December 21, 2008
Review of Heroes Die, Blade of Tyshalle, and Caine Black KnifeJohn Scalzi's "Whatever" blog and I saw his Big Idea column on Matthew Stover's new Caine Black Knife book. I read the first bit of the column, but then quit because it sounded interesting and I didn't want to have the books ruined for me. If you plan on getting the books my suggestion is to go in cold, because it is quite a ride when you don't know what is coming.
What really surprised me is that I went in thinking that these were fantasy books. It says right on the cover "A Fantasy Novel", which I thought was pretty strange. What sort of novel needs to proclaim on the cover what it is? Usually these categorizations are fairly straightfoward and you don't need to try to convince the readers what kind of book you are. (Well, that probably isn't true, but just from a straight consumer point of view, I hadn't seen something like that before.)
When I got the first book - available from Amazon Japan! - I put it on my pile of books and eventually got around to starting it. I read the back cover, and started to get a bit depressed: according to the back of the book, this was actually a sci-fi / fantasy combo type book that uses a device that I've really just grown sick of lately: the concept of alternate worlds. This concept is all over the place, I probably first ran into with Piers Anthony's Xanth series when I was a kid, and then the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (I didn't realize that that series was still ongoing) and it pops up all over the place really. I'm just sick of it. I don't like this idea of a real world and a fantasy world. If you are going to do alternate worlds, I have a hard time seeing how you can do it better than Roger Zelazny and maybe I'm just tiring of the whole idea. It seems to be popping up in video games a lot too, from Zelda the Twilight Princess to the more recent Metroid game and a whole bunch of Silent Hill games (but I haven't played many games lately, so I'm just getting that from reviews and other stuff I see on the web.)
I would rather have a story in a well-developed world rather than one that marginalizes one world or the other, or is a ridiculous escapist fantasy about escaping a boring real life and going into some exciting alternate reality (.hack and persona are two more that annoy me in that way.)
So I was really expecting to hate Heroes Die. I expected that I would put it down after ten pages, and regret buying.
I was wrong. The book completely sucked me in. I don't know if it was the characters, which are great, or the subtle undertones (or not-so-subtle as the case may be) of existential philosophy and commentary on totalitarian regimes and the "bread and circus" trap, but I really, really enjoyed these novels. I had to go out of my to track down a copy of Blade of Tyshalle, which was hard for me to get in Japan but one of the Amazon.com third party merchants shipped it to me no problem ($25 for a paperback though, a bit expensive!) and luckily Caine Black Knife is also available on the Amazon Japan site. I went through each of these books in about a week, reading snatches here and there. I think I even got my wife angry at me once because I pulled the book out while we were waiting for a train, which apparently wasn't the correct ending for an otherwise romantic evening seeing the movie Wall-E.
I just finished reading "Caine Black Knife" three days ago and I'm disappointed that the second volume isn't out yet. I hope that it will be out soon, but knowing how these things go it will be a while.
The good news is that it looks like "Heroes Die" and "The Blade of Tyshalle" will be put out in ebook form soon - I am looking forward to that so I can add them to my growing ebook collection so re-reads can be done on my ebook reader, currently but I'm hoping to get if they ever release a version for Japan. I keep asking the digital contents guys if that will happen, but they haven't given me a straight answer yet. :)
So, in summary: go and buy Heroes Die and the other two Caine books. They are really great. I should mention that they are really violent, and have some philosophical discussions about free will and the nature of man. The violence makes those sections a bit easier to bear for some people, I'm sure. :)
December 17, 2008
Switching to Ubuntu from FedoraSo last week I broke my Fedora 8 box. It was a shame really, there was no reason for my machine to break. There was one problem with the video card, a kernel panic and reboot. That was the first time since I replaced the power supply that went bad that the machine had any trouble. Since the new version of Fedora, Fedora 10, has come out I thought I would take this chance to upgrade.
I usually have pretty good luck doing upgrades with linux, so I didn't think much about it this time. Unfortunately, that was a mistake. For some reason Fedora 10 ships with a version of Xorg that isn't compatible with the binary driver from AMD for my HD2400 card. It wasn't even worth trying to keep using the system with Vesa, radeon, or radeonhd drivers because it was just terribly slow. I thought this wouldn't be a huge problem, because I can fall back onto the built in Intel 3100 graphics chip. It is a kind of sucky chip, but works. It also has a great open source driver that supports 3d, and plays video well enough for me to get by with until AMD releases drivers that work with the new Xorg server.
Unfortunately, for some reason, there was a bug with the Intel driver on Fedora 10 or (my install of it), and I couldn't get that to work. At that point it looked like things were going from bad to worse, so I decided to back up all my data. I had to pick up another external drive, but after about 24 hours of copying in single user mode everything from /home and /data (the two places where I keep most of my data - I forgot to get /var though, which lost me my Amarok library stat data via the mysql DBs it uses!) and then installed Fedora 9.
Fedora 9 didn't give me any joy either.
So now I'm getting frustrated. I haven't watched the Daily Show for 4 days now. And this useless expensive hunk of metal is laughing at me from across the room. So I decided I would try to install Windows on it, just to see what life in the world of well-supported video card drivers is like. I had a copy of Windows XP that I bought a while ago, and that installed but it sucked. I had to do completely remove all linux partitions from the machine to get it to even recognize the hard drives. And it would only install on one of the hard drives. Also, no driver support off the default image. I had to download and install a whole bunch of drivers for the Gigabyte ga-g33m-s2h motherboard that I have, and then things seemed ok. I tried to do a windows update, but it started giving me a lot of grief about "Windows Genuine Advantage" and I decided that I didn't need all that trouble (it was a legal student copy that I bought a while back, I have used it to install on another machine whose recovery disk I lost, etc.) so I gave up on windows.
So I decided I would take a look at Ubuntu. I've heard good things about Ubuntu so I thought I would give that a try. I installed the regular desktop edition and everything went well with that. It installed very easily actually, and picked up my GMA3100 video card fine (I didn't try with the HD2400 card) and it performed well: I could play video well and have desktop effects turned on. I kind of missed the yum functionality of Fedora, but Ubuntu has apt-get which is just as good. More or less.
The only problem is that Ubuntu does not have any LVM support with the normal installer. So I initially set things up on sda to see how it went, and it went well. Then I decided that I would stick with Ubuntu for a while to see how things go, but if I am going to do that, I really want to use LVM so I can bond the 2 internal 500gig drives together into a unified /home directory. I also want to be able to put other installs at a separate logical volume so next time I upgrade things will go so crazy.
Anyway, here is an excellent guide to setting up LVMs on Ubuntu. The Fedora installer for LVM stuff is nicer - in graphical mode, I didn't try their text version - and I will miss some of the other neat stuff about Fedora (pulse audio probably, maybe some other stuff.) So far though, I have had really good luck with Ubuntu and getting it running as I like. It will take another day or two to re-copy the data, and then probably another week or two while I try to find out everything I missed (lost the MySQL database for Amarok so my music library stats are all gone) - I need to set up a webserver and stuff, I just set up Azureus (Vuze now?) with RSS feed eating capability for automatic TV downloading, and stuff like that.
Ubuntu is looking pretty good though.
December 14, 2008
I need to back up data more oftenFriday night my desktop linux machine crashed. That is pretty unusual: it usually runs 24x7 for months at a time. I have had one or two crashes recently due to the video drivers (I guess) because basically the video goes out, but I can still ssh in from another machine and the desktop is still alive. I've been running Fedora 8 for a long time on it, and haven't been able to get updates lately due to some broken packages and wonky yum state I got the machine into. I haven't really had time to try to fix it, and just figured that I would upgrade to Fedora 10 when that came out.
Well, Fedora 10 came out, and my machine was giving me problems, so I thought I would do an upgrade. I downloaded the DVD, threw it in and started the process.
The install went fine, but there were problems with the video card drivers. I had been using the binary drivers from AMD for my Radeon HD2400 (card of some sort) and they worked well for playing video. I never could get video to work with compiz, so I didn't have pretty whiz-bang effects, but that was fine because I could watch videos on the machine, which is basically what it is for.
The problem was that I couldn't get the HD2400 card to display the screen right. I read up on stuff, and it turns out that the newest version of the drivers hasn't been updated for Fedora 10 and lots of people are having problems with those drivers now. Great. Well, I can always fall back to the onboard Intel G31 (I think?) video card. Unfortunately, that gave me a different just as fatal problem: there are some strange messages in the log about the X server going into some sort of infinite loop. It basically locks the screen. I couldn't manage to get that working either.
So I am now in a state with that machine where I can't boot it graphically. It will run fine in text mode. That isn't very useful for watching videos. Things were working great with Fedora 8, but I had borked the install a bit, and now it is out of support anyway. So I am now planning to move back to Fedora 9, but I can't downgrade without wiping all the data on the hard disk. This is a problem because I've got a LVM install binding two 500gig drives together, and they are not backed up. About 800gig is video and user data that I want to keep. Another 100gig of system data that I don't care too much about. But no backups.
Well, I have a 500gig external drive, and just bought another 500gig external, and in single user mode I am now backing up the machine. It looks like it will take about 24 hours to do a backup using the tar copy trick (I can at least see what files are being copied that way: "tar cf - . | (cd /mnt/backup/data && tar xBfv -)")
It is super slow. I would like to use dd or something, but because I'm using LVM the sizes don't work out so that I can mirror the partitions. I don't know the intricacies of dd anyway. At least I'll get a backup of all my data now (one of the drives I had was firewire, the new one is only USB. The firewire drive was a lot quicker.) Also when I re-install Fedora 9 (because driver support still isn't there for 10) I will do a smarter partitioning: put /home and /data on their own mount points in the LVM so that future installs can blow the other stuff away and leave that data intact.
Actually, I'm still not clear on the best use of LVM. Should I make a second LVM LogVolume group just for /home and /data? That sounds like it would be safer to me, because then I could make multiple LogVolume groups for different installs if I wanted to, and blow away the whole thing on an upgrade. But LVM is still a somewhat confusing concept for me. I understand what it is doing, I do not understand practically what are the best ways to set things up to keep your data safe. I had a different problem with LVMs once where the LVM itself went corrupt, and basically I just had to kiss that machine goodbye.
I think I can use my standard rsync trick for backups from here on out, but Apple makes this so much easier with Time Machine.
December 7, 2008
A busy day - another typical blog post
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 doughnutsWhile 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.
JoggingOnce 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 beR. 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
First up: food.
BreakfastThe 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.
LunchThe 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.
DinnerFor 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 SituationThe 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.
My name is still on the door
Imperial Palace Fall Leaves
Imperial Palace Fall Leaves
Building going up
Random other stuffLast 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
Aomori Marketing Mascot?
Final Fantasy Posters
Final Fantasy Posters
Final Fantasy Posters
Final Fantasy Posters
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
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
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
R. and Dave at Koishikawa Park
Nice lake and leaves reflection
Two women in Kimono
A Bunraku show
A Surprising Birthday
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 picturesAustrian Cultural Institute in New York, a really cool narrow building.
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' AccelerandoSingularity" 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
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.
- 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.)
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
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 TokyoLydia 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 freeCheck 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 menuThe 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!"
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.
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