July 4, 2008
Japanese Chocolatea previous post, I've been seeing a lot of Salty Chocolate lately. I picked up the Morinaga Salty Chocolate candy the other day. I opened the box, expecting a standard candy bar, but instead I got about eight individually wrapped really small chocolate wafers. They are pretty good, with a bit of salty flavor that isn't overpowering. As always, I also picked up a new flavor of KitKat when I came across it this evening. Triple Berry. It is one of the better strange KitKat flavors. It is great that Japan has so many seasonal changes in their coffee and chocolate and other snacks and drinks. It gives me an excuse to keep buying them.
Fire Cafe Zero (Zero Sugar)
Super cool robot parking systems
July 2, 2008
Ryusendo Coffee Black
July 1, 2008
Books reviews: The Audacity of Hope and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
The Audacity of HopeOn the last international flight I took, before getting on the plane I picked up two books. One of them is a kind of current-events sort of deal, Barack Obama's "The Audacity of Hope". I'm really excited about the upcoming US Presidential election. To tell the truth, I can see positives in each of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain, but I'm most excited about the prospect of Barack Obama becoming president. He made a joke about bubble sorts. He's also been covered a lot on Slashdot, and it really seems like he has a good grasp of some issues important to people in the technology field. I've been intrigued, and have become interested in learning more about his views, so I thought it would be my civic duty to read his book. I'm not really going to give any summaries or big overviews, but I enjoyed the book, and thought it was an easy, fun read. I found his analysis of some of the problems that America faces to be well thought-out and his policies also look very reasonable. There was one chapter on religion and the family that sounded like an appeal to a broad American religious base, but it isn't a fanatical style of mixing religion and government; he clearly believes in the separation of church and state, which is good enough for me. His oft-mentioned points of diversity and hope are also very appealing, so I'm really looking forward to the upcoming election. It is disappointing to me that we only have two major parties and two realistic candidates, but at least that means that if I want to be fair, I only have one other book to read.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-timeThis is a book that I bought purely on recommendation of a random person on slashdot. It came up in a discussion of science fiction novels (of which I'm a big fan) although it isn't of the space ships and aliens variety. I wouldn't even really classify it as science fiction so much as just fiction written from an interesting perspective. It is really interesting to go into this book without knowing much about it, but I will say that I really enjoyed this book, and highly recommend it. I don't generally like novels that use narrative gimmicks (I can't tell if I'm sick of, or enjoy, the unreliable narrator) but even though this book has its gimmick, it doesn't come off as gimmicky. This is apparently a young adult novel, but I have a thing for well-written young adult novels - particularly Garth Nix's Abhorsen Trilogy and Shade's Children - so that isn't a problem for me. Anyway, I really liked this book, and am going to make space for it on my bookshelf. That's pretty rare because I get the feeling that I won't have too much bookshelf space after the move to the new apartment.
June 30, 2008
Paying the Tax Man, and stuff around townnew Setagaya Museum of Art exhibit on architecture by Osamu Ishiyama.) A few weeks ago I got a big, fat letter from Setagaya county. I knew that they wanted money from me, and specifically money for having the honor of living in their ward. I wasn't in any rush to open it. I wonder if I had just refused to open, like the White House, if it would all just go away. Probably not. So I finally opened it over the weekend, and found out that I had to pay up on Monday. Monday was actually the last day that I could pay the first installment of the tax (although I've paid other installments a bit late, and they have been very kind about it) so I deviated from my standard schedule. Usually I'm out of the house by 7:30am, but today I needed to go to the bank, get some money, go to the post office to mail some stuff, and then go to the ward office to pay the tax bill. I went to my local bank, and was amazed. I have never seen more than two people in that bank ever. There must have been twenty people in line for the ATM machines. I believe that you can register with the ward office to pay the tax bill using the bank system, but I'm not really too sure about that. If I'm going to pay a bunch of money, I like to go down and talk to people, especially because then I can ask questions. That's a lot easier than making sense of tax documents written in Japanese. I still needed to get money out though, so I got hit by the last minute rush. (Nobody was at the actual ward office tax payment division though - that was super quick. Much quicker than waiting for the ATMs.) After pulling out some money, I walked by a local shop that makes tatami mats. I've seen that place once or twice before, but generally they are never open when I am around. I had a camera handy and asked if I could take a picture. It would have been nice to hang around and get some shots of them working on those mats by hand, but I had to get going to get my taxes paid and get to work. It really is pretty amazing though: they do all that weaving and finishing by hand. It looks really tedious. Finally, I also found another interesting candy bar at the local convenience store. Meiji Salty Pralines Chocolate. It is pretty good! I just barely taste the salt, and I really liked the pralines a lot. There are a few more salt and chocolate items that I saw, so maybe I'll pick a few more of them up.
Reviving the Japanese Daily Coffee Posts
Georgia Essence Drop
Fire Freshly made
Boss Switch Shot
Nescafe Golgo 13
Nescafe Golgo 13
June 28, 2008
Conference HoneymoonAfter L. and I got married, we took a trip to Morocco for our honeymonn. Actually, I had made a committment a long time before to attend the 2008 LREC Conference in Marrakech, Morocco, so we went together as a kind of honeymoon. It was the best honeymoon conference ever. Read more for notes from the trip, and a few pictures. read more (8661 words)
June 21, 2008
Second Apartment ViewingToday I went with L. for the second apartment viewing. On the first viewing we filled out a form with 10 issues we found in the apartment. The majority of them were small bumps in the wall, or a few were areas where there were imperfections in how the finishing on the doors, or how the doors close. They addressed all of the issues, and we pointed out a few more new ones that we found, but generally things are looking good at the apartment.
We were presented with one major change though: in the living room where the pipe from the air conditioner blower unit to the compressor was supposed to be, it turns out that they could not put the compressor where the initial plans indicated they would be. Instead, the compressor had to be moved to the other side of the room, so the exit pipes were changed to the other side. This is a problem because we plan to have custom built shelving put where there is now an exit pipe, and two access panels for the air conditioning unit. In the end the company that does the custom furniture was able to work around the constraints, but it is kind of annoying.
After the second walk-through we went down and spent a while with the custom furniture people working on the wall cabinetry. I'm very happy with it, and excited to see what it will look like when it is done. I can't believe how much it costs, but I'm sure it will be worth it. (For that matter, I can't believe how much the drapes cost either!)
We also had a chance to check out the common facilities at the apartment: the exercise room (looks pretty nice), the two guest rooms (Japanese style and Western style, look very nice), and the library (three study carrels which look very cool - net connections and everything.)
When we finally finished up everything, L., her parents, and myself all went out for an excellent sushi dinner.
June 15, 2008
The NHK Man pays a visitFriday evening I came home from work to a hot apartment: it was raining all day so I had left the windows closed. When I do that my apartment warms up pretty quickly, mostly due to the refrigerator and computer I suppose.
I put some rice on for dinner and opened up the windows but it was still pretty hot. Since I absolutely never have any visitors, I stripped down to my shorts and tried to cool off using the fan.
Sometime around 8pm or so, the doorbell rings. This is very unusual. Nobody ever comes to my place unless I'm expecting a friend or a delivery. Since neither were on the schedule, I assumed it was just some sort of salesperson. I probably should have thrown on a T-shirt and pants, but I figured I could get rid of him fairly quickly, and if he wants to bother me right before dinner he can put up with a shirtless foreigner for the time it takes for me to get rid of him.
When I opened the door, I was surprised that the person there was a NHK representative. I had previously had one visit from the NHK guys. NHK is the Japanese national broadcasting service, like the BBC. They are supported by the government and officially people who have TVs are supposed to pay a licensing fee. I don't have a TV, but I do have a computer monitor that has an internal analog TV tuner, and since I was watching NHK News at the time, I felt like I should pay up. I didn't pay last year when the guy came around, but since then I've been watching a lot of NHK news in the morning and evening (it is good practice) so I really felt like I should pay. So I did. It was about $30 for two months worth of the broadcast fee.
I'm planning to move at the end of next month, so I don't think I'll be paying further licensing fees, but I'm glad I did pay at least once.
Also, some foreigners on the expat blog community have warned of scams where someone pretends to be the NHK guy for collecting licenses so some foreigners are wary of paying. This guy was the real deal though, and I've got some nice official paperwork backing things up.
Still, I wonder what the NHK guy was thinking the whole time, talking to a foreigner in his shorts the whole time. I wonder if I just started some other strange stereotype about Americans for him. :)
June 14, 2008
Saturday morning alarmI was looking forward to getting a bit of extra sleep on Saturday night, but at about 8:45am this morning, there was a pretty big earthquake north of Tokyo (centered on Iwate, a low level 6 on the Japanese scale) which caused shaking down near Tokyo. It was very minor, not strong enough to move anything off my shelves or bookcases, but enough to convince me to get out of bed.
Everything is fine for me, although it was pretty strong farther up north, so I'm watching TV (NHK, I'll have a post about that shortly) to see if there were any injuries or damage caused near the center of the earthquake.
June 11, 2008
Notes from Marriage WeekAs always I am a bit behind posting news to my blog. Sorry about that. If you couldn't tell from my previous entries, I married my girlfriend L. three weeks ago. We didn't have a wedding ceremony, but plan to have one next year in May. My family came to Japan to meet with L.'s family, which was totally great. If you are interested, I've written up the events of the week. read more (3260 words)
June 9, 2008
Busy busy busyI'm back in Japan - got back in just about a week ago. I've been really busy catching up on stuff, and very soon I plan to post an entry about my "wedding week". Next up is a post on the trip to Morocco for a conference / combined Honeymoon. In short: Wedding Week was awesome, got to see my family and my amazingly beautiful wife. The honeymoon was also great, with two "surprise" trips to Casablanca and Milan. More on that later.
For now, I just wanted to say that I am busy, tired, and now sore. I went running this morning with my friend Sebastian, a marathon runner. I haven't run for three months, so I'm out of shape. Horribly, horribly, out of shape.
May 25, 2008
One picture - Traditional Japanese Kimono and Hakama
May 17, 2008
The Future of NewsI do research on automatic opinion identification, and one thing that is really interesting to the community right now is analyzing blog data. Most of the available tagged resources are over newspaper data or movie reviews or other kinds of collectable TEXT - user star rating type things (restaurant reviews, product reviews, etc.)
The community is very interested in moving to blog data, where ostensibly there would be more and varied opinions available to analyze, but there isn't too much data available for that yet. (But see the TREC Blog track work where there is an opinionated blog search task.)
All this interest in blogs and user generated media seems to have had an impact on "traditional" print media. Recently, there was a workshop on the Future of News. It was held at Princeton University, near my old stomping grounds. It would have been nice to go, but thanks to the (news-media destroying!) blogs, I've been able to at least get a brief impression of what was discussed.
Matthew Hurst's great Data Mining blog has two posts with pointers to some summaries from the workshop. Fun stuff.
I'm firmly of the opinion that traditional news media will be around for a long time. Blogs do have some role to play in modern news dissemination, but not a large enough role to displace focused organizations that can fund people to do research and have a vested interest in vetting information. It isn't clear to me that the newswires do as much of this as they should, but the traditional media certainly will play a role in choosing what news to elevate to the national level.
At some point, most blogs are really locally focused, and I don't see how any of the personally-run small sites (like, say, my blog) could ever hope to break interesting news more than once in a lifetime. Also, I like writing about what I ate for dinner. That isn't news. :)
May 15, 2008
Licensed to drive: Making Japanese streets more dangerous
- A valid Driver's License from a reputable country
- A translation of the Driver's License
- At least for me, I needed a certified copy of my driving record from the Texas DMV because the driver's license does not have a date of issue field on it. I also needed a translation of that.
- Your passport
May 11, 2008
Updates around Jiyugaokaother unlikely food combinations that I've come across before. (Although, on that note I did have a Spicy Wiener Doughnut this morning. It sounds like it wouldn't be very good, but it actually was quite nice. The hot dog was great, and a bit spicy, with the same kind of sweet fried exterior that you would find on the misleading Curry Bread that pretend to be sweet jelly-filled doughnuts, but totally are not.) Back on topic with the New York Doughnut Plant, I was really excited to check it out but it is closed! They are remodeling and will be until sometime in September! I'll have moved away from my beloved Jiyugaoka by then! Oh noes! No doughnuts for me. Next up on the docket are the new express trains on the Oimachi line. I often take the Oimachi line from Oyamadai (my beloved small town where I live) to Jiyugaoka (the nearby "big" station) where I can transfer to the more respectable Toyoko line. I take it every day to go to work. The Oimachi line is pretty small, only 10km from end to end. If the weather is nice, I'll just walk. I live very close to the tracks, basically separated only by a narrow road, so I hear the trains go by all the time. One thing that really surprised me is that these new express trains are much less noisy than the local trains. They look pretty cool too. I'm going to miss the noise of trains going by every ten minutes or so. After about two years, it is strange how comforting the noise has become. I know that if I haven't heard trains go by in a while, I really need to get to bed. And they give you a good incentive to wake up when you really should be awake. Finally, one shot of the Cherry Blossoms in Jiyugaoka. I made it through the whole cherry blossom season without posting any photos (I do have a bunch that I could upload, but it seems very clichéd.) I kind of like the cherry blossom trees that line the Jiyugaoka shopping street.
Mabo Tofu: Cheap and easy food
May 9, 2008
More earthquakes in JapanSo I'm a bit late on this -- I meant to write something last night, but never got around to it -- but there was a medium-sized earthquake two nights ago (Wednesday night.) Actually, it was early Thursday morning, at about 1:45am. I was in bed, somewhat asleep, when my dreams started to become strange and wave-like. The entire bed was swaying. There have been a few small earthquakes in the two years that I've been in Tokyo, but this was one of the bigger ones. In my strange dream-like logic, I thought "Should I wake up and run outside?" I convinced myself that the rocking, wavelike motion was kind of pleasant, and somehow thought that I was a on a nice boat.
I feel back deep asleep again shortly.
It was apparently a fairly big earthquake - showing up on the the local blogs.
Checking some of the earthquake report sites it looks like it was a 6.8 on the US scale, and a 4 or 5 on the Japanese scale.
Anyway, things were fine in my place. I think a pen rolled off one of my tables, but that was about it. I'm up on the 4th floor of a 4-story concrete "mansion", and that thing really gets swaying!
I'm a little worried now thinking about "the big one". Benkei is convinced that the big one is coming and will hit Tokyo soon. A friend of mine at work said the same thing. I'm not so sure: I don't really know much about how earthquakes work. Since I'm in the process of buying a place here though, I've decided that the big one is not coming, and our new place will be built to withstand it even if it does hit.
Unbridled optimism is a great power if only you can harness it correctly!
May 6, 2008
How I spent my summer vacationThis week was "Golden Week", a sequence of usually 4 days off at the start of May. This is one of the big holidays in Japan, and people usually have big plans for the break, including overseas travel and the like. The gas prices always seem to go up a bit before Golden Week, and miraculously return to normal a few days afterwards. This year, things are even crazier because of the reinstatement of the lapsed "temporary gas tax" (temporary since 1954! - well, 1974 for the actual temporary part, but there have been gas taxes in effect since 1954.), which are about 50 yen a liter.
I don't really want to write about that - it was reinstated in a recent push by the upper house that overrode the lower house and probably angered a lot of people - but just wanted to quickly jot down the things I've been doing on my "vacation".
I wanted to get some work done over the four day break. Usually the holidays are four weekdays, but timing is particularly bad this year, and two of the holidays fell on the weekend, so we only got Monday and Tuesday off. I brought my work laptop home so I could do some programming, but as often happens high hopes clashed with reality and I didn't get as much done as I wanted.
On Saturday I slept in, and did some needed cleaning around the apartment. I watching some TV, and started looking at my email backlog (that always takes longer than expected.) I have family coming to visit soon and spent some time planning for that, and then in the evening decided that I would take advantage of the holiday and play a game. Quite a while ago I bought Galactic Civilizations 2, a space war and conquest game. It is really cool, and I was totally obsessed with it for a while. Because I'm the obsessive type, I just drop things cold-turkey when I think they are taking up too much of my time. I think by the time I realized what had happened, it was 6am on Sunday morning, and I had wasted about 14 hours in a blink.
So I've put that away again, and won't go back until I can learn to set a timer or something.
I woke up Sunday afternoon, went down to the local cafe for lunch, and read a bit more of "Kafka By the Sea", the Murakami Haruki novel I've been working on for over a year now. I'm about a quarter of the way into the second book and it is really getting interesting. I wish I had more time to devote to reading in Japanese - it is a great way to study, and lots of fun - but it seems hard to take the time. (I say, as I blog.)
Back at home I spent a few hours reading up on the FrameNet project, which I'm using in some research. The framenet book is pretty large, but does not cover the xml file format and all that stuff. Since the data files are pretty large, it is a daunting task to dive in and start using them right away. I'm very surprised that there are not more well-developed interfaces to accessing FrameNet in Java - there are two that are kind of old, and don't look very well adopted, unlike the state of affairs for WordNet, which has many Java interfaces.
On Sunday night I went out and met a friend for dinner, which was lots of fun. I've been cooking at home a lot lately and it is really nice to eat something that I didn't make myself. I have started making lots of Mabo tofu lately, which is pretty good and very easy to make.
Monday I spent some time doing work email, and a bit of programming (getting a feature set developed for a CRF learning system) and in the evening I went to my finaceé's parent's place for dinner. Unfortunately, L. was sick, and holed up in bed. Still, dinner with the in-laws was nice (more food I didn't cook!) and I helped L.'s dad set up his email on a new computer.
Today I've spent the day working with a FrameNet semantic labeler from the NLP group at Lunds University. It looks really great, because it will save me the trouble of having to build a learning system to map from syntactic dependencies to semantic roles. Since that is a pretty tough project in itself, I wouldn't be able to do it justice because really I just want to use a bit of the semantic information in FrameNet for sentiment analysis.
As vacations go, it was nice because I spent maybe two days goofing off, and then a bit of time working but in a more relaxed environment than usual.
Unusual things that happened while walking around Oyamadai: another new restaurant opened up. I'm amazed at how quickly they tear down and construct new buildings around here. For the first time since I've been here, I received a benefit for having signed up for the local supermarket's "rewards card" thing. They gave me a coupon for 500 yen off. Not bad. That's almost a pint of Hagen Daaz ice cream here. (Or two gallons of Blue Bell back in Dallas.)
While I was dozing off in the afternoon, I heard something strange out my window: English! I poked my head out and it looks like another foreigner is moving in nearby. Neat.
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