live.) I should have tried to get a hotel in the area, but I didn't realize it was so far until all the local hotels were booked up. Actually though, the trip out wasn't so bad, because it was a quick trip to Shinjuku, then an hour and a half on the train, and an hour and a half on the bus. There was lots of walking once you got to the Speedway too, but it was pretty nice.

The first day we saw the Porsche qualify round, and the F1 qualifying rounds. It was really interesting. We had seats on the straightaway right near the finish line, and had a great view of the pits. It would have been nice if we were up higher actually because the fence that blocks you from exploding cars was a bit in our way, but I thought the seats were really great. The Porsche round was really interesting: those are just classic cars. The F1 race was amazing. Those cars are just stupid fast, and crazy loud. I tried taking some pictures of the F1 cars, but I never managed to get any sort of reasonable picture.

The next day we left home early (a bit before 6am) and made it in time for the Netz race championship. That is a race that takes a standard economy car and races them. It was pretty cool seeing a normal car that you see on the highway zooming around the track. The Porsche finals were next, and were really cool.

The final F1 race was really interesting. There were a few wrecks and some crazy shenanigans, and afterwards at home I found out that we had a pretty interesting race with all the crashes and close calls with the cars. It was lots of fun to watch. I think I would have had more fun if I knew more about it, but it was still great.

Even better, on the way home we stopped by Jiyugaoka and they were having their annual Jiyu Megami festival. We also found some of our good friends, and spent some time (a bit too much time!!) hanging out with them.

A very fun weekend.

October 13, 2008

Book and Backlog

I went to America last month, and as usual, I read a storm on the plane. I've been meaning to post this for ages, but I've been ridiculously busy so I haven't gotten around to it. I'm finally going to just take some time this morning and post stuff.

Space Opera

I read the first four books of the "Lost Fleet" series by Jack Campbell. I really enjoyed these four books from a standard space opera point of view. They are very interesting from a military / tactics point of view. A fairly easy read, and the pages go quickly. I'll definitely pick up the final two books in the series when they come out. I found these books because when I was shopping for some John Scalzi stuff they kept coming up as recommendations from Amazon.com so I thought I would give them a try. Good job, Amazon! I really enjoyed them!

Fantasy

I already wrote about China Miéville's Perdido Street Station a while back (it was plane fodder on a trip to Singapore) but it has taken me a long time to read his later two novels, The Scar and Iron Council.

I really liked Perdido Street Station - the world of Bas-Lag is a very interesting turn-of-the-century with magic sort of place, and doesn't feel like the standard sorts of high fantasy or science fiction that you come across, but is a blend of both. The Scar was a great follow-up. There were things about it that I didn't like: I didn't like the protagonist much, and had trouble caring about what happened to her, but there were other great characters, and the story itself is really great. I feel like you will enjoy The Scar more if you have an understanding of quantum mechanics at some level, but it was really impressive the way that the novel takes a very modern and scientific concept and works it into the fabric of the story in a natural way. There were also some elements of science that surrounded Perdido Street Station as well.

If The Scar was about Quantum Mechanics, then Iron Council was about politics, revolution, and governments. I didn't enjoy Iron Council as much as the other two, but it is still a great read. China Miéville has a real way with building interesting worlds and giving you a personal view of large-scale events from the people involved in them and on the fringes. I highly recommend all three Bas-Lag novels, you should give them a try!

September 29, 2008

I cast my vote

I returned home to Tokyo two days ago, Sunday evening. The plane landed at about 4:30pm, and I made it home by about 7:30pm. I was exhausted, but I managed to drag myself over to my parent-in-law's place for the usual Sunday evening dinner with Grandma-in-law and the family, and L. even showed up (straight from work.)

After a great dinner, we went home, and I spent some time trying to unpack and clean up. L. has the habit of not organizing things and cluttering up all horizontal surfaces with stuff. And there was a lot of stuff after being gone for three weeks.

On Monday I got up early (like 6am, so not too early) and did mail triage. I had a lot of misc. things to take care of, including tracking down why we can't call cell phones from our new home phone. (Answer: our phone was set to dial 0033 before any cell phone numbers to take advantage of a cheaper calling rate by using that code to indicate something to the phone company. Since I got us a Hikari Fiber VOIP (essentially) phone, we have to dial the number directly instead of using that 0033 prefix, which the phone was adding without my knowledge or consent. I finally figured it out by calling the support center, they said things looked good on their end, but did my phone have ADRS (or something) set up? Then I cracked the manual and figured it out.)

I also finished unpacking, and putting stuff away. When I got around to mail triage, I found a few overdue bills and things that I needed to take care of, but also a ballot envelope for the upcoming US Presidential Election.

It is really amazing to me how much easier it is to vote as an ex-patriot than it is to vote when you live in the US. I just have to fill out a few marks on the ballot, then mail it in. All you have to do is make sure that you are properly registered, and you are set. (Which reminds me, I have to update my Japanese address to my new address.)

I'm really excited about the upcoming election. I'm excited to see if our country can turn things around and gain the respect of the international community, reduce national debt, reduce the consumption culture we're living in, and re-take a lead in the sciences and engineering. I doubt that all of that will happen, but at least a new president might start making headway on some of those.

Oh, and universal health care. Which reminds me, when I played soccer two weeks ago, I got my right foot stepped on by a cleat. I thought it was bruised, but looking at it, it is a bit swollen, and there is pretty sharp pain if I poke it in the wrong place. I think I will try to get an X-ray done; I might have a fracture or something. I know a bruise doesn't hurt in the ways that foot is hurting now.

I was able to run for 40 minutes on it last night though. In the rain. In the dark. In a park that I had never been to before. And the paved path kept turning into treacherous dirt. Without lights. It was a kind of creepy run. I'm going to have to do that again when it is not raining, and not 10pm at night.

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