August 5, 2008

Moving out / Moving in

Dear blog,

I know I haven't written in a while. I've been busy. I know, it isn't a good excuse. I'm sorry. I won't do it again. (I hope.)

Last week, on Tuesday July 29th, I moved from my beloved apartment in Oyamadai (a single room + living room, dining room, kitchen (1LKD)) to a new place on the Shinagawa Seaside station on the Rinkai line. The new place is great: it is in a newly constructed tower (finished in mid July 2008, so we are among the first residents), we actually own it (yep, we took out a large pair loan, and have joined the home-owning ranks), and it is in a really nice area. There is a huge shopping area right near where we live, so shopping is totally great. We're also up on the 14th floor, and have a great view of the canal and can see the Rainbow Bridge and Odaiba.

I'm sad to move out of my place at Oyamadai though. They have a great Baskin Robbins there, and the area feels like a really small, nice town. The new area is all towers and businesses and doesn't have any personality at all. I'll also miss all my stuff: I moved only a very small percentage of my stuff and paid to have the rest thrown away. Most of it I received from friends when I first got here, so it was all pretty old, aside from the excellent (but huge by Japanese standards) IKEA Fågelbo sofa (which I totally loved and hated to see go - but it was the wrong orientation for the new place, and L. wanted new things) so it wasn't a huge monetary loss, but it pains me to pay to throw that stuff out instead of using it (and saving some money!) at the new place.

On the plus side though, L. got us some really nice new stuff. I particularly am in love with the refrigerator, which is huge, and makes ice, and has like, a million compartments. (Counting them out a actually, it is the two upper doors, ice maker area, storage next to it, ice area, storage next to it, refrigerated compartment, and freezer, so 8 maybe.)

The furniture is also nice.

We still haven't unpacked everything there, (see picture - but it is a bit better than that now) but should finish next week once the large living room cabinetry arrives. I also bought a little computer desk. Once all that gets here, we should be able to put everything away and start making real decisions about where things go. I like going that. I like knowing where things are supposed to be, and then putting them there.

So, I don't have any pictures of the new place (until we clean it up I don't want to take them really) but I will introduce you to what I think is absolutely crazy: the absurd number of control panels and remote controls that we have to run our place. It is out of control.

Remote controls

We have a variety of remote controls in the new place. I'm not counting the standard remote controls (TV, video recorder, the wireless keyboard I use for my desktop that I count as essentially a 104 key remote control, etc.) I'm talking about remote controls that you normally wouldn't see in America. First up: lights. We have two of the picture light remote controls. The light fixtures that we have in the master bedroom, living room, and second room are all circular fluorescent lights that have three settings: brightest, bright, and nightlight. They are all controlled by wall switches, but if you want to change the intensity you need one of the remotes. The living room remote actually controls the living room and the small room lights with the channel setting.

That isn't really very exciting, but the air conditioner remote controls start to get crazy. Each of the three main rooms has its own air conditioner. I don't really understand why the concept of central HVAC isn't more widespread. I suspect that you can get high efficiency if you have one or two large air exchange units for the house, or in a big building like this, industrial size HVAC units. They have to be more efficient than what we end up with: each apartment unit has from 1 to five small AC units that have their own compressors outside. Conceptually, this lack of centralization and complete lack of insulation really bothers me.

Anyway, we have three air conditioners, and their price is reflected in the remote controls. The small room has the smallest remote with the least frills. There's nothing totally crazy on it, but it is a pretty complicated remote control. It doesn't have any anything on the master bedroom remote though. That remote opens up so you get even more buttons. It has a massive display on it. It took me minutes to figure out how to set the time. I haven't really sat down to spend the time to figure out what this thing can do because honestly I'm happy with only the power button and temp up/down buttons. I would use the timer functionality, but I don't really know when I'll be home at any given night so I haven't been playing around with that yet. The funniest button is "people search". The air conditioner has some sensors on it that can detect people (via infrared I assume) and shoot cool air at them. Nice.

Next up is an even bigger remote: the living room remote. It doesn't have as big a display as the master bedroom remote, but it makes up for it with more buttons. Nothing as interesting as a "people search" (although I think it is supposed to have that function on it) but it does have a button for "robot cleaning". The two larger units have robot cleaning parts that clean the filters or something on the unit when you shut it off. I wonder if that will actually do anything.

Control Panels

First up: the water heating system. Most places in Japan have in-line water heaters that heat the water on demand. I kind of like these systems because first, you can't run out of hot water as long as you have gas. Second, they only work when you are using water, and third, they only heat the water to the temperature that you want, so there is the potential to be more efficient than systems that heat water beforehand to a "hot" level and keeps a tank always topped off. The downside is that you need to wait a little bit (maybe ten seconds) for the water to heat up, and you have to manage the complexity of turning the water heater on and off.

The interesting thing is that you have two controls: one in the bath / shower, and one in the kitchen. If you get someone mad at you, they could potentially shut the water heater off while you are in the middle of a shower... (I haven't checked, but I wouldn't be surprised if there was a sensor that prevented that.) Also, maybe to address that problem (if it even exists - I don't plan on getting L. mad enough at me to test it out in the near future) there is a button that lets you talk to the other water heater control. There are also buttons to fill up the bathtub remotely from the kitchen (is that really useful? This place is not *that* big!) and some other buttons that I haven't investigated yet.

After that, we have a control panel for the heated floor. The floor in the living room is heated, which might be interesting. In the middle of summer, I'm in no mood to test it out. When the cover is closed there is only one button: on / off. That is nice. When you open it up, well, then it gets confusing. I'll worry about that once it gets cold.

Finally, I'm sure everyone has heard about the crazy toilets in Japan. We have a crazy toilet. It has a remote control stuck to the wall. It has the standard stuff, bidet functions, heated seat cover, but none of the super fancy stuff (automatic lid raiser / closer, music player to drown out embarrassing noises, etc.) It really seems funny that the toilet has an infrared remote control, but there you go. At least it also still works manually.

Overall I'm poking a bit of fun at the over-designed and over-functioned specs of a lot of these systems, but they are useful. I don't think I 'll really need all the options that are provided by the remotes, but I'm the type of guy that is glad to have the advanced functionality and options. I just wish there were better interfaces than lots and lots of buttons.

July 28, 2008

Fuji Rock Festival 2008

A brief post to update you on what I've been doing lately. Things are incredibly busy right now -- I'm moving to my new apartment tomorrow and am currently packing -- so I am a bit overdue for an update.

L. is a big fan of The Cribs, an indie rock trio from England. They played the Fuji Rock Festival this year (on Saturday, two days ago) and even though she didn't really know too much about the other acts, she got two one-day passes for Saturday for us.

I like the Cribs a lot, but I'm nowhere near L.'s level. Still, the Fuji Rock Festival is famous around here, and I've wanted to go ever since I heard about it, so I was happy to go. The plan was to leave early Saturday morning, driving L.'s Mini Cooper out to one of the parking areas, then hop the shuttle bus to the venue.

It was amazing how many people were there. I estimated that there was more than 100,000 people there, and the above Wiki link backs me up on that (at least that many came to one of the festivals.) I can not describe just how many people there were. The main stage, the Green Stage, is at the base of a gentle slope, and the entire face of the place was packed with people. There are a whole bunch of stages, and a nice walk between them. I wish we had more time though because we didn't even get a chance to walk the entire grounds of the festival. It might take about and hour to circle around the entire area I think. There is also a lot of art installations and so on around, and is just generally a really nice area. It would be really cool to just wander around and hang out there for a while.

It was supposed to rain on Saturday, but we got a patch of luck and the weather was beautiful. So beautiful that I had to wrap a towel around my head to ward off sunburn. You could tell the Fuji Rock Festival veterans from the newbies because all the veterans were wearing big old rain boots. I had on a normal pair of shoes (which were completely muddy and dusty on my return.)

We grabbed something to eat, and after that caught a few songs from The Black Market. They were ok, but nothing to write to your blog about.

L. then headed over to the Ganban area for the band signing session with the cribs. She wasn't able to get in the signing line though because they had stopped selling "official items" that qualified you for the signing event. She got a lot of pictures though. After that we decided to wander around and make our way over to the White Stage for the Crib's show.

We passed by the radio broadcast station on the way and by random luck they were going to do an interview with The Zutons, a group that Lisa likes. They are a five member band, with a Sax. We saw their set later, and it was really good, so I'm going to have to check them out.

The white stage is in a kind of rocky field, and not quite so big as the green stage. It still can accommodate a lot of people. L. wanted to be up front so we headed up to the stage about an hour before the start. We were right up against the railing. The show was great, but I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I wasn't crushed up against the railing, and for about half the show a guy kept hitting my head (accidentally) in his fan-based fervor.

We stuck around for the Zutons, who I really liked, and their crowd was less enthusiastic so I came away with fewer bruises.

We took a bit of a break, and then came back for Gogol Bordello, which is the only other band that I was really interested in seeing. I had heard a NPR show about them once, and they sounded really cool. They were completely crazy and awesome. I didn't understand much of what they were singing, but I was totally into the show.

The final act of the night that we caught was Underworld, which is a raver-type electronic group (guy?) that was ok for what it was. Not really my cup of tea.

The music was great, and now I really want to go back to a Fuji Rock Festival when I don't have so much going on at work and in my life, try to get a place to stay nearby, and really enjoy things.

The other big deal for me was not the festival itself, but getting there. I had to wake up early - 5am - to get to L.'s place, and then we got in her Mini and drove away. I got my license recently, but I have not had a chance to drive since then. Once we got out onto the highway, we switched up and I got in about two hours of highway driving. Things went pretty well, but I have to admit that it was a bit nerve-wracking, especially getting on the highway since the merge lanes here are very short. Also, things are in km/h so I felt like I was speeding all the time.

The way back was a bit more difficult because we got back to the parking lot sometime after midnight. Getting on the highway this time was a bit trickier because it was dark and I was worried about merging onto someone. L. freaked out a bit because I didn't merge in immediately. So now I think I have to get onto highways much quicker. The next three hours were fine because driving on the highway at 3am is pretty easy.

Once we hit Tokyo though, it started to get tougher. The streets of Tokyo are convoluted, narrow, and busy even at 4am. Following the GPS directions is a bit difficult too because the lady in that box keeps talking in meters, which I don't have a great handle on. It started to rain a bit too, and then I started to get nervous about turning the wrong way onto a one-way street. I made one wrong turn, but the GPS box re-routed, and I eventually made it home at about 4am. I didn't once drive on the right side of the road (left only!) and L. only thought she was going to die once, which is at least two or three times fewer than I expected for our first road outing together.

It was pretty surprising to me just how nervous I was about driving: I've been driving for sixteen years in America, and have always enjoyed it. Driving in Japan just freaks me out though. I'm comfortable with highway driving now, but I don't like the onramps and I don't like Tokyo city driving. I think I will eventually get used to it, but I don't know if there are going to be many chances to drive.

So, my quick update summary: Fuji Rock Festival was great, and driving in Tokyo freaks me out, even at 4am.

July 22, 2008 has gone live, all ebooks from their giveaway made available for a week

This is just a really short post to point out the blog entry on the now-live that has a collection of links to all the free ebooks they released and all the desktop wallpapers.

I think they are only leaving those links live for a week, so you should check it out soon. It looks like they are also working on selling ebooks in some way, which would be great. My personal dream-scenario: hooks up with to sell DRM-free ebooks on the kindle and any other ebook reader as simple downloads. I don't know what format I like best, but one that works with FBReader is what I want.

Hooking up with Amazon would be nice because when I think books, that is what I think, and they have a nice infrastructure set up already for web distribution (from their MP3 business) and they know how to deal with large volume internet shopping.

Still, even if they set something up on their own, that is cool by me as long as I can pay a few bucks to get DRM-free ebooks that I can read on a variety of devices, and most importantly have the assurance that I can keep reading them in the future. That is the big reason to avoid DRM in my mind.

July 21, 2008

Things I never expected to actually say:

I broke my wookie!

So actually I broke my wookie. He was in my bag, which is apparently a wookie-hostile environment, and when I pulled him out today he was broken. I never expected to say I broke my wookie! but it was the first that that popped into my head when I pulled my wookie out of my bag.

I got my wookie a while ago when Pepsie was running a campaign where they were putting Star Wars cell phone characters on their drinks. I like Pepsi, but I hate that I can't find real Pepsi in Japan. I can only find the awful Pepsi Nex (I would link to it, but Pepsi Japan only has a flash site so I can't deep link.) It is ... bad. It is a zero calorie pepsi, but it isn't as good as diet pepsi. I wan real pepsi. But I can't find it.

Anyway, I bought a cute star wars ep III soldier for my cell phone, and got a nice wookie for L., because I thought she might want a matching Star Wars figure for her cell phone. She doesn't. She accuses me of being a geek. I admit to my geekitude. She laughs. But she doesn't take the wookie. He goes into my bag.

While I'm not looking, the trooper gets him. Damn you, Order 66!

In short, I broke my wookie.

Ebook review: Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End

So in my continuing line of ebook reviews, I present Vernon Vinge's Rainbows End.

Actually, this won't be much of a review. It is freely available (at the link above, but I also have an link for the pretty cover) on his website and I highly recommend that you read it. This is a "near future" type book, before the the singularity (which honestly, I believe in as a concept, but I don't think we are anywhere near the point that we'll have to worry about computers taking over our world - I work with computers and they continually confound me at how non-intelligent they are!) and much before Vernon Vinge's other works.

It is an excellent novel. Go read it now. I've bought a lot of Vernor Vinge's novels, and I think they are great. Maybe that is just because he's an ex-computer science professor, but he's written some really interesting stuff, even his earlier works (like Marooned in Realtime) which I think are kind of under-appreciated.

Moving Estimation is a lot harder than I expected

So I'm in the process of moving. I've talked about it before. One of the things that I have to do is get an estimate of how much it will cost to move stuff from the apartment I'm living in now to the new one.

Click the "read more" link to keep reading about me ... mostly complaining.

read more (1494 words)

A BBQ down by the Tamagawa River

On Sunday, I went down to the Tamagawa River for a BBQ with my friends Watanabe and Tokuda. I've been to maybe three or four of these: Watanaba lives at Saginuma on the Den-en-toshi line, so Futago Shin-chi is fairly close. It is also very close to where I live, and there is a big space down by the river where people do BBQs.

A BBQ is a little tough for me, because I sunburn very easily. I took precautions and used lot of sunscreen. I survived with only a bit of a red face, which I consider a complete victory.

I always like these BBQs. The food is very different from the stuff that we have back in America. There are usually lots of vegetables (mushrooms, onions, pumpkin, peppers) and fish, both whole (like Shishyamo) and fillets. There is also thinly sliced meats, some sausages, and usually by the end yakisoba. There is always plenty of beer, but I only had one and then because of the crazy heat (like 32 degrees Celsius) I drank lots and lots of tea.

I was there for about four hours, and basically had minor variations on this conversation fifty times:

Person: "My ... name ... is ... X".
Me: "Oh, hi X. I'm Dave. What brings you to this BBQ?"
Person: "Hey, you can talk!"
Me: "..."
Person: "Where did you learn Japanese?"
Then we went one to job stuff, how it is hot, etc., etc. I kid a little, but it is always tough meeting new people because first they are shocked that you can speak Japanese, then they go on for quite a while about how well you speak, when in actuality I've got a long way to go. But I can hold my own in conversations. You don't start noticing my deficiencies until you start getting into complicated stuff, like tax codes and social policy. Those topics don't come up at BBQs in the first hour or so of conversation.

So, onto the more amusing things. The group next to ours had a few guys who kept getting naked and horsing around. First they took some pictures in the flowers nearby, then got dressed again, and a while later got naked for some swimming. They were a mixed group, but none of the girls seemed too bothered or interested. My best guess is that they were playing drinking games and just got carried away.

I was surprised at how many people were going into the river. I should have worn a swimsuit. It was really hot, and I wanted to go and try to cool off a bit. A lot of people weren't prepared for swimming, wearing normal clothes. A lot more people weren't planning on going in, but their friends made plans for them and people got dunked.

Also not too far from our group was a large group of tattooed men. They had tattoos that are typical of Japanese gangsters. They also were getting naked, but this was more of a sempai - kouhai sort of thing. They'd tell one guy to get naked and then go over to the DJ area and dance with some people for a bit, then come back. Just fooling around. They also at one point had a bunch of roman candles and were shooting them off at each other. When some of the shots went stray, and came close to other groups of people, those groups tried pretty hard to just ... pretend that nothing was happening. Crazy.

I know I'm talking a lot of about naked guys, but it really seems like the social sensibility in Japan with regards to nudity is very different from America. If you were at some sort of summer river or beach type thing that was not specifically specified as a nudist area, I do not think people would put up with guys getting naked and running around. I also don't think that you would see as many guys getting naked because in my experience, guys don't often want to get naked around each other in social situations. It just doesn't seem to be as big of a deal around here - see Onsen for another good example.

Anyway, it was really nice getting out in the sun. I feel like I've had a whole month's worth of sunshine in one day. I've lifted the tag of hikkikomori for another month.

July 19, 2008

Electric Sheep Beta playing nice with mplayer and xscreensaver on Fedora 8 Linux

I've been a fan of the Electric Sheep screensaver for a long time, but I haven't been running it lately.

It turns out that there is now a new linux version, so I thought I would try to install it on my home machine running Fedora 8. The source install went great, I already had all the prerequisites installed, so simple configure; make; make install went fine.

The problem was a strange interaction with xscreensaver and mplayer. I did a system update recently, and mplayer decided that the "stop-xscreensaver=1" setting in my ~/.mplayer/config stopped working. That means every ten minutes while I'm watching videos, the screensaver kicks in. So I switched to the alternative method of preventing the screensaver from starting up by using the heartbeat command to tell the screensaver not to start every 30 minutes.

That worked great. When I got around to installing Electric Sheep though, I found a problem: Electric Sheep uses mplayer to play the videos it creates. Mplayer tells the screensaver to not invoke. So while Electric Sheep worked fine from the command line, when run as a screensaver it would just quit immediately.

The solution: a simple bash script that checks whether electricsheep is running. If it is, it does nothing, otherwise it will call the "do not invoke the screensaver" command. If anyone else is interested, here i the script:

# devans 2008-07-19
# This script will check to see if electricsheep is running, and if so, it will do nothing
# If it is not running, it will invoke xscreensave-command -deactivate to prevent xscreensaver
# from running.  Mostly this is useful is set as the command to call via heartbeat-cmd in
# ~/.mplayer/config

if [[ -z $(ps -ef | grep electricsheep | grep -v grep) ]] ; then
#   echo "suppressing";
    xscreensaver-command -deactivate

The whole thing works well if you put heartbeat-cmd="~devans/ &" in your ~/.mplayer/config

So far the screensaver seems a bit unreliable. It has trouble starting up sometimes and the screen just blanks. I haven't tracked down what the problem is, but when it works it is really beautiful.

July 18, 2008

Ebook review: Peter Watts' Starfish

Peter Watts: Starfish

This book is a 1999 first novel.  It is set primarily deep in the sea, near the volcanic vents where there is strange sealife that glows in the dark and have made other adaptations to the crushing pressure. 

At first, I had a really hard time getting into this novel.  I didn't like any of the main characters.  I didn't like the writing style either: it was hard to follow, weaving in and out of different viewpoints, and throwing lots of things at your without explaining the world or setting that the story takes place in.  Sometimes that can work well, and sometimes I prefer to have my sci-fi explained to me so I know what universe I'm in, what the rules are (hard sci-fi where it helps to know about quantum mechanics and the pauli exclusion principle?  soft sci-fi where technology is a black box?  fantasy where magic works?  fantasy where magic works but has rules?  and so on.) how to situate the characters. 

In fact, even up until halfway through the book, I really was having a hard time following things, and I didn't want to make the effort because I didn't like any of the characters.  I didn't like them at all.  I didn't empathize with them, and I didn't think these were interesting or fun people that I would want to meet in the real world.  I think that looking back on things, with a perspective of about a week, this was intentional on the part of the author.  I think all the disjointedness was trying to foster a feeling of pressure, stress, and discomfort because those are the feelings that they characters were going through.  I think it makes a bit of sense now.  By the end of the novel I still didn't like and didn't empathize with the characters much, but I was interested in them and wanted to see where the book was going.  I completely changed my opinion of the book from a real stinker to pretty good science fiction, and if I came across the other two books in the series, they would be on my "read" list.  I would actually like to buy ebook versions of them, but I don't think I'd go for paper versions (since I've documented that my space for meat-space things is dwindling rapidly.)

One of the things that changed my mind is that Peter Watts seems to know what he is talking about.  That isn't too difficult usually, because when we are not in our area of expertise it is pretty easy for other people to sound intelligent on a topic that we don't know much about.  In this case though, Peter Watts touched on neural networks a bit, and I do know a lot about neural networks.  I've used them in some experiments and am in one of the areas of computer science where things pop up (very very rarely, and only in fields tangential to my main core competencies) that use neural networks.  I was really surprised at how well the author understood neural networks when they are often treated as black boxes, and worse, attributed far too much "intelligence" for what they are (generally a collection of lots of simple sigmoid perceptrons or the like.) 

Even more randomly, I'm currently reading "The Language Instinct" by Steven Pinker, and a few topics from that popped up.  Actually, that made me wonder how much more I missed in this book because some of the things that were thrown in and just barely touched on were pretty accurate biological references to things I've also read about in Pinker's book.  In some of the more difficult hard-to-follow sections, a random character/voice "Broca" pops up, which is a reference to the section of the brain that controls one aspect of language.  I would have missed that completely because there is no explanation at all for this, but it works beautifully if you know the background.  I'm sure there is a lot of stuff from psychology that I just completed missed as well, but I was impressed that for the areas that I do know something about, Peter Watts has a completely believable interpretation in his book.  That is just nice to see. 

Anyway, I'm giving a mild recommend to Starfish only because I think it is a bit obtuse and hard to get into, but in the end is an enjoyable read.  I have to warn you that it ends on a pretty big cliffhanger, so you will probably want to read the follow-up novel.

Now for the good news: four of Peter Watts' books are available completely for free as ebooks!  I actually wish there was some way that I could buy them for about $2 each, which is what I feel is a good price for an ebook the way that I've been using them lately (I read for fun, not comprehension or retension, and use them to pass the time on the subway.)  It doesn't look like there is a way to donate on the site where the book are hosted, and I'm really surprised that these recent novels are available for free.  Where is the revenue stream there for the author?  I would like to support work that I enjoy, so I have no problem with paying for books, as long as I can get them DRM-free and at a reasonable price. 

The books are available on FeedBooks, which has a large collection of free ebooks (old, or licensed under creative commons licenses.) 

July 12, 2008

The value of old things

40 old shirts (T and collared) sold at Bingo's Jiyugaoka shop. 30 old books (English and Japanese) sold at (of course) Jiyugaoka's Book Off.

Results: ~ 2000 yen.

How depressing! My "stuff" is hardly worth anything! The books were the hardest to part with. In the end, I kept my totally awesome leatherbound Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy collection and my Lord of the Rings (50th Anniversary Edition) books. Both were gifts from my dad and grandma. They know how to give! I also wish I had my Feynman Lectures on Physics books, but they are still back in America.

The hardest part was deciding which books to get rid of. I didn't want to sell John C. Wright's Golden Age Trilogy, but I don't think I'll read it again, and I don't want to pay to cart it to the new place and then not have a place to put it. I also sold the three Richard K. Morgan sci-fi hard-boiled noir detective novels in the Takeshi Kovacs series that I had. They were lots of fun, and I'm totally following his works now (I haven't checked out Market Forces yet, but plan to.)

Some of the other stuff that remains: 4 Ian M. Banks' Culture Novels, George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire books (do all fantasy authors need to have R. R. in their name somewhere?), and my 20th Century Boys manga collection.

There are a few other things up there (notably The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time that I spoke about in a previous post) but I feel like I've played the role of book seller for too long already. Also, how come I can't get affiliate links for Japanese stuff? I bet I have to sign up for an account for that. Dang.

I'm down to three shelves of books (I didn't talk at all about my technical book shelf) and it is getting really hard to part with any more books. I don't know what will happen when we move to the new place though. I'm afraid I'll have to part with more tree-pulp-based friends, but it will be tough! I'm really starting to like the idea of keeping e-book versions of these books around just for the space savings.

Playing around with the OLPC / XO

My family recently came to Japan to meet my wife and her family, and my dad gave me a great toy: an OLPC / XO laptop that he got through the Give one Get One program.

I'm excited about the XO project because I think it is a good project: essentially bringing laptops (or ebooks, primarily) to children around the world to help improve education. I think that is a nice goal to concentrate on. There are lots of interesting very small laptops available now, primarily the Asus Eee PC laptop, but I really like the OLPC because it has some very interesting hardware. I actually think the EeePC has better hardware for more traditional laptop use - particularly the keyboard is easier for me to type on, and the machines have better specs - but the OLPC has an amazingly interesting display, and I really like the sturdy build of the hardware.

The most interesting thing about the display is that if you bring down the backlight on the display it has a really great, 200dpi black and white reflective display that is readable in sunlight. You just can't get that one a normal laptop. I also like how the color works (just turn on the backlight) and you get color, albeit at a lower apparent resolution. This reminds me of the Apple //e that I grew up using. I want to play with some of the drawing programs to see if by placing individual dots you can change the color like in the old double hires Apple //e display.

The next two sections talk about getting Japanese support working under the Sugar interface that ships on the OLPC by default, and installing XFCE as an alternative to Sugar that makes the laptop seem like a more traditional linux desktop.

The way I have mostly using the OLPC though is with an install of Xubuntu on an SD card, which is the second main section of this post. The remainder of this post is mostly raw notes about the install process, and probably very boring unless you are into this kind of stuff.

You might be more interested in reading about using FBReader to read ebooks on the OLPC, or using Anki to study Japanese. If this looks interesting, click the "read more" link.

read more (2790 words)

July 9, 2008

Ebook Reviews

Warning: I've got more Amazon links on the book covers. I like having little pictures to go with the words though, and this seems like a reasonable way to do it. If you buy stuff from the links maybe I get some money, but since I think that will go to my US address, it probably won't be that useful to me...

I've been using my OLPC to read ebooks lately. In particular, I signed up for Tor Book's free weekly sci-fi ebbok giveaway (register here, which I found out about through the Slashdot posting) and have received a whole bunch of books from them.

In the past I've read ebooks on my Handspring Visor and Treo 600 that I've gotten from the Project Gutenberg library. As a side-note, how depressing is it that basically, things before 1923 have had their copyrights expire and are free for public domain use, but everything else is questionable. If the work was published before 1964 and hasn't had its copyright renewed, it is public domain, but anything after 1964 is under copyright until the death of the author plus 90 years. I will be dead before I can legally use what is essentially, the culture in which I grew up. There is a nice list of "recent" science fiction at Project Gutenberg listed on the Thunder Child site.

Also, the Baen Free Library is an excellent source of science fiction - and their Webscriptions Service is great too - I've used it a few times to buy nice DRM free books. I highly recommend Rick Cook's Wizard books for some computer geek fantasy. The first one is free, so you might as well check it out. There are compiled and Lisp jokes mixed in with Dragons (well, my personal feeling is that Lisp is full of Dragons anyway, but...)

So, I'll use this post to review some ebooks that I've read.

Harry Turtledove: The Disunited States of America

I've read one or two other Harry Turtledove novels, and they all basically have the same premise: what if people went back in the past and gave powerful weapons to someone during a war. The "alternate history" sort of novels. This one is a little different and it uses the concept of parallel worlds to get the reader to a setting that is similar to our world, with one change. In this case, the simple framing of the premise is: what would happen if the Federal Government in America failed, and States retained all their powers as individual nations.

I didn't realize this but it turns out that this book is the fourth in the "Crosstime series" - so there are other ones that come before this. I haven't been too interested in much of Turtledove's work since I read one or two of his novels, but generally I like his writing style, but don't think the ideas are too interesting and there usually isn't much in the way of subtlety. I enjoyed this book, but I'm not too fond of stories where the hero is a young teenager (which this book features) although it isn't as bad as the standard Japanese trope of "The fate of the world rests on a moody young teen" (who needs to save the world using a Giant Robot, or Magic Sword, or Henshin powers.)

It was worth reading as a free book, but I'm not interested in checking out the other three books in the series. Still, if you like Turtledove's alternate history style, you will probably like this book. Check it out!

William Poundstone: How would you move Mount Fuji?

I haven't been reading this one on the OLPC, but I've been reading it on and off. A friend of mine recommended it, and it is a very interesting read. It isn't a book as much about interviewing techniques as say, Programming Interviews Exposed, but it certainly is useful for people preparing for interviews. It also has a really interesting retrospective on puzzles in interview situations, and a history of IQ testing, and touches on the early founding of Silicon Valley.

The book isn't really about the actual puzzles that pop up in interviews as much as the history and background of the interview style. There is also an interesting chapter about how he thinks interviewing should be done. I'm not a big fan of puzzle questions in the interview since the whole process is very stressful, and I don't think that these questions test how good a person will be for a job as much as how good the person is at solving puzzles. I think you are better off looking at how well someone performs on questions that are relevant to the job, so for programmers and CS area jobs I like computer science / algorithm / design / coding questions. Those can be pretty difficult as well, and still be relevant to the job. If you are relying too much on puzzle questions, you are going to get people who prepare for puzzles, but I don't think the kinds of things that pop up at a job are as well defined and clean as puzzles.

Anyway, this book does have a lot of sample puzzle questions and very good explanation of the solutions to them, and it also has a very interesting overview of interviewing in general. I recommend it!

John Scalzi: Old Man's War

John Scalzi's Old Man's War is another book that I heard about on Slashdot somewhere - in fact, the article that let me know about the Tor ebook giveaway thing - and people said really good things about it. I actually joined the Tor book giveaway late, and I can't seem to find an archve function on their site, but I was able to dig up the link through some tricky websearching. I made a point of making this the next book to read on my OLPC, and it has gone by quickly (about three days of subway commutes and some at-home reading.) I'm now definitely going to buy some more John Scalzi books.

Also, he has a blog that looks interesting, so I've added that to my blog reader.

I really enjoyed Old Man's War, and I see that he has about three other books in the same universe. I'm going to order them for sure. Acutally, I have really enjoyed reading this book on my OLPC, the form factor is about right (there is some stuff I would do to make it better, but it is pretty nice) and the OLPC is so versatile (I use it for studying Japanese with Anki and can use it to take notes, look up words in Japanese, etc.) that it is convenient to take with me on an everyday basis. If I will have it with me anyway, it is about as easy to read on it as it is to read a paperback, and I don't have to worry about storing the book later, but I can still keep it indefinitely. I really wish that Tor was selling their catalog like Baen does. I would buy all Scalzi's book right now. Instead I'm going to wait for a little bit and make a big Amazon order I imagine. Alternatively, it would be nice if Amazon sold the Kindle in Japan, but honestly I think I prefer the OLPC if I'm going to lug something around. The OLPC is more open to hacking and is already a very multi-functional device for my needs.

I class Old Man's War up there with Starship Troopers and The Forever War, two excellent books about war in the future. I don't know if it will have the impact of either of those two books, but I think if you liked either of those, you really should read this one too.

July 6, 2008

Asian American comedians on American TV (watched in Asia by an American)

I really like the internet. Thanks to the Internet, I'm able to keep up on news in the US, and it helps me feel still connected to a culture that I left behind two and a half years ago. (I also make frequent calls home, but that is more a personal than cultural connection.)

I get most of my news from podcasts. I highly recommend WBUR & NPR: On Point with Tom Ashbrook, a nice 45 minute podcast that is only fifteen minutes two short for my commute, NPR's Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! for a humorous weekly news round-up, This American Life for very interesting stories about the American experience, NPR's Science Friday with Ira Flatow, science!, and Car Talk for funny car-based humor from two ex-MIT guys. There is lots of other good stuff out there, such as the New York-based WNYC Brian Lehrer Show (makes me nostalgic!) and all sorts of other NPR news, but these are the main things that I listen to. Since I'm on the train for a bit over two hours a day, it really helps to have some stuff lined up to listen to.

But I also download and watch TV. Lately I've been watching NBC's Last Comic Standing. I've always been a fan of stand up comedy, and liked going to shows when I was in New York. I've been to a few shows here in Tokyo and enjoyed them, but I don't think the American style of stand up comedy is very common here (see my previous post on Japanese comedy and note that Japanmanship is no longer defunct, but is happily re-funct!

I vaguely remember Dat Phan in the first Last Comic Standing, and at the time he really came under a lot of fire for being a one-trick pony, only relying on jokes that play on obvious racial stereotypes. I thought he was pretty good, but I don't remember very much about his comedy now, so I won't comment too much on it.

In this new version of Last Comic Standing there are two comedians that I really, really want to like, but am having a really hard time with. Esther Ku and Papa CJ. (There are other acts that I don't think are funny, such as God's Pottery, which is basically just a one-trick musical act making fun of the religious right. I don't see how they can have anywhere near the range required to advance in a show like this.)

I wanted to like Esther because she's cute and asian. I won't comment about whether Papa CJ is cute, but he's asian too and has a bit of a geeky flavor to him that could be really funny. I think they both should have some really interesting experiences to mine for comedy, but I was really disappointed that Esther seemed to go for the obvious racial based jokes that aren't new and aren't funny. She has a few things that I think are funny, but she's not very subtle, and some of her stuff is just depressingly obvious (asians can't tell asians apart either! koreans eating dogs! were low points for me.) She is cute and bubbly though, and when she stays away from racial stereotype stuff (like when she was just talking about men buying women dinner) she is funny.

Papa CJ is interesting, but at least with the way that the show has been cut, he relies too heavily on outsourcing jokes and reincarnation. I guess my problem here is that he used the same material in his two sets, but maybe he's also just trying hard to get through to the next cut and using his best stuff. What bothered me most is that he used a clear set-up of talking directly to an audience member that would have worked great in response to heckling, but just sounded very forced in the way he set it up. Still, both of them made it through to the next show, so hopefully there is more to their humor than I've seen so far.

As I expected, there has been a lot of talk on the blog-o-webs about Esther Ku, mostly negative but some positive (kind of) and even an appearance on NPR's Talk of the Nation which I'll listen to pretty soon here. I really hope that Esther is able to bring a bit more subtlety and social commentary into her act - I think Chris Rock does an amazing job of that - and does more non-stereotype based comedy.

As long as I'm talking about last comic standing, I want to say that I think that Iliza Shlesinger is really funny, and I hope she goes far. I also really like Paul Foot and Jim Tavare.

By the way, the Tokyo Comedy Store's Ken Suzuki was briefly on the show, but they didn't give him much of a chance - which is too bad because he's pretty funny.

Anyway, I'm glad that I can at least get some weekly stand-up on TV, which is nice and easy to put on while writing (for example) blog posts.

July 4, 2008

Japanese Chocolate

As I mentioned in a 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)

Another new (to me) japanese canned coffee. It was not very sweet, but that is to be expected: it is a Zero Sugar coffee. Still, it wasn't that bad, and I had no trouble drinking it. I'm not going to buy it again though. :)

Super cool robot parking systems

L. and I are buying an apartment. I'm really excited about it. One of the things that is way more exciting than it should be to me is the parking system. Our tower has two parking garages that are totally robot garages. We have to apply for a parking space, and we need to specify the size of car because they have different sized spaces in the robot garage.

The way this system works is that you get a PIN that you type in and in about two minutes the carrier for your car shows up. You drive it into the large elevator contraption, and then you get out and the carrier takes your car to its designated spot and leaves it there. To get your car out you do the same thing. It takes on average two minutes to get your car (I'm curious what the worst case is, and whether they charge more for cars nearer the bottom of the stack since they would come faster.)

I've seen other versions of these things, circular ones that can store more cars than this one - this version only has storage places on the left or right of the transit tower, although the cars do rotate 180 degrees in there somehow. They go in head first, and come out head first.

There is also a nice bicycle robot parking system in Jiyugaoka near where I currently live, but I've never had a chance to peek in there. That one is one of the circular storage systems though. I'm a little disappointed that the bicycle storage system at our new place isn't robot powered, but you can't have everything.

July 2, 2008

Ryusendo Coffee Black

Yesterday I tried the Ryusendo Black Coffee. It was awful. I should have known; it says right on it "no sugar", and I like my canned coffees a bit on the sweet side. Still, I had tried another Ryusendo coffee, so I thought I should round out the set.

After two sips, I dumped it and got a nice Georgia Caffé Espresso. That is more my style. Sweet, and easy to drink.

These blog posts are pretty boring, but I like the idea of documenting the Japanese coffee cans. I really want to find more of the cans with manga characters on them, since that was supposed to be some special limited run thing. I might have missed out on most of them though. If that is the case I will have to give up my afternoon coffee again I think.

July 1, 2008

Books reviews: The Audacity of Hope and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

Note: the links to the left are referral based things that might, at some point in the future, make me money somehow. I don't really care about that, but I couldn't find any other way to get pictures of the covers to show up (since it looks like they block non-amazon referrers.) Also, in general I like Amazon and don't mind driving traffic to them.

The Audacity of Hope

On 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-time

This 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 town

When I get mail, I usually like to let it sit around and age for a bit, like a nice wine. In all honesty, I only get a few pieces of mail a week, and it is all blindingly obvious what it is just by looking at the envelope. Generally they are bills, so letting them sit for a week or two isn't a problem. (Of course today, just to prove the exception to the rule, I got some mail from a friend. I was expecting that though: a pair of tickets to the new 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

So a while back I quit doing updates here, mostly because I quit drinking coffee. Usually when I go overseas though I start up again. I went to Morocco recently for a conference / honeymoon and started drinking coffee again. I haven't been motivated to quit since coming back, and have been enjoying another cup of coffee each day. So here is a backlog where I'll post a few pictures.

I bought Georgia's Essence Drop purely because it looks like it would be something that shows up in a JRPG. I don't have any memories of the drink itself though. Middle of the road.

The Fire Coffees are the ones that I usually drink, and they are pretty good. I've had this one a couple of times, and think it is pretty good.

I also am a fan of the Boss coffees, and was intrigued by the Switch Shot. It was a bit bitter and not as good as Rainbow Mountain, which is one of my favorites.

I hadn't heard of Ryusendo before, and didn't really like it too much.

Kirin Fire Special is another cofffee that I like a lot.

The wonda gold was pretty good.

Finally, three Nescafe coffees. I like when they put manga characters on them, and I think those last two are Golgo 13. I never read that though, so I'm not too positive.

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