January 26, 2008

I lost my watermelon

I sometimes have conversations that go like this:
D: It's really cold tonight, so after dinner why don't we take the train home instead of walking?

R: Yeah, it's really cold today. That's a good idea. Oh but wait, hey hey, I lost my watermelon!

D: You lost your watermelon?

R: Yeah, I had it yesterday, then I went to my friend's house, and now I can't find it! It's really inconvenient!

D: It's inconvenient that you lost your watermelon? In the winter?

Of course, things became clear shortly thereafter: she was talking about her JR RFID-style card, the "Suica", which is a homonym for watermelon. I was so confused.

January 3, 2008

Happy Bags

Every new year in Japan, retailers put together bags, call them Lucky Bags, Happy Bags, Grab Bags, what-have-you, but essentially they are a collection of goodies for a good price.  I bought the 2008 Muji Happy Bag, and here are pictures of what was inside.

This idea of "Lucky Bags" (essentially grab bags) is new to me.  I heard about it just the other day, and it was explained to me like this:
Do you know fukubukuro? (福袋 - literally good fortune bag) It is a bag at a store.  It costs maybe 1000 yen, but has 3000 yen of stuff inside!
Now, I'm no business major or economist, but that sounds like a bad deal for the retailer.  Thinking about it though, it is a really interesting idea.  I'm sure that the retailers don't take a loss on these things - the margins are probably very low on them - but the idea is somewhat similar to the Black Friday sales you see the day after Thanksgiving in America.  So the day after Thanksgiving, stores sell stuff at ridiculously outrageous prices, certainly taking a hit on some of the deals as "loss leaders" just trying to get people into the store.  These are probably operating on the same, or at least similar, model.  Get people into the store, and they will pick up some other stuff along with your Happy Bag (I kind of like that as the translation instead of Lucky Bag.) 

The way these bags work is that you generally have a bag for some set price, say 3000 yen, and unknown contents inside.  Generally you can't see into the bag so you don't know what is in there.  It's a gamble.  (Given the Japanese peoples incomprehensible love of Pachinko  it comes to no surprise to me that they like the idea of a random gamble on a bag of unknown stuff.)  This strikes me as an interesting propsition on two grounds: it is good for the merchant because you can use the happy bag as not just a loss leader, a way to draw people into the store, but also as a way to manage inventory: you need to get rid of the 2007 models and make room for the new, trendy 2008 models.  I don't follow Japanese fashion magazines, but this place is dominated by magazines that set trends (see Neojapanisme, clast, or jeansnow.net for more about that) and last year's stuff just won't do.  Since you are selling this bag of stuff, you can throw in things that didn't sell well or that you are overstocked on, drop the price a bit, and people are happy because they are getting a good deal.  That's a win-win situation.  It also has the advantages of a video game system bundling deal: you can put in a few stinkers with the winners and hopefully people will overlook that fact. 

Having the Happy Bags be opaque is very interesting because now the merchant is faced with a problem: dump a lot of crap that isn't worth much into the bag and make some money, or put really good stuff in there, possible take a loss, but possible gain customer loyalty in the process?  It is a tough call.  Personally, I wouldn't want to a get, for example, a Don Quixote happy bag, but I'm pretty sure I would be interested in a Muji or Uniqulo happy bag.  Anyway, I have more confidence that Japanese companies would take the long-term view and generally try to put good stuff in their bags.  I'm not sure that I would trust American companies to do that same thing.  I think the closest thing, the Black Friday sales in America, are similar but have some bad sides to them as well: for example, generally the best deals are limited to a certain number per store, and now have resulted in not-infrequent tramplings and mad rushes at the stores.  I don't think that happens as much in Japan, but then again I didn't line up for any 初売り (first shopping!) trips either. 

Anyway, the short of it is that I went and bought the Muji Happy Bag this year.  It is the first year I had ever heard about them, and I was thinking of stopping by Muji and picking up some socks and a hat.  Thinking about the bag, maybe there would be socks and a hat in there.  Muji seems unusual in that their Happy Bag is see-through.  I like Muji a lot.  I haven't written about it, but I think that the idea of a brand that is personified by the lack of branding, is really interesting.  Japan is more or less brand obsessed, and a brand that is unbranded is still somehow a brand (you can tell by color schemes, design scheme, style, function, and so on.)  Anyway, they expect that they can sell more bags when people know their contents as opposed to not.  I think that is because Muji is an honest and reliable store.  And I like their socks. 

So here is a breakdown of what was in their bag:

  1. A large wool Jacket
  2. Two pair of boxer shorts
  3. One India Linen bag (?)
  4. Three pair of short socks
  5. One pair of long socks
  6. One short scarf

I have to say that the bag was worth it if for the Jacket alone.  It is a really nice large wool Jacket.  Of course, I got the large bag - the bag also comes in small I suppose - so the jacket actually fits pretty well.  I'm really pleased with just the jacket, but wait, there's more!  You also get two pair of boxer shorts (can't go wrong with those), three pairs of short socks (I was hoping for some socks!), one pair of long socks (they look warm), one short scarf, and one Indian Linen bag.  Now, I'm a little confused about the linen bag, since I'm not really sure what it is supposed to be for.  A dirty laundry bag?  Something that stands up is more useful for that task.  A shopping bag?  There are no convenient handles.  Really, I'm kind of at a loss here.  It is totally in line with Muji's style, but just not something that I have a use for.  I am currently using it as a tablecloth on a small table.  It is doing a good job, but I feel like I should put something inside it.  (But what?)

Anyway, I like this idea of Happy Bags.  I have a lot of blogs written by foreigners in Japan, and over on Tokyo Manga Lisa writes about the women's Muji vs. Uniqlo Happy Bags

The Seven Gods of Happiness New Year Temple Tour

The Tokai Seven: like Ocean's Eleven, but much older.  And less criminal.  They are both pretty lucky though.

The Seven Gods of Happiness represent different types of good fortune, and for some reason in Shinagawa there are seven temples, each devoted to one of the Gods.  One of the traditions of the New Year is the 初詣, the first visit to a temple of the new year, and while often this occurs at midnight, it isn't unusual for the first visit to be done anytime in the first few days after the new year.  The most busy time of the year is probably the First, and the most busy temple is probably Meiji Jingu.  I'm not going to brave those crowds, but since I was staying in Shinagawa, Lisa and I decided to make the rounds and visit all seven temples. 

At your first stop, you can buy a poster-board with a spot for each temple.  As you go to each temple, you can collect a stamp for that temple.  Collect all seven!  You can also buy a boat, and buy little figurines that go in the boat at each temple.  The suggested order for visiting the temples is:

  1. Shinagawa (Shinto) Temple, for Daikokuten God of Wealth 品川神社 (大黒天)5 minutes to
  2. Yougan Temple, for Hoteizen God of Good Fortune 養願寺(布袋尊) 1 minute to
  3. Isshin Temple, for Jyuroujin God of Long Life 一心寺(寿老人) 5 minutes to
  4. Ebara Temple, for Ebisu God of Wealth 荏原神社(恵比須) 15 minutes to
  5. Shingawa (Buddhist) Temple, for Bishyamonten Buddhist Guardian God 品川寺(毘沙門天,金生七福神) 20 minutes to
  6. Tenso / Suwa Temple, for Fukurokujyu the God of Happiness, Wealth, and Longevity 天祖・諏訪神社(福禄寿) 25 minutes to
  7. Iwai Temple, for Benzaiten the God of Music, Wealth, Eloquence, and water 磐井神社(弁財天)

I didn't know much about the different Gods when I was visiting the temples, but I did do a little bit of research when I got back home.  A "little bit" means that I looked them up on Wikipedia, and noticed that there was an English page as well as the Japanese page.  So now you know about as much about them as I do.  It took a long time to visit all of the temples.  I don't remember the order that we did it (although possibly you can reconstruct the order from the pictures on Flickr) but it took us two days.  We visited five on the first day, ending with Shinagawa.  Shinagawa temple was probably the largest of the lot, and had police managing the crowds.  We waited for about forty minutes or more to make our offering there.  I also picked up an Omikuji (お神籤), which is a written fortune.  I was lucky and got "The very best of luck" (大吉) so I'm hopeful that this will be a good year.  So far, so good anyway.  After the long wait, and previous hour or so of walking around going to the other four temples, we decided to go back to Lisa's parent's place. 

The next day we went to the last two temples, Iwai Temple and Tenso / Suwa temple.  I've never seen a temple with two names in it like that before, and I wonder what that is all about.  I'm sure I could figure it out if I did some searching on the Japanese web, but I'm not too interested in doing that right now.  The Japanese web makes my head hurt when I stare at it for too long.  Iwait temple houses Benzaiten, which I think is my favorite of the Gods because I've always been a fan of Benten Records, a record label that focuses on female Japanese bands.  In all honesty though, I think you would be best off with Fukurokujyu, since that God seems to be a general jack-of-all-trades Gods.  Also, unless I'm really bad at looking these things up, it looks like there are two Gods of Wealth (Can't have too many of those I guess) and some other overlap also, but nobody ever said that your pantheon had to be orthogonal.  If I was to build my own pantheon though, I would probably try to select both orthogonal and complementary Gods, but that's just me. 

I really enjoyed this trip around to various different temples, and now that I've looked into it, there are lots of these things.  http://park1.wakwak.com/~hisamaro/tokyo2photo.htm lists many different temple tours, and has a convenient list of temples and gods for the Tokai Seven.  So I'm sure there are lots of other temple courses I can try out - but to be honest, it is a lot of trouble, and probably not something I'll repeat. 

Note: while writing my post, I relied on http://www.evam.ne.jp/tokai7/index.html as a general site on the Tokai Seven Gods of Happiness.  But I didn't rely on it too much because it is part of the Japanese web.  

Osechi Ryori

I feel obliged to say that the next few posts on my blog will be about the New Year in Japan.  None of them will really have interesting observations that haven't been made before, many times, by foreigners in Japan.  That is one kind of interesting thing about being a foreigner in Japan: you go through phases.  I'll have to write about that at some time, but we all go through a "I'm a funny guy and will comment on these crazy Japanese" as well as a "wow, look at all the cool cultural things they have here" phase.  You can probably find any number of similar posts on the blogs listed at the Japan Blog List.

I have been in Japan for about one year and nine months now.  Last year, I spent the new year on my own, and visited a local temple.  I didn't know what was going on really, but I enjoyed it.  This year, I had the chance to spend New Year's Eve with a Japanese family.  I was looking forward to the chance, because the New Year's holiday is one of the biggest holidays in Japan, very similar to a mix of Christmas and Thanksgiving in the United States, where families gather together  and eat food while celebrating the New Year and reflecting on the year gone past.  (Although in practice it reduces down to over-eating and watching people sing on TV.  I'll write more about that in a later post.) 

The main thing to which I was looking forward was Osechi Food (おせち料理), which is the kinds of food that families each over the New Year's Holiday.  I never really had a good idea about the food consisted of, and now after having experienced it, I'm pretty sure that there are not any real set dishes aside from a few common things, and that anything can be Osechi Food.  It is just a time for the family to gather, sit around the table, eat, and enjoy. 

On New Year's Eve it is traditional to eat a special kind of Soba called Toshikoshi Soba.  I didn't know the origins of this custom, and found two interesting sties with more information on it.  One is at jpn-miyabi.com and the other is at urban.ne.jp.  It seems like soba (buckwheat noodles) are traditionally thought to symbolize long life and good fortune.  The custom dates back to the Edo period, perhaps around 1700 or so, perhaps earlier.  More interesting is this post over on justhungry.com where they have a nice recipe for Toshikoshi Soba.  The Soba that we had was nice, although grandma humbly complained that it has weak flavor, and tasty.  It had some great wild mushrooms in there, and some chicken.  I hope it passed on to me the attributes of long life and wealth, but I'm afraid all it did for me was to fill me up before the main course: Sukiyaki.

Sukiyaki is a food that it seems like is a traditional Japanese "comfort food".  Lots of people associate it with happy times with the family, sitting around the table and talking happily.  I have had Sukiyaki a few times, and I think it is really great.  Absolutely delicious.  I was told that the Kansai (Kyoto / Osaka area) version of Sukiyaki uses a sweet sugar base with Mirin, while the Tokyo version uses a salt-based sauce.  This version was the sugar-based one, and I thought it was great.  What happens is you put food - vegetables, meat, and so on - into the Sukiyaki bowl, and pull it out as it cooks.  If you like, you can take a raw egg and crack it open into a bowl, which you then dip things into.  I am not crazy about the raw-egg-on-things custom that the Japanese harbor, but I don't dislike it.  (Other places where you can find this include Yoshinoya, where you can get a raw egg to put on your beef bowl, and many of the "o-don" dishes where the raw egg cooks, essentially, over the hot rice.)  Incidentally, you can buy eggs at the supermarket that are specifically meant to be eaten raw for this kind of purpose.  I suppose they have some sort of higher quality standard for safety or whatever, but I'm not really sure. 

Along with the Sukiyaki meal there were other small dishes, such as mochi (rice cake) both cold and hot with soy sauce on it, and of course alcohol.  The New Year's Eve meal was accompanied by sake and beer.  And not a small amount: every time I checked, my cup had been re-filled.  I also made sure to do my duty and keep the cups of those around me full.  After dinner, we all gathered around the TV to watch the special sets of shows that are specific to New Year's Eve, and pass the time until midnight.  I won't go into detail about that here, but shortly after midnight we went to bed.  I slept on a Japanese futon, the first time in quite a while, and woke up with a sore back. 

The next morning at 9:00am we gathered for breakfast, which is the proper Osechi Food.  There were two main components to the meal: the Ocean Foods, and the Mountain Foods.  The Ocean foods consisted of things from the Ocean and peculiarly a sweetened mashed-like Potato dish that I really enjoyed.  I liked the Ocean Foods a lot because they are colorful and made a very pretty arrangement on the plate.  The traditional colors of the New Year are Red and White, and some delicious seafood cakes took on those colors.  Sadly, I don't know what everything on the plate is, but it was all quite nice.  The Mountain Foods are fresh vegetables and things like that, including mushrooms and other things that I don't know.  As with many of the foods, some were round and in a ball-form since that symbolizes good luck.  There are some beans that are traditional as well, but I don't know the story behind that.  Interestingly, you can see in the lower-left of the photo that I took that there is a bottle of Sake and three bowls for drinking, each smaller and with a good-luck character written on them.  Before breakfast everyone at the table had a saucer of the sake before the saucers ended up with their rightful owners (in this case, the head of the household, his daughter, and myself.)  I enjoyed having sake for breakfast, although it isn't something that I want to do every day.  The final part of the meal was the Mochi (rice cake) soup.  I'm not sure what all was in it, but it was quite nice.  As with the previous night's dinner, mochi (rice cakes) were present and I was given a rice cake roasted with soy sauce and then wrapped up in nori (seaweed.)  It was nice, but those rice cakes can fill you up really fast.  They are heavy, sticky, and sink to you stomach.  I'm pretty sure I added a layer of fat composed entirely of rice cake over this three day period.

After breakfast Lisa and I headed out for our first temple visits of the year, which I'll document in a later post.  We returned after a few hours, and snacked on tea and some cakes, before dinner at 6:30pm.  I didn't get any pictures of the tea that we had, but I had a very, very large amount of tea over those three days. 

Dinner was Western Style (on my account?) consisting of Roast Beef that Lisa and her grandmother cooked previously, some salad, and leftovers from the previous day's food.  Of course, the Sake tradition continued, but this time we also had two bottles of Red Wine to go with the meat.  The roast beef was quite nice, but curiously served cold.  Actually, that isn't all that surprising; Japanese often eat meals (Bento boxes in particular) which are cold, and I've had roast before here before that was served cold.  It was still quite nice.  To accompany the beef there were two sorts of sauces: one was standard Wasabi like you would get with Sushi, and the other was a type of salt, called "Yuzu Salt", that was very nice.  Yuzu is a Japanese Citrus, and this salt was made with Yuzu in some way.  I've equated it with Garlic Salt in my mind, and will try to pick some up next time I'm at a shop that might have some. 

After dinner, I went back home so that I could sleep in my own bed, but I was asked to come back for breakfast the next morning at 9:30am.  Breakfast consisted of the same foods seen previously, and more Breakfast Sake.  To tell the truth, I was still absolutely stuffed from all the food over the past two days, but I think the point of the New Year Holiday is to save up energy and fat for the coming busy times when everyone goes back to work and does their standard twelve hours days subsisting on only ramen.  After breakfast the family watched some more TV, then Lisa and I went out to hit the last two temples on our temple card.  More on the Temple Visits and crazy Japanese New Year's TV at a later date.

December 31, 2007

Primer

Over the holiday break, I watched the movie Primer. This is a 2004 sci-fi film that I hadn't heard of, but found ranked pretty high up on Rotten Tomatoes' List of top 100 Sci-fi movies so I decided to check it out. While my career is in computer science, I did also pick up a Bachelor's of Science in Electrical Engineering, and the opening of this movie was just great. This movie sounds like physics and engineering, and dumbs down nothing. It is a complex, intelligent story. It is pretty hard to follow actually, and I think I could do with a second watch-through to try to figure things out. If you are into smart sci-fi, this is definitely high up on the list.

December 27, 2007

Installing Fedora 8 on a Gigabyte GA-G33M-S2H motherboard with 2x 500GB SATA drives, onboard GMA 3100 video into an Antec Fusion (Black) case

This entry is a little bit different than the others I've made: I'll be updating it as I continue working on the box. 

Surprisingly, this was the first system I've ever put together myself.  The first computer I ever used was an Apple //e that my father bought.  I was probably about eleven years old.  It was great.  Of course, he did whatever assembly was required on that machine.  We had that machine for years: I was still using it into high school.  Probably in my freshman year of high school, my dad bought a "Fat Mac", one of the 512k Macs in the original case.  At some point he got a 10MB hard drive for it that sat under the machine in a matching beige. 

When I went off to college, I worked part-time at the campus computer store (a great job for a CS major, maybe) and saved up until I could by my first machine: a Mac IIci.  I had that for four years, and in my last year there I bought a PowerMac 6100av.  When I went off to grad school I made the switch to laptops and Windows, with a Toshiba Satellite Pentium II based laptop.  I eventually replaced that with an IBM ThinkPad A31p, which I have been running since 2001.  When I moved to Japan it was my primary machine, until I got one of the last of the PowerPC PowerBooks: a PowerBook G4 with the superdrive and 1440x960 display.  I'm using it this very minute to type this up, and it is my primary work machine at home.  (I have actually at work a MacBook Pro Core Duo 2 machine, as well as a Dell  box with linux on it, and a ThinkPad 60p that runs windows.)  The venerable IBM ThinkPad A31, with three internal hard drives, has been running as my entertainment center for the past two years, hooked up to a 24" 1920x1200 LCD monitor.  It is a great machine, but with a 1.8GHz P4 Mobile chip, it is starting to show its age, and can't play a lot of the video files that I download now.  Since I'm in Japan, I download a lot of American TV programs to keep me up-to-date on what is going on over in America.  The A31 has no chance at playing anything in h.264, and can't do any sort of HD content. 

So I finally gave in and bought a new system.  I thought I would get a media-center type system, and go with a desktop so that I can upgrade it as time goes on.  I was planning on getting a Shuttle box, but the prices for those are pretty high.  I spent about the same as I would on a shuttle box, but was able to pick up the beautiful Antec Fusion black case, which is designed to be quiet (it is very, very quiet) and cool.  On the downside, it can only take one 5.25" device, and two 3.5" devices, which is a bit limiting.  I would love to have four hard drives in there for some sort of nice RAID setup, but I'll settle for two very quiet drives instead. 
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December 26, 2007

A delicious Christmas Dinner

Ever since I saw Lost in Translation I have wanted to eat at the New York Grill, the restaurant in the Park Hyatt Hotel at which Bill Murray's character is staying. It is a bit out of my price range, but I thought I would take my girlfriend there for a Christmas dinner.

I put in a reservation about a month back, and since it is Christmas (I suppose) they were only serving a set menu. We started off with a Rose champagne, and then ordered a bottle of 2006 Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara off of their wine of the month menu. It was really delicious.

The dinner was a four course affair, and was absolutely delicious. It started off with shrimp in a caviar sauce. The shrimp were delicious. The second course was an artichoke soup with candied hazelnuts. The nuts really remind of Christmas for some reason: my mother collects Nutcrackers and usually sets out a few for Christmas, which means the taste of walnuts. They aren't quite hazelnuts, but it is close and felt a bit like home.

The third course was a delicious roasted John Dory (a kind of fish I've never had before) along with some great truffles and wild mushrooms. The fish was a bit salty, but I thought it made a great contrast with the previous soup. The next dish was a steak from Sendai. I don't know if Sendai is famous for their beef or not, but this steak was just delicious. It was tender and juicy, with an excellent sauce. Now I really want to try some Kobe beef in a similar style to see how they compare.

Finally, the evening ended with a nice chocolate fondant and vanilla ice cream along with a coffee. I don't usually drink coffee, but this was a special occasion so I'll deal with the caffeine headache tomorrow when I don't have another caffeinated drink. The dessert was very nice, but actually I was very full from all the food, and it was a bit tough to finish it all off. Of course, I did end up eating everything, but I do slightly regret it. I guess it just means more time jogging when I get back onto my regular schedule.

The view from the restaurant was really spectacular. From where I was sitting I could see Tokyo Tower, which surprised me by disappearing for a portion of the night. They turned the lights off, and when they turned them back on there was a heart made of lights near the base. The blinking red lights from the surrounding skyscrapers were nice - they made a somewhat surreal background. On the way out I noticed that the Shinjuku Government office towers were lit up all pretty - most likely for the Christmas holiday.

I highly recommend the New York Grill. It is expensive, but it was worth it.

December 21, 2007

The Hollywood Writer's Strike

I have to admit that the Hollywood Writer's Strike has had almost zero impact on me, seeing as how I live in Japan and don't have access to American TV.

There has been one thing that I miss though: new episodes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report (with Steven Colbert?) I like those two shows a lot, and realized that without them I just do not have a good idea of what is going on in the news lately. I do watch about ten or fifteen minutes of the NHK news in the morning, but that mostly focuses on Japan, and usually the US news that they have on is "US News that impacts Japan". So they will have something on about how Bush thinks that the Korean Kidnapping problem is a big issue, and North Korea should really cut it out. While over in America, nobody even knows that there is a North Korean Kidnapping problem, and they certainly don't know that it refers to people that were kidnapped back in the 70s (or 60s, I don't really remember.)

Anyway, according to an AP news report I found on Yahoo! News, the Daily Show and Colbert Report will be resuming production on January 7th. I'm pretty sure they are both opposed to returning to the air without their writers, and they had a great quote about that:

In a joint statement, Stewart and Colbert said: "We would like to return to work with our writers. If we cannot, we would like to express our ambivalence, but without our writers we are unable to express something as nuanced as ambivalence."
Man, those two are funny. I'm actually a bit sad that they will be back on the air without the support of their writers, but it will be nice to have a good source of news once again.

December 19, 2007

A pro (sometimes) basketball player that is funny, writes well, and has great taste in music?

I've enjoyed Paul Shirley's blog entries written for ESPN, and now he has written a "Best albums of 2007" entry. This isn't really something you would expect from a pro basketball player, but I think he's got some real gems in that list.

Color me impressed. I also highly recommend reading Paul Shirely's stuff if you enjoy basketball. Check it out, you should be able to find it over on ESPN somewhere.

December 12, 2007

The Enemy Concert in Ebisu's Liquid Room

My girlfriend likes the the UK Band The Enemy, whom she saw at Summer Sonic (I was off seeing other bands at the time.)

She picked up a pair of tickets to their show on Monday the 10th at Ebisu's Liquid Room and we went together.

I have their album "We'll live and die in these towns" and I like it. It is a good album with really catchy choruses and a surprisingly complex sound. They have some piano on some tracks, which I like. It strikes me as a really sad album, with a hint of desperation, but the music is often upbeat and energetic. It is easy to listen to, and a bit catchy. I'm not going to go out on any limbs and declare it super tops, but I liked it.

Their live show was very good though. They were a four piece: the three official band members on bass, guitar, and drums, as well as someone on keyboards. The bassist was pretty cool: he totally jumped in and crowd surfed at one point. People were going wild: lots of crowd surfing, which is pretty rare for these gigs in Japan. The place was really packed, and as with most of the bands that Lisa likes, these pretty boys drew a large cute young woman audience.

We grabbed a standing spot on the side of the liquid room with a great view of the stage since we were on an elevated platform and had a little counter to rest on. I'm glad we weren't in the center middle stage where we usually go, since there was lots of moshing and energetic pushing that night. It was nice to just relax and not have to shove against people for once - I get enough of that on the morning train commute.

Anyway, I wish I had some pictures or other nice media to go with this post, but I don't. All the venues I've been at in Japan are dead set against any sort of photography other than the official venue stuff, which they sell after the show. I should have snapped some shots after the show, particularly of a group of high school girls in their uniforms that seemed shocked at how sweaty they were. Maybe they've never been to a concert and ended up in the packed crowd before, but I've always found that in Japan if I want to dive into the crowd, I pack a second T-shirt to put on after the show ends since the first one will be completely sweaty.

Anyway, if The Enemy is coming through your town I recommend them. They put on a good show. Their album is pretty good too, and I think a few of the songs will stick around in my permanent rotation.

December 9, 2007

Praise for Portal

About two weeks ago, I decided to buy Valve's Portal.

Now, generally I don't play many games, but I have been reading two blogs that focus on games which have both been giving high praise for Portal. The first, Shamus Young's Twenty Sided has a lot of gaming (both pen-and-paper RPG and computer type) information, and is home to the amazingly funny DM of the Rings.

If that wasn't enough, another blog I read has had good things to say about Portal also. The other blog is Japanmanship, a blog by a game designer from England who lives and works in Tokyo. His blog is a great read for any foreigners in Japan, and also lots of interesting stuff about game design.

So after hearing so much about this game, I decided to give it a try. This is a bit commitment on my part: I have pretty much given up on the entire First Person Shooter genre. I never really played many FPS games. I started with Pathways Into Darkness on my Mac IIci but that didn't work too well. It was scary, and I got lost, and there were mean monsters trying to kill me. I get lost easily enough in real life, and it isn't any better when people are shooting at me. I never got very far in that game.

I then went on an played
Bungie's Marathon
on my PowerMac 6100av, but ran into the same problem: people were shooting at me, it was scary, and I got lost.

Ever since then I just haven't played many FPS games. I don't really like 3D games in general. I like the constrained world of 2D games, and the nice pixel graphics. About the only game that I do play any more is Street Fighter II (in the latest incarnation of it that is any good: Super Street Fighter II' Hyper: Anniversary Edition.)

I finally decided to give FPS games another chance though when I bought Portal. Actually, I bought the entire Orange Box since it was only slightly more expensive and includes a few more games that are supposed to be top-notch.

I really can't say enough good things about Portal. I'm quite late to the party I'm sure, since people were playing and writing about this game back when the Orange Box was actually released, but I'll throw in my two cents as well.

First, the pacing is excellent. The game starts off with simple tasks, and clearly shows what you can do. The progression and learning curve is very well paced. I know it is because I am more or less hopeless at these games, and I found that I was able to figure out what I needed to do without resorting to looking things up on the internet.

I also never felt like I was lost: the levels were well designed and I generally knew what I had to do, or where I needed to go. I really loved the puzzle-game dynamic as well. I wasn't being chased by bad guys, and things felt more like an extended Tetris than a stressful first-person shooter. By the time I got around to the last "level" I was using all the tricks the Portal gameplay mechanics allowed for, and really enjoying it.

The other thing that really hooked me is how they managed to tell a great story that was just absolutely hilarious. I love the disembodied GLaDOS computer voice, and the gun turrets are super cool too. I almost felt bad about knocking them out of commission.

By the end of the game, you are treated to an absolutely amazing song. It was composed by Jonathan Coulton who you really should check out: he's got some geeky and funny stuff. I'll write a post about it at some point, once I sort out my top recommendations. Due entirely to the Portal end-song, I ended up spending $70 on the DRM-free Jonathan Coulton "box set" of MP3s. He also distributes his stuff under a Creative Commons license, so you can get a lot of his stuff for free, but I've been listening to a bunch of his stuff and thought it would be nice to support the non-traditional music distribution model.

Anyway, my recommendation is to play Portal. I've actually started playing Half-Life 2 from Orange Box, and am enjoying it as well, but I really wish I had my portal gun. And that people would stop shooting at me. And that I wouldn't get lost so often. I do have to admit though, I am getting lost and confused much less frequently than usual for the genre, which I attribute to the Valve designers putting a lot of thought into the level design.

December 4, 2007

The 2007 Japanese New Word / Buzzword / Hot Phrase Prize

I woke up this morning and was surprised to see on the news that there is a yearly Japanese new word / hot phrase prize awarded.  It looks like this prize is sponsored by a publishing company, and has been awarded annually since 1984.  You can check their yearly archive to see who won the prizes in the past.

I'm sure there are many bloggers in the Japan ex-pat sphere that are much more on top of these things than I am, but I thought it would be amusing to take a look through this year's list and see what I can figure out.  In general, it seems like an odd pastiche of catchphrases, nicknames, and social phenomena. 

And the winners are...



どげんかせんといかん

(Dogenkasen to ikan) This is a regional dialect from Miyazaki-ken.  The person who popularized this saying is 東国原英夫 (Higashikokubaru Hideo), currently the prefectural governor of Miyazaki-ken recently elected in January of 2007. Before that he was one of Japan's many "Talent", basically a TV personality of some kind.

This phrase is indecipherable to me, so I did a bit of searching on the interweb.  I know that いかん is basically Kansai-ben for "bad", so I can make some guesses based on that, but what I came up with, from this blog posting, is that it means "We have to do something (about this)."  I also know that the ~せん suffix is used in some dialects as a negative, so I can guess now that どぐ might be something like する (to do.)  These are all conjectures though. 

It seems like the story of this guy is that he was recently elected to the prefectural government of Miyazaki, which hasn't been viewed in the best of lights recently.  He's know as the "Miyazaki Salesman" because he shows up on TV shows and other things to extol the virtues of Miyazaki.  Popularizing some of the local dialect spoken in Miyazaki has been one of the points on his agenda apparently.  Anyway, it is interesting to learn, and I wish I knew more about this particular dialect, but in practice if you live in Tokyo you will only hear standard Japanese, and some Kansai-ben if you watch TV and comedians, along with whatever your friends speak.  It seems like most of my friends speak French or Senegalese these days, so Miyazaki-ben is completely out of the running for me. 

ハニカミ王子


(Hanikami Prince) This is the nickname for Ishikawa Ryu, a freshman high school student amateur golfer that has been popular lately.  The nickname was given to him by his godparent, who was announcing the Munsingwear Open KBS Cup at the time that Ryu won it.  I don't understand what the nickname means at all, but a quick look at his wikipedia entry did not clear anything up at all.  It says that the nickname was born at the time of his interview after winning the event, but doesn't say where it came from.  It says that was previously called "The Sunvisor Prince" because he wore a sunvisor, but that didn't stick, and Hanikami Prince did because of his characteristics.

And a slap to the forehead time: はにかみ屋 is in the edict as "a very shy person".  So I'm guessing this is more properly called "The Shy Prince" and now it all makes sense. 

I also think this is about as cool as everyone fawning over "The Handkerchief Prince" from last year, who was a baseball player (pitcher) for Waseda who wiped his brow with a handkerchief all the time.  People went nuts over him too.  I'm not as interested in fashionable nicknames.

(消えた)年金


(Kieta Nenkin)  This is a reference to the recent trouble about missing pension money.  This year, over $450,000 in pension money went "missing".  (This is nothing compared to how much money has gone missing in Iraq for the US!)  舛添要一 (Masuzoe Youichi) is a politician, and also ex-Talent, who has been involved with the missing pension money.  He's the part of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, the Minister of Health, Labor, and Welfare, and a well-known political scientist (not that I know of him!)  Anyway, he has been speaking out about lack of accountability and other problems with the social insurance agency.  The "Disappearing pension money" is one of his catch-phrases.


そんなの関係ねぇ


(Sonnano Kankei nee) This is an annoying catch-phrase that is apparently the height of Japanese humor, but just strikes me as completely idiotic and scraping the bottom of the barrel of humor.  (Of course, my friends would call me a hypocrite to be calling any humor stupid, but that's for another day.)  Anyway, そんなの関係ねぇ means "that has nothing to do with it!" or something along those lines.  It is a catchphrase that this comedian, 小島よしお (Kojima Yoshio) uses.  He comes out wearing just a swimsuit (Speedo-style, why?) and repeatedly says this in a good rhythm to cheer himself up.   Man, this stuff is not funny.  Of course, in his "interview" he answered every question with "that has nothing to do with it!"

I'm going to start using this at work and see if people laugh.  They probably will.  How depressing.  My amazingly funny, complex puns based on subtle translation errors just get blank stares, or worse, elicit outright anger.  You know what I tell myself though: そんなの関係ねぇ!


どんだけぇ〜


(Don dakeh~)  This is another annoying catch-phrase joke that you hear way too often.  It basically means something like "how much (or far) [has that gone?] - [it can't be as much as your are saying]".  It comes from どれだけ and is often used with a sarcastic intent.  So if someone says "I ate two donuts" you can say "How many?" with the implication being "you couldn't have eaten two donuts!" (it must be many more because you are fat) or something like that.  Then people will laugh. 

Also, the person that was nominated for this is Ikko, a makeup artist and Talent who is a cross-dresser.  He said that this isn't really his gag, it is one that is popular in the gay bars down in Shinjuku 2-chome.  Japanese people seem to really like cross-dressers and think they are very funny.  I guess they're kind of like the British that way. 

鈍感力


(donkanryoku) Thick-skinned (well, that's my translation anyway.)  More literally it is something like "the power to be stolid".  This is by author Watanabe Jyunichi, who wrote a book of the same name.  The meaning is basically "don't worry so much about the little things" which is a good message I think.  But I'm pretty sure I don't really get all the significance of the word, since I don't really know what that means within the Japanese culture context.  What is "little stuff" to me probably has no bearing on what is "little stuff" to the Japanese, and vice-versa for the big stuff. 

食品偽装


(Shyokuhin Gisou) This one is kind of interesting.  It means "fake food" and is a reference to a company here in Japan called "Meat Hope" which labeled some of its meat products as ground beef when in actuality the products included pork or rabbit or other things like that.  There were other similar sorts of food-based incidents, like a company that was selling fresh-made tofu treats (for years and years) but was actually labeling them as made on the day they were thawed out after being frozen, and other things like that. 


ネットカフェ難民


(ネットカフェ なんみん) This is a social phenomena expression.  It refers to people that, for whatever reason, sleep in internet cafés.  Some of the people are homeless and use the cheap net cafes (some with 1000 yen overnight packages) to grab a shower and sleep in big recliner chairs. The translation is pretty clear, literally: net cafe refugees. 


大食い


(おおぐい) I think the reading is right.  Anyway, this word I guess refers to the gradual super-sizing of foods in Japan.  Just like in America, portions are getting bigger, and food is getting less healthy (depending on where you eat anyway.)  The recipient for this prize was ギャル曽根 (Gal Isone, maybe loosely translatable as Stomach Girl).  She is Talent, and appears on eating competition shows.  She can eat a lot, I've seen some of the shows that she's been on.  She must exercise a lot with the amount that she eats.



猛暑日


(もうしょび) The day of fierce heat.  It was awarded to the president of the Kumamoto-city shop-owners association (or something like that.)  This summer, temperatures reached 40.9 degrees Celsius (105.6 F)  in Kumamoto.  That's crazy hot.


Well, that does it for this year's top 10  buzzwords / hot phrases prize.  I thought that one of them was pretty interesting, and three of them were completely worthless.  The others are somewhere in between.  It was kind of fun looking some of this stuff up though. 


Bad Omens

Today started off with a bad omen: I slept in for an entire hour. Usually I'm very good about getting up on time, but I was up a bit late last night. Even though I went home early (home by about 7:45pm) I logged on to some machines at work, and (slowly, while watching House) did some work-related stuff. I ended up going to bed at about 1am, instead of my usual 11pm, with a 7am alarm.

I almost never use the snooze function on my alarm (which is actually my cell phone) but this morning it was so cold that I just couldn't stand it. I turned on the heater, and then somehow an hour passed before it was warm enough to get out of bed.

Now, this isn't really a big problem since I don't have strict hours that I need to be at work (I just need to get my work done.) The problem comes in with the commute: they way things are now, a slight delay on my part changes my commute from annoying to unbearably crowded, hot, and sweaty.

If I wake at 7am, wash my face, and then hop on the train I generally will be able to sit on the second leg of my trip (~20 minutes) and can sit after the second station on the third leg of the trip (~20 minutes.) If I can't sit, at least I can stand and can hold a hand-strap, and generally I have some space and am not too crowded.

If I am delayed by twenty minutes or more, I skip the first train leg of my trip entirely (only 2 stops, maybe 5 minutes on the train) and walk the 15 minutes to the start of the second leg because that fifteen minute delay means that the train is so packed that when the doors open, you just see a wall of people. To get on the train you turn around with your back facing the people, and then press your way in. If you can get some leverage on the train door side that helps. Usually, somehow, miraculously, there is enough space to squeeze in. Your face will pressed up against the glass, which is slick with condensation from the hot breath of the people jammed into the train, making cattle cars seem roomy by comparison. If you are unlucky, more people will be getting on after you, and you will find yourself bent into improbably shapes as bags and briefcases force your lower body and legs one way, while other pressures force your upper body another way. If you can reach a strap that helps a lot, otherwise it is a crazy balancing act in which unusual muscles start to ache from holding odd positions. It doesn't matter much in the end though because you are packed in so tight it isn't possible to fall over, only lean more awkwardly onto the people around you.

So generally I'll just skip that mess entirely and walk the 15 minutes to Jiyugaoka. It is a nice walk anyway, and I can do with the exercise.

At Jiyugaoka things are slightly better because I can choose to take the local train, which isn't nearly as bad as the express, or god forbid, the commuter express, which is just comically packed. Typically though, even the local train is unbearably hot and humid from all the people. Also, don't think that there is the up-side of at least sometimes being pressed up against cute women: the rush is worst from 7:20am until about 9:30am, which probably 70% of the ridership is male. The women are smarter and try to avoid the typical salary-man hours.

Of course, on the express and commuter express train there are "women-only" cars so maybe more of them crowd in there. I don't know; I always take the local because it is only about five minutes longer from where I'm at and substantially less crowded (which isn't saying much.) The women only cars are supposed to address the problem of men groping women, which I might talk about at some point, but in reality I don't know much about it: I don't do it, and I don't know that I've ever seen it happen. I'm not sure I would know if it was happening though, so I generally just try not to think about it too much.

Anyway, today with my delay of one hour, I was in the packed train at Shibuya. It is usually pretty back until you hit Naka-meguro where lots of people get out (yay!) but then you are only two stops away from Shibuya, so it isn't really much of a win.

I transfer at Shibuya to the Hanzomon line. Today things were strange: I got down to the ticket gates, and there was a crowd of people backed up to the escalator. The place was jam packed. A few of the signs had information on the problem: due to a "personal accident" (人間事故, literally human or personal accident) the trains were severely delayed. A personal accident is a euphemism for suicide. They happen sometimes here in Japan, someone decides that the commute is unbearable, and in a sarcastic lash back at the commuting system they jump in front of a train. This has happened a few times in the approximately two years that I've been here, maybe four or five times. Usually the trains are running within twenty minutes to an hour.

This time, the accident happened at 6:15am and they were not letting people into the gates. I don't really know what happened, but I decided I wasn't getting anywhere fast, and I went for a cup of hot chocolate at the Starbucks in front of Shibuya Crossing.

I really need to remember this, but I hate that Starbucks.

Every few months I go there, and I hate it. Then, a few months later, I decide I want some hot chocolate or something, and I go back. And I hate it. The problem is that the place is always packed. You always have to wait for a place to sit. Even once you do sit, it is unbearably hot. The building is facing East (I think I don't know these things), and gets the full brunt of the sun as it comes up. It has a large glass face, and it is always unbearably hot. The tables are small and always crowded. One of my favorite things to do is to read a book and have a drink at the coffee shop, but in this place I can't spread out much which is a major problem: when I read, I need space for my book, my electric dictionary (ancient, so huge by modern-day standards) and a notebook that I write down unknown Japanese words (writing is still the best way to remember things.)

So while I'm drinking my hot chocolate, in a cramped counter seat in front of a huge glass window with the full force of the sun beating down on me in an over-heated coffee shop, I'm sweating like mad. Finally, the last thing about this place is that it is always packed with foreigners. Now, I'm a foreigner and I'm not one of those people that feels like other foreigners around me are invading my own special private Japan where I'm the only unique guy. But I don't like when I hear a bunch of people talking English loudly about things that annoy me. And you tend to get a lot of guys in this Starbucks talking about picking up Japanese women or other things like that which can be annoying. Or people doing impromptu English lessons - which is common in coffee shops, but this one is just so crazy crowded that it makes no sense to do one there.

Anyway, I eventually finished my hot chocolate, and headed back to the subway. They were finally letting people back on the trains, and I picked up my little ticket that said the trains were delayed for an hour (they pass them out so people can prove to their bosses that they weren't, in fact, just hanging out at a coffee shop making disapproving body language at strange foreigners) and finished the commute -- still crowded because of the delay -- to work.

I'm usually here at about 8:30am, today I didn't get in until 10:30am. Already two hours behind schedule!

And I love my schedules. Ah well. At least I get to rant about it on my blog. :)

November 30, 2007

Fedora Core / RHEL don't seem to come with up-to-date versions of Scalar::Util

I ran into this problem once before on a Red Hat Enterprise Linux machine, and now I am having the same problem on my Fedora Core (7 I think) machine. The problem is that CPAN is unable to install various things, in particular Bundle::CPAN, because:
You don't have the XS version of Scalar::Util
I have also run into problems where I get an error message like:
Weak references are not implemented in the version of perl
Both of these can be fixed by using CPAN to install an up-to-date version of Scalar::Util:
perl -MCPAN -e shell
force install Scalar::Util
You might have to force the install if you have an up-to-date version of Scalar::Util (which I did) but it had been compiled without the proper options to support XS.

If you are interested in finding out more a simple search should turn up lots more information. I find it shocking that modern Perl distributions can be around that leave out such a commonly-used feature. Hopefully Redhat / Fedora will get around to fixing it in their next release (and if not, at least I've left myself a note here.)

SELinux Problems, solutions

In general, I really like the idea of SELinux.  It conceptually allows you to specify users, roles, and types for files and then checks against those conditions when something tries to access the files.  It will only allow users that match the user condition, roles that match the role condition, and types that match the type condition to actually proceed and work with the file.

So, for example, if you a role of "web object" which the webserver account fills, and it tries to write data into some directory that is not fit for that role, say /bin/, the operation will fail and the would-be hacker can't put their trojaned ls program or whatever in there.  That is a good thing. 

The problem is that the SELinux system is really kind of complicated.  If you don't know that it is there, you will just have things failing mysteriously, especially if you add directories in places that aren't set up with the system already.  Running a webserver on one of my linux machines, I ran into this problem.  It is particularly an issue when you are trying to use executable scripts on your web server.

Here is an instance of a problem that I had:  I copied some scripts over from a production machine to a dev machine so I could build some more functionality based on the existing scripts.  They went into /var/www/cgi-bin/, a normal place for scripts on my system.  To find out the attributes they should have:
$ ls -ldZ /var/www/cgi-bin
drwxr-xr-x  root root system_u:object_r:httpd_sys_script_exec_t:s0 /var/www/cgi-bin
$ ls -ldZ /var/www/cgi-bin/my.cgi-rwxr-xr-x  root root                                  /var/www/cgi-bin/my.cgi
So that isn't good.  When I try to access the file, I get a 404, which isn't really true: actually the file is there, but SELinux is preventing it from being used.  So, what should I do?  I need to make the files have the correct SELinux settings.  First, I try setting the type of the file:
sudo chcon -t httpd_sys_script_exec_t /var/www/cgi-bin/*
chcon: can't apply partial context to unlabeled file /var/www/cgi-bin/
Oh, that's no good.  What's a partial context?  Looks like you need to specify all the attributes of the file.  Usually the files already have some default attributes, so it is ok, but for some reason these guys have nothing.  I don't know why.  But if we apply all of the attributes that we need:
sudo chcon system_u:object_r:httpd_sys_script_exec_t /var/www/cgi-bin/*

And that fixed the problem.  Also, if you need to know where SELinux error messages are, they are sometimes in /var/log/messages, sometimes in dmesg output, and sometimes in /var/log/audit/audit.log or possible /var/log/avc.log, depending on how your system is set up.

November 22, 2007

Using the Gimp to automate "cleaning" of scanned B&W images

Sometimes I play around with translating manga for fun. It doesn't really seem to get me much of anything except for lots of requests from punks to translate their favorite naruto doujinshi, but it is fun and relaxing with the bonus that I learn some cool casual Japanese.

I like to translate with a program I wrote for manga translation that puts all the text in the bubbles and whatnot, so I need to have scans of the manga to work from. So sometimes I'll scan manga.

The problem is that the scanner I have now doesn't do a great job of getting nice clean images. I often use (when I'm not feeling too lazy) pnyxtr's scan cropping program and his great scan rotation program, but if you have nasty scans that doesn't help much.

Since I'm both poor and lazy, and have a small amount of moral fiber, I use The Gimp for my image-editing needs. The Gimp has a nice scripting interface using a kind of baby scheme, so I wrote a script that will take a grayscale image, run the despeckle filter on it, re-level the image so that whites are whiter and blacks are blacker, then resizes the image to a reasonable size and converts it to a fixed number of colors. That makes the straight scanner output look just dandy, if you choose proper values for the high and low thresholds, and also automates a lot of clicking that I would have to do otherwise.

So in the off chance that anyone is interested, here is a Gimp script that will do all of that. If you place it in your proper gimp script location - on Linux or Mac OSX that would be ~/.gimp-2.2/scripts/ (or possible ~/.gimp-2.0/scripts/), and on Windows if you use the version of Gimp that I am using you can look in its application folder for something like a share/scripts folder and drop it there. On your next start-up of the Gimp you should see a new Script entry "Manga->DarkenResize" that will pop up a dialog and ask you for some values, with reasonable defaults specified.

You can get the script here: mangaDarkenResize.scm

One thing that annoys me is that I still have to manually set each picture to "Greyscale" mode. I should be able to do this automatically, but I don't know much about the Gimp, so I'm punting on that for now. It is also possible to use the Gimp in a batch processing mode, which would be totally awesome, but I haven't had time to make that work with this script. If someone makes any headway on that area, please let me know.

November 7, 2007

Spectating the New York Marathon

By a surprising coincidence I was in New York at the same time my twin sister ran the New York Marathon. This really wasn't planned, and just happened: I am in the US to attend the TREC conference in Washington DC and before the conference I stopped by Columbia University in New York city (my alma mater.) I didn't realize it until shortly after making my plans, but Alana was going to be running the marathon at the same time I was in the city, which worked out just great.

This was my first time to actually watch a marathon as a spectator. It was a lot of fun, but amazingly tiring. Michelle and I spent about six hours running from a viewing spot in Williamsburg to 99th Street and First Ave, and then over to closer to the end of the race near Central Park. Especially in Williamsburg the crowd was really fun and supportive.

Since Alana, Wendy, and Lizette run under the group name of "Las Diablas" Michelle and I wore little hand-made devil horns and had a nice poster that Ron designed. We often saw the same runners at our three vantage points, and they seemed to remember us fairly well because of the horns. Even more surprisingly, people would yell at us "They are coming - they're right behind us" -- apparently people recognized that we were cheering for Alana and Wendy and noticed them too!

Everyone was so supportive that I really felt like running a marathon is an experience that I would like to have. So I am not seriously considering running a marathon now. It was really amazing seeing Alana complete the marathon. The next day she was totally exhausted, but extremely happy about the whole thing.

Now, if I run the Tokyo Marathon in 2008, will Alana come out and cheer for me...?

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

(Beware, spoilers may follow.)

Since I came to Japan I have not been reading too many English books. I really enjoy trying to read novels in Japanese, and am currently (slowly) fighting my way through Haruki Murakami's "Kafka by the Sea." I leave English books, which I devour, as fodder for passing time on the airplane. I can't sleep on planes, so the ten to twelve hour flights from Japan to America are exercises in endurance and boredom for me. Reading English books is one good way to pass the time.

Typically I will read from two to three books on one trans-pacific flight. On my last trip out I bought Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell". This was a good book if for no other reason that I was unable to finish it in one flight. It actually lasted four flights (three of them were barely noticeable sub-three hour flights though) before I got through the 1006 page monster.

In my little databases of books read I gave this title a 7.5. It is a little odd because while reading the book, I was really drawn into it. The book has a peculiar language, spelling words in antiquated (or just outright strange for the sake of creating an atmosphere) way, and with Victorian era sensibilities. For the spelling, most noticeable was "show" -> "shew" / "showed" to "shewed" and so on. It is actually very annoying at first, then later on becomes only mildly annoying.

The novel is written in a quite victorian-era style, and reads like a serialized Dickens novel. There is entirely too much description, and too much emphasis on the social habits of upper-class gentlemen. Vast portions of the novel are just boring.

The portions having to do with magic are quite interesting (aside from anything Mr. Norrell has to say, which is intentionally boring) but unlike many books in the fantasy genre does not linger over the magical descriptions and incantations. The magical theory is very well developed, and expounded upon in crazy long footnotes, and there is an extensive history and library of books about magical theory in this world. It is an impressive accomplishment to flesh out the world so thoroughly, and in ways reminds me of the Lord of the Rings.

Near the end the story starts to speed up, and becomes quite engaging, but infuriatingly the ending is sudden and somehow unsatisfying. It feels like there is a deeper story about the meta-story of Mr. Strange and Mr. Norrell's actions as part of the Raven King's plans, but that is only hinted at.

Still, overall it was an engrossing read. I only lament that it was so unnecessarily long, and after reading it I am not sure that I am the better for it. Unlike most of the trashy fiction that I read on airplanes that are short sci-fi or fantasy novels, this one was long and required a commitment to get through. I'm a bit conflicted about that.

Has anyone else read this one? Comments?

Overheard at the bar

When she said priori probability, I think she meant a-priori probability ...

Of course, I have to admit that this bar is the one in the hotel where many attendees of the TREC conference are staying, but still, I think it is a very funny bit of overheard conversation. I kind of like the idea of a bar in which conversations about statistics are commonplace. Perhaps that is what every bar in the MIT area is like, but certainly it isn't anything I run into at my favorite bars. I'm lucky to hear English being spoken at the bars that I frequent. :)

October 15, 2007

Catching up on Music

Lately I haven't been listening to very much music.  I've been busy with work, then last week I caught a cold and was sick all week.  I still came into work, but left pretty early and slept a lot.  I'm finally just about over that, but work has gotten busy again as I have to prepare a talk for the TREC conference early next month, and there isn't much time to coordinate with my supervisor about it.  I also sprained my ankle a week ago, and haven't been running since then.  Usually I listen to some music while I run, so I've been missing out on my usual music listening opportunities.

Radiohead

I just bought Radiohead's "In Rainbows", but haven't had a chance to listen to it yet.  (Well, I'm listening to it now.)  I think it is great that they are distributing their music themselves, and love the "pick your price model".  I thought I would pay about $7 or $8, but ended up paying 5 pounds plus their processing fee, and who knows how much that is in American dollars.  Maybe something like $13?  It is a bit more than I wanted to pay, but I completely support their move to a new business model for self-distribution.  I should mention that another favorite band of mine, Bishop Allen, also sells their stuff on their own website for very reasonable amounts. 

Inspired by Radiohead

One group that I've been keeping my eyes on, Hard 'N Phirm, has a new post on their website where they are distributing for free two songs of theirs that are Radiohead inspired: "Fitter, Clappier" (not so great, but worth a listen for the price) and "Rodeohead", which is very nice.  A kind of blues-grass Radiohead montage.  More than that you, you really should check out the video for their song "Pi".  The Youtube clip is below.  I think it is hilarious and a great parody of the 80s style "Electric Company" edumacational TV shows. 



Flight of the Conchords

Not too long after finding that Pi video (forwarded on by someone) I heard about Flight of the Conchords from the Hard N' Phirm guys.  I have their website's RSS feed in my feed reader, and it popped up one day and said I should check out the HBO show "Flight of the Conchords".  So I did, and I thought it was hilarious.  I thought it was great, and that my little sister would love it.  She always seems to hang out with people that are cool, but are somehow cool in spite of themselves, with a bit of a nerdy flavor.  That kind of describes the Flight of the Conchords guys pretty well, I think.  (Contrast this with myself: I am definitely nerdy, but have not even been able to attain the geek-chic style that has somehow popped up.  I just land squarely in the "geek" demographic.)  Since I thought Jana would like this stuff so much, I bought her the DVD for her birthday.  Sadly, her birthday is in October, and the DVD isn't shipped until sometime in November, but as long as she doesn't read this website she'll still be surprised.  Who expects a birthday present a month late?  (Outside of my sisters, mothers, fathers, and friends?)

For your enjoyment, I recommend that you check out the Flight of the Conchords song Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros.  It is very funny.  It is also probably findable on Youtube. 

Say Hi

Another group that I absolutely adore, Say Hi To Your Mom, recently changed their name to the shorter "Say Hi", and put out their newest album, "The Wishes and the Glitch".  The album is supposed to be released on Feb. 5th, but if you are up on the interweb stuff you can order it from their website and get it now.  It is a mere $7 for the digital download, which is I think a bit inaccurately named as the "Immediate Digital Download" because I ordered two hours ago but haven't received any download instructions yet.  I suppose they will show up within a day or so, but that doesn't quite fit my description of "Immediate".  More like, rapid.  According to the FAQ, you should get the link for the download from 12-24 hours after your order, or on Monday if you hit them up over the weekend.  I guess that means that they have a human approving the process somehow, which kind of baffles me since you really can automate the whole process.  It is kind of rapid I guess, but not nearly what I would call "Immediate".

Still, I'm a huge Say Hi fan, I absolutely love their 2004 album "Numbers and Mumbles", and like their other stuff as well.  I'm really excited to listen to the new one - even more than the new Radiohead album.  With Radiohead, I expect a good album.  With Say Hi, I expected something that could be only good, but might possibly be mind-blowing, or at least has a very good chance of being very specific to me and my life.  What I mean is that I can sometimes very strongly identify with Say Hi's music in a way that the more large-issue, big-world, Radiohead stuff doesn't reach me. 

Radiohead will not sing about being a 13-year-old kid hanging out with your friends dreaming of robots and spaceships.  Say Hi very well might.  Or he might have a song about falling in love with a girl, and then falling out of love with that girl, but not wanting to face it, and wanting to talk about spaceships instead of the relationship.  Sometimes I misunderstand and relate so poorly to women that I don't understand why a conversation about spaceship design would be a bad thing when we should be talking about failings in communication about our relationship. 

I really like the range that can come out of Say Hi.  Of course, not everything is gold, but I think having valleys to go along with your peaks makes life more interesting.



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