July 24, 2011

Announcing Project: Micro Cooper

R. and I have recently started on a new project, which we will call Codename: Micro Cooper. The story starts about four months back, when R. complained of feeling sick in the morning and tired. A quick trip to the hospital, and we found the reason: an as-of-yet unmet new member of the family. We don't yet know much about this little person in the making, but for now we will address the person as (micro) Cooper.

We've been going to a hospital in Hiroo called Aiiku Hospital. Hiroo is a kind of stylish neighborhood and Aiiku Hospital is a well-respected hospital that is popular with expats. It is convenient for me because it is a quick 5 to 10 minute bike ride from work, and maybe fifteen minutes from home on the bike. It is about a thirty minute train ride with one transfer, or a quick 10 minutes in a taxi. So we are set on that front.

Yesterday, we decided that we needed to get some additional backing on the safety front, and we visited Suitengu Shrine, a Shrine renowned for the worship of the deity of Safe Childbirth. Walking around the area there are lots of Maternity shops and lots of pregnant women. We planned to make a day of it, so before going to the shrine, we went to have a very nice Unagi (freshwater eel) lunch.

In July Japanese people traditionally have a Summer Unagi meal, which is supposed to be a meal to help you get over the oppressive heat and boosts your stamina. So we headed over to Asakusa's Unagi Maekawa for lunch. The cute little restaurant is right on the Sumida river, in a small three story building with Tatami-mat seating. You can actually see Tokyo Sky Tree from the Tatami room in which we ate on the second floor. The other thing about this restaurant is that it has been serving up Unagi over rice for a long time. A very long time: about 200 years. So they have had a long time to perfect their art. I really enjoyed the meal, and highly recommend the place. It is a bit pricey though (I think we paid about $80 for the two of us for lunch.)

After lunch, we took the train to Suitengu Shrine. It is a pretty small place actually, which surprised me. We washed our hands, and headed to the Shine sales shop. If you aren't familiar with Japanese shrines, they usually specialize in one sort of thing (with a specific deity to back it up) and then sell a variety of charms to help you attain your goals. There are traffic safety charms, charms for doing well on tests, and so on. This particular shrine specializes in safe childbirth. We asked for an order of "Have the priests pray for our safe childbirth", but it turns out that we were too late for that (they were all sold out - or more properly booked up) so we just got the safe childbirth womb wrap.

The safe childbirth belt includes a nice cloth wrap (with some blessings on it) as well as a charm that you wrap up with the cloth. That should really help. R. tried it on, but we're still a bit early on in the process so she thinks it can wait a while yet.

We still have about four months to go before Project: Micro Cooper is unveiled, but there are lots of big changes coming up in our lives. We're going to have to see how we can fit more stuff in our little apartment, and start looking at baby carriages and child seats. We've also been checking out new cars, with a chance we'll trade in our Mini Cooper for a Mini Cooper Clubman or possibly a Mini Cooper Crossover. We've got to send in our Mini Cooper for the bi-annual inspection this month, and then it will be licensed for two more years. Once that is up though, it will be 8 years old, a veritable octogenarian in Japan.

So friends and family, we've got big changes coming up, and definitely welcome any advice and pointers. The release date for Project: Micro Cooper is currently 2011-12-15, so check back around Christmas time to see what new super cute features we've got coming!

June 25, 2011

Premium Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Last weekend R. and I went to see Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stanger Tides. This is an unusual occurrence because since I moved to Japan and got married, I generally see only about four movies a year. So going to see a real movie in a real movie theater is a pretty big deal for us. I'm not really sure why that is, but it probably comes down to two things:

  • Movie tickets cost a lot here in Japan
  • R. and I usually don't have the same days off, so we don't have a lot of time together

Pirates looked like it would be fun, so I checked out the times, and we could make it last Sunday. We headed down to the Roppongi hills in time for Brunch, and stopped off at 37 Steakhouse. They had an excellent Eggs Benedict. I hadn't had a real American style brunch in a long time, and I really enjoyed it. We are going to have to do this more often. R. enjoyed a nice lunch steak, but I think I was the winner with the eggs and delicious bacon.

We also stopped by the Roppongi Mini Cooper dealership and checked out the new Crossover model. It is much bigger than the Mini Cooper we have now. But I don't really think we need a car in Tokyo, and certainly not a new one.

We were a bit early to our show, but that was ok because we had Premium Seats. I've never had Premium Seats before. I wasn't even sure what that entailed actually. It turns out that means that the chairs in the theater are a bit better. They have a really nice reclining function, and a small table for drinks and stuff. There is also a special bar and each ticket entitles you to one drink. A beer or wine or juice or something. So we sat down and had nice drinks and conversation in a little bar while waiting for the movie to start. The theater itself was pretty nice, and the seats were great. The place was also packed. You also could take a little blanket if you were cold. The theater was a bit on the hot side for me, but R. took two blankets, and most of the women there were taking a blanket also.

How was the movie itself? Pretty good! Not great, but a really fun adventure with Johnny Depp doing a great job being funny as Jack Sparrow. I think the movie was a bit weak on some of the motivation points (I am not sure why the love interest did a lot of what she did) and there were many points of contrivance to make things work for Jack and/or the plot. But who cares? It was a fun romp.

Also, as a bonus, the day before I hung out with Eric, R., Ami, and her boyfriend. We had a great Chinese dinner. Actually, I need to try to make it out to Ami's family's restaurant more often. I'll put it on the list of things to do. Like finish writing blog entries.

Hey, mark one off the list!

June 11, 2011

A Vacation in Singapore and Indonesia

We took a vacation and went to Singapore and the Bintan Island in Indonesia. We flew into Singapore from Japan on Tuesday evening, arriving a little before midnight, and went to a cheap hotel in Singapore. We woke up pretty early in order to get to the ferry terminal by 7am for a 9am ferry to Bintan. Not much sleep, but that's ok, we plan to catch up at the resort.

The ferry ride was about an hour and was very smooth. I was worried about getting seasick, but no problem. We arrived at the ferry terminal, and made it through immigration (with a bit of a stop over for me, but I eventually made it.) At the immigration office, the officer said that I had a nice beard, and then asked if I was Muslim. I'm not, but I thought that was a compliment.

We found a bus that took us to the resort, and as we arrived there was a group of people playing music and dancing to welcome us in. We got a nice cool watermelon juice and checked in. The grounds of the resort are very nice, they have a bunch of birds of paradise, a beach, a couple of restaurants, and a very nice pool. For most of the time that we were there, we spent our time at the pool relaxing and reading books. I love my kindle for outdoor reading.

On the first evening we also went out for a tour of the mangroves. We had a guide take us up the river in a little boat, and also there was an older Japanese couple with us. They couldn't speak English, so I ended up doing a bit of interpretation for them. Sometimes in the mangroves there are monkeys and other animals, but all we saw were a bunch of lizards. Also there is an old earthen oven that was used to burn some special sort of tree that turns into charcoal, which used to be a major export of the island a long time ago.

We tried a few of the restaurants affiliated with the report while we were there. We stayed two nights, so not really all that long, but it was a very relaxing stay. I think we spent all of Thursday in the pool and ocean. When we were in the ocean I felt a sharp pain on my right foot, and hurried out of the ocean. R. didn't believe me when I told her that I was attacked by a jellyfish, but it puffed up pretty good and clearly was a jellyfish sting. A few hours later it was ok, but I do not like getting stung by jellyfish.

We also had dinner at a seafood restaurant by the sea, and stopped in at their bar that was out in the ocean. One of the patrons was actually fishing while having his drink. I had a Bintan beer, and the first ingredient on the list of ingredients was "Air". I later learned that "Air" means "Water" so that made more sense once I figured that out.

On the day that we decided to relax at the pool, I read a book on my kindle, and R. read a book on a book. After lunch we got an hour massage on the beach for something like $60 for the both of us. Very nice.

On Friday morning we headed out to the Ferry terminal to return to Singapore. There is an hour difference between Singapore and Bintan, so when we got back to Singapore it was close to 1:30pm. We caught a cab back to our Singapore hotel (Hotel York near Orchard Road) and checked in. When we entered Singapore I realized that my passport was full, so we caught a cab to the US Embassy which was conveniently close. We got there just before they closed the office for adding passport pages (3pm) but they were kind enough to accept my application. Also, since Monday was a holiday and we were leaving on Tuesday (and it was Friday) they were very kind to do a rush job and add pages to my passport right then. Great!

We had a quick late lunch / early dinner at our hotel, sampling the famous Chicken Rice, and then I signed us up for the Night Safari. That is actually a really fun tour. You go to a part of the Singapore Zoo at night, and ride a tram around (or walk) at night to see a bunch of animals. Lots of people try to take pictures (no flash photography please!) and all fail because it is night. So it is one of those things that you will need to remember, instead of document.

Saturday we went to Little India for lunch and had a very nice vegetarian dinner. We ordered the lunch set, which had a whole bunch of different types of curry that you can eat with some bread and rice. It was a delicious and very filling meal. We wandered around for a bit and checked out a few of the temples in the area (quite a few!) There was even one place that had a Hindu and Buddhist temple next door to each other. After some sightseeing we stopped for a coffee in a mall, which had some Sesame Street show for the kids. I was glad to see Cookie Monster, but I never remembered him having three back-dancers.

After that we headed out to see my friend Min, and he gave us a few tips on Singapore. We decided to take him up on one of them and went out to find some Durian fruit. I am not a fan of Durian, but R. had never had any before and was excited to try it. I don't like the smell (rotten) or the consistency (slimy) or the flavor (hard to tell once you get back the smell and consistency.) We also got a bunch of other fruit like Rambutan and Longan. We actually made a dinner of just fruit after a lunch of just vegetables, and I considered it a good food day! Amazing!

So after that we headed home and go some sleep.

Hey, what is that? A Merlion! Yep, we went to Sentosa, the ridiculously overprice Singaporean vacation play-land. It is like a place that wants to be both Disneyland and Coney Island. Sentosa Island costs some amount of money to get to, and is basically a beach with a lot of attractions. That are expensive. I bought us two tickets that let us try a few of the attractions, but I think we spent over $160 or so for the two of us. Just to get there and walk around and do a few things. Way to go Singapore! Still, we got to see the famous Merlion. We went up inside his head and got to see the surrounding island, and Singapore from that vantage point. Pretty good.

What else did we do at Sentosa island? We saw the Images of Singapore museum thing, and then tried to get in line to see a 4-d movie at the 4d Magix movie theatre but we didn't have the time. We did catch a cable lift type thing down to the beach, and then saw Songs of the Sea. Songs of the Sea was a show with water and lights and lasers and people singing and fire. When it started I thought "oh man, they suckered us." It was a bunch of people (6?) on the beach singing some really campy songs that sound like it should be a Disney thing, except you don't know the characters or songs. But then they started to get accompanied by lasers and water and fire. In the end it was pretty good, but still feels like really we should have gone to Disneyland.

After that we headed back to Singapore itself, and on the way back stopped by Clarke Quay. Apparently Clarke Quay is a place with lots of bars and nightlife. So we went there to check it out. Turns out they were running the Monaco F1 race live, and it was some sort of historic race where there was a wreck and the final few laps were started after a yellow flag. Exciting. If I knew more about fast cars. R. really loves F1 though, so we had a good time.

Then went home. There were lots of bars there, although the prices were ridiculous (possibly better than Sentosa, but running pretty close.)

On our final day in Singapore we did some shopping and then headed over to the Marina Bay Sands complex. We hung out in the shopping center (and did some shopping!) and eventually headed over to Sky 57, a nice restaurant up on top of the building. The dinner was great. I took pictures of the meal, but don't really feel like posting them here. You can check them out on Flikr if you are really interested though. Very nice dinner. Before dinner though, R. went to the Casino. It was her first time at a Casino. It was probably my third or so. I'm not big on betting, because I figure if you keep at it long enough you will lose money. The only exception might be poker, where you can win money off of the other players if you are good enough. I know that I am not good enough. I don't really know how to play poker really, so I stay away from it. When I do go to casinos I will play blackjack, because I can add up to 21. Pretty much.

Anyway, R. decided to play Roulette. I explained the game to her to the best of my ability. And she won 2x the money that she started with. She turned $50 into $100. Amazing. I told her we should never go to a casino again. I also had a run of luck and turned my $50 into $200 at blackjack. So I guess I shouldn't go back to a casino again either.

After the casino and dinner it was late, and we went back to the hotel. We had to get up at 4am to catch a cab to go to the airport to get there in time for a 7am flight back to Japan. And we both had work the next day.

My foot still hurt from being viciously attacked by a jellyfish, but we did make money playing at the casino (and then spent much more than we made at the mall and dinner) so I guess in the end it was ok. I didn't get sunburned, we relaxed, tried some strange fruit, and go to read a lot and swim in both a pool and an ocean. A very nice vacation!

March 20, 2011

Dinner and a Movie in Tokyo after the Earthquake

For the past week, R. and I have been at home. I have been working from home (it is great that I work at a company where this is possible) while R. has been off of work because Tokyo Disneyland is currently closed. I have not been getting out and about the city much, I really have only been visiting the local supermarket and a few stores around where we live. We have generally been eating stuff that we have on hand - I've made a bunch of omelets since we were able to find eggs. We cooked up a batch of Curry on Monday, and have had that for dinner and lunch quite a few days. Curry is great because you can make a lot of it at once, it keeps for a long time, and you just need rice to go with it.

On Saturday, I wanted to take R. out to do something, and coincidentally the movie Tangled just opened in Japan on Saturday. She wants to see Tangled, I'm interested in getting out, and so we had a plan. A normal sort of thing that people do everywhere: a movie and then dinner.

Note that actually this isn't something we do a lot here in Tokyo. I used to see two to four movies a month (hi Carl!) but since moving to Japan I have not seen many movies at all. Tickets here cost about $30 (given the current crazy exchange rate) and just are not as common of an activity as they are in the US. Still, it is still a pretty normal thing to do. So R. reserved us some tickets for a 3:30pm showing over in Roppongi Hills.

That got me to thinking about dinner. One thing I want to do is to support the Japanese economy and get things back to normal. Sitting around at home eating curry for a week (while it is economical on our end) is just not going to do that. I've been hearing good things about Union Square Tokyo for the past few years since it opened in 2007, so I wondered if they would have an opening for us. This place is a nice restaurant, not say Michelin three star or anything, but it is a nice place where a main dish will run from $40-$60 or so. Normally I would try to get a reservation a week or so in advance just to be sure, but I called them up Saturday afternoon and they took our reservation for that evening.

So, here are my main reasons for trying to get out and go do dinner:

  • A week after the earthquake, I think it is time to get back to normal life (not that we are always going out to high class restaurants) and stop sitting around at home.
  • I wanted to see how well mass transit could serve us. Roppongi Hills is usually about 30-45 minute trip from our place on a train and a bus.
  • I thought after a week of sitting around, Risa and I deserved a bit of a treat after surviving the largest Earthquake in Japanese history. If anything deserves a bit of a celebration, that is it.
  • I love curry. But I love me a good steak a bit more, if I can get an excuse to put out the money they cost in Tokyo.

Click the "read more" link to see how well we fared.

read more (3240 words)

March 17, 2011

Why I am not worried about Earthquakes or Radiation in Tokyo

In the past few days there has been a lot of confusion about what has been going on. I wrote a bit about my experience in the big earthquake and then later a bit about food shortages, and strange things I am eating. I touched a bit there on the supply problems and issues with nuclear reactors in the north east, but I'll focus a bit more on that in this post.

So first, initially I was wearing my anti-earthquake hat (+1 for saving throws vs. falling rocks.) Friday was crazy with earthquakes. The first was very scary, but Tokyo pulled through very well. Friday night there were many earthquakes, but none as powerful as the first one. Saturday there were also lots of earthquakes. Sunday there were fewer. I started noticing more in the news about the nuclear power plants in Fukushima. There were still tremors, and Tokyo is feeling the side-effects of the earthquake. Really the problems we have faced are with transportation and electricity. Trains are running at reduced capacity. There are scheduled blackouts for much of Northern Japan. Areas around Tokyo have also seen blackouts but the main center of Tokyo, the "23 wards" have been spared. That would be like all of New York state having scheduled blackouts, but Manhattan being spared due likely to concerns about business and population density. In fact, we are going to reverse evacuate my sister-in-law to Tokyo from a place that is about an hour and a half out of Tokyo further away from the North East because they have been having two blackouts a day and we have had none. Trains are pretty much running now, although at slightly reduced capacity, and at least the major parts of Tokyo have regular electric, gas, and water service. Our elevators are even back at home, although the escalators and elevators at the local shopping center are off to conserve energy.

The other issue is food and gas. Gas is tight right now. Mostly people were panicked and trying to get fuel to get out of Tokyo. That has made it hard for the emergency workers to get fuel to go help out where there is real trouble - up near Sendai and further north east. I think that has taken care of itself now though since people are less worried about radiation and are just staying in Tokyo trying to get back to business as usual. Most companies still have people going to work. Amazon is a bit rare in that we can work from home (that it is allowed, and that we have a kind of job where that actually works well.) I have seen some other email from other friends in Japan saying that if they want to work from home, they can, but they will need to fill in a form and get it stamped by one or two people. That sounds like Japan to me. Everything here needs to be stamped to be official. So yay for Amazon Japan, they have just been really amazing throughout this whole thing.

So I can attest that while we might be a bit inconvenienced and eating strange foods, day to day life is fine. My wife is home because Disneyland (where she is a nurse) is closed for an indeterminate amount of time. What has been more concerning is people over-reacting to the fear of radioactivity from the explosions at the Fukushima nuclear power plants, about 300km away from Tokyo. The news here has been pretty good about getting information out. As of right now (2011-03-17 10:40am JST) I do not think there is any danger to Tokyo from the Nuclear power plants.

Here are some resources I have been using to get information:

  • MIT NSE Nuclear Information Hub. A curated blog by MIT students and professors with a lot of information. I trust MIT, and their stuff seems to be very informative with a science (not fear) bent.
  • As of the 15th, this post by Paul Atkinson makes it seem like Britain has no fears of radiation.
  • As of the 16th the US Embassy also says there is no danger to Tokyo. They also say that TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Corp.) has been upfront about the disaster and their information accurate. This reassures me that there are international orgs watching the situation and that we are getting good information.
  • The Australian Government has some advice for Australians in Japan. They suggest expanding the exclusion zone from 30km to 50km. Tokyo is 300km from the power plant sites.
I've kept an eye out on Facebook where friends in Japan are posting up relevant information as they see it. I like this pictures showing radiation readings in Tokyo. Right now the level is at about 0.2 microsieverts per hour. Eating one banana is 0.1 microsieverts (assuming you eat one banana a day for a year.) Andy Heather has a good blog post about this.

I am convinced that unless there are disastrous changes in the situation, Tokyo will be fine. We are getting good information on the situation on the news, but even a worst-case scenario, a meltdown like at Three Mile Island, we should not see any negative effects in Tokyo. Of course, if you are within the 30km exclusion zone around Fukushima, there is danger. It isn't going to instantly kill you, but the professionals are on the situation and taking care of it.

There is no way there will be problems in the US from this. As long as we are careful about not eating food from the surrounding area - which is what I gather a lot of the problem from Chernobyl was from - there should be no problems. Chernobyl did not even have the external containment vessel that these power plants have. Lots of eyes are on this, and the professionals are doing their best to keep the radiation contained. I have my tv on, and am watching a few sources, but I think things will be fine.

On to another major subject. Why am I not worried about earthquakes in Japan? First, read this blog post by an engineer in Japan. It is a really good description of how things went right. I totally agree. We have an earthquake warning system. I usually see a warning about 10 seconds before an earthquake hits, assuming I have my TV on. Realistically, this isn't too helpful, but it has helped me get on my hard hat or put down a bowl of burning soup before the shaking starts. That is really impressive though: advance warning for a natural disaster.

The other thing that makes me feel safe is the building engineering. I'll use the building that we live in. It was built two years ago, just about. This website lists the safety features of our building. You can run it through Google's translation service. Actually that doesn't really help, but we've got 56 230cm diameter pylons driven very deep (28 meters) into the bedrock, and the whole building is made to sway with earthquakes. Why does our small two bedroom apartment cost half a million dollars? Because the entire building can dance with an earthquake. This video shows skyscrapers swaying in the earthquake. By design. It feels very, very strange when you are in one, but they do this by design and Japan has poured lots of research and effort into building design. This site has some general information on earthquake and building design. I should see if my architect friends have more information. I know most skyscrapers in Japan use base isolators.

At any rate, Tokyo is doing pretty well. The north east is horribly devastated and could really use more of the focus an attention that is currently being spent on the Nuclear power plant. It seems like that is not as big a problem as people fear. I'll still keep my anti-radiation hat handy though, so please don't worry. I can make all sorts of hats as necessary, and possibly radiation-proof my earthquake hat as well.

March 16, 2011

You know it is bad when you are eating Nude Crunky Balls

With a city of over 15 million people, food can run out fast. I just wen to the local supermarket and they still don't have any staple foods (but they have had deliveries of other non-staple foods.) It could be that there was just a buying run, but since we don't have much rice and pasta at home, I'm waiting to buy myself. The government now is telling people that we have enough stock of food, and not to panic and hoard food. I think that has happened to some extent - we ran out of rice last week and just put off buying new rice (5kg bags are heavy - almost 5kg!!) and now we don't have a major staple food. We are also almost out of pasta. So I would like to stock up, but there is nothing in the store. See my previous post.

So we go to the store, and they do have some things, but the selection is strange. They still have lots of beer and wine, which we also have plenty of at home, but those don't really help when you need hydration. Could be worse though I suppose. But you know things must be getting back when you are reduced to eating Nude Crunky Balls.

Ah, who am I kidding? Nude Crunky Balls are chocolately and delicious. I love them.

Yesterday (Tuesday JST) I went to work for the first time since the earthquake. Transport was not running reliably, but I've been biking to work for a few months, so that wasn't a problem for me. On the ride in to work I noticed about three times as many people as normal were on bikes. I think other people were worried about getting stuck somewhere without transportation, so busted out their infrequently used bikes to get around the city. None of them were as cool as my bike though, a nice Raleigh that I put some clip-in pedals on (thanks Dave S.!) and have been commuting on for a few months. I got some work done, but as things developed with the Fukushima nuclear power plant (more on that later if I have time - the big take away is that things are working as designed and we are all safe, as long as no small turtles named Gamera snuck into the containment vessel) we were told to go home by 2pm. Today (Wednesday JST) was declared a work from home day, which I can do as a computer professional. Kind of. I'm glued to the tv, and trying to find rice. And eating Nude Crunky Balls.

The interesting thing though is that on my ride home yesterday I saw massive lines at the pump on my bike ride home. I passed 3 gas stations. One was sold out of gas, the other two had lines of 60-100 cars. I'm more afraid that if there is a panic, people won't be able to get out of Tokyo easily and there will be large traffic jams. Trains work great, but right now trains are on irregular schedules, and were very crowded today (according to friends who took the train into work.) So I worry that there might be a panic in Tokyo with people trying to get out of town because of unfounded fears of nuclear radioactivity. If you have the time, please read this take from an MIT engineer on why things are not as bad as the media might lead you to believe. 日本語版もあります。

I am joking around a bit here: we do have enough food for a few days, and supplies are getting better. I don't think we will have a problem in Tokyo. But if I am forced to eat delicious nude crunky chocolate balls, be sure that I will not let my blog go uninformed. Also, we are running out of truffles and foie gras. Please send more forthwith.

March 13, 2011

I hope you like broccoli, because that is what is for dinner

So this evening my wife and I stopped by the local (very large) supermarket to pick up some toilet paper and something for dinner tomorrow night. Turns out, we could get neither because almost everything was sold out. We did get a few snacks and some beer (of which there was plenty) but there was nothing, absolutely nothing, in the way of staples and easy to make food. No potatoes. No rice. Few vegetables, few fruits. No meat. Few fish. Really the place was running out of just about everything.

I kind of thought that might be the case; on Friday evening just after the earthquake when I stopped by it looked like they were starting to run out of things. I don't think they had seen any replenishment since then, and of course a lot of people were trying to stock up on stuff. I anticipate that pretty soon, in the next day or two, they will get deliveries of what they need to continue business, but it really strikes home that in a city of about 16 million people, without consistent and reliable transportation and supply chains, things can dry up very fast.

Also, the Japan Electric is announcing that they might have rolling blackouts in Tokyo starting tomorrow due to the shutdown of two nuclear power plants in the northeast. More than just a shutdown actually, one of the reactors went critical and there was a minor explosion and later intentional venting of mildly radioactive gasses. It sounds like it isn't a very dangerous situation, but it certainly reduces capacity and it isn't like Japan was rolling in capacity before this (although I haven't had blackouts here, like I did a few times in New York.)

Anyway, I'll be headed to work tomorrow where I expect to spend a lot of time cleaning up, and probably not much time getting quality work done - this situation is just so abnormal that I'm pretty sure the whole city is a bit on edge, and still trying to come to terms with things. Risa and I donated to the Red Cross, but there isn't much we can do to help those in the North East, which is really in a horrific situation. Still, I'm a happy pessimist; I expect the worst and I'm very happy when things turn out to be not that bad. I mean the worst that we are facing is maybe a lack of tasty food (we've got canned and frozen stuff that we can last on for a while) and while we were facing a lack of toilet paper (visiting Alana while she was in Morocco taught me a few ways to deal with that situation, not that Risa is willing to accept them as viable alternatives) we were able to get a bunch from Risa's family who had stocked up a while back. So things are looking pretty good from where I sit. In a chair that sometimes shakes, and makes me wonder whether it is an earthquake, or just me.

Lately it has just been me. Unlike Saturday, when it was earthquakes. ;-)

March 12, 2011

The Great Miyagi Earthquake of 2011

On Friday, as usual, a group of us from work went out to Beacon, a favorite lunch place. Lunch was great, a nice filling burger, as usual. Then back to work for the afternoon. At about three o'clock sometime (amazingly, I feel like I should know exactly when this started, but I do not) I started to feel some minor tremors. We have those frequently in Tokyo, and had had a few in the previous days. I checked with my co-workers to make sure it wasn't just me (when a loaded-down cart goes down the nearby hallway, it can shake the floor in a way that feel similar to a very minor earthquake) and they commented that they felt it too. Usually we would just sit and wait things out, but this one kept building. Usually these things start out as small vertical fluxuations as the ground moves up and down. This time, the vertical bumps started to get larger, and then started to change into a swaying motion. That is when we knew it was getting bad. We got under our desks - which I am not really sure would help in a ceiling collapse, but would probably be better than not being under the desk - and started to wait. The earthquake now was clearly a swaying motion. Perhaps the ground was moving up and down, but the building itself started to sway. We are on the 16th floor. The shaking went on for maybe five minutes. I really don't have a good sense of the time, but it went on for a very long time.

The building itself felt like a boat, swaying forward about three meters, then back, then perhaps to the left, then to the right. It literally felt like we were on a boat in rough seas. I didn't see out the window, so I had no real frame of reference, but the movement was amazing, and very unsettling. Our friends who have a very wide window view said the movement was sickening, you could see the entire building move, and move a lot. Our shelves fell. Other things fell. I was glad to be under my desk, in case the shelving fell my way. It didn't.

The swaying finally started to slow down. I checked my laptop, grabbed my stuff together, and led some of the guys down the stairwell. The stairs were littered with plaster, I assume from the walls of the swaying building. Our building was completed sometime in the 70's, very old by Japanese standards. I think it is rated for a stronger earthquake, but it was still unsettling. I would have preferred to be in a newer building. I'm curious to see how my friend at Google in Mori Tower faired.

We exited the building to the area around the tower. There were some small aftershocks. We were warned to stay away from the building in case of falling glass. That is a good warning, until you realize that there are skyscrapers all over Tokyo. Smaller building are likely less well designed for earthquakes. We were probably safer inside the tower than outside if another large earthquake struck, but that swaying feeling is just so unsettling that I think a lot of people just wanted to get outside, myself included. There was a lot of checking around, trying to see who was still inside, who was outside. Everyone was ok, and after a while the company president announced that people who could go home should go home.

That itself was quite a difficulty. You see, none of the mass transit systems were running. Everyone here uses mass transit. I live about 10km from work, and usually bike to work. Today, of all days, I decided not to bike since I was sore from playing basketball the previous night. I decided instead to take the train. That means I had no easy way home, except 10km isn't really all that far. So I started to walk home. I had my GPS watch, and also unusually decided to bring in my camera today (perhaps thought I would walk around Shibuya at night and take some pictures.) Looking back, I really should have headed into the Shibuya city center to see what things looked like, but I was more concerned with getting home and making sure that Risa was safe. I sent her an email earlier, but knew that networks would be overloaded. I did eventually hear from her, she was fine, but still at work (at Disneyland.) Satisfied that my family was ok, I set out to head home. Before doing that though, I snapped a few pictures of the people around the office. I was also wearing my Amazon Japan hard hat the entire time, and asked a group from the Merchant@ team to model their beautiful headgear for me.

I set up my GPS watch and headed home. All told, it took 1:54 minutes, 9km, and 620 calories. On the way though, I took a few pictures. First, let me just say that for the most part, the Tokyo that I know did not suffer major damage. I heard that one building, the Kudan Kaikan, close to where I used to work, had a portion of the roof collapse and there were some injuries. Otherwise there was nothing major that I knew of (I learned of some other things later) - I was listening to one-seg TV for a lot of the time I was waiting outside the building trying to get in touch with Risa. On the walk home, there was no major structural damage either. This is Tokyo though, up north near the epicenter the damage was horrific, and on the news they were talking about a Tsunami that was coming.

So, I set out walking. See the link for the map of where I walked, but basically it was a two hour walk that I knew fairly well from riding it on a bike every day. On the here are some interesting things I saw.

Very close to work there is a small temple hidden off the beaten path. There were lots of people there taking refuge. When you think about it, one of the few places in Tokyo that isn't high density living, working, or shopping spaces are temples. They have small buildings and some open grounds. A good place to go when you want to get away from large buildings. You can just see a whole bunch of blue hard hats in the background of people all from the same company presumably.

Walking on, you started to see people lining up for pay phones. The cell infrastructure was overwhelmed of course. I got a few emails out, but voice calls were just impossible. I also started to see people lining up for buses. Note that these early lines are short. An hour later the lines for phones and bus stops were huge.

Near Ebisu station there was a group of girls in Kimono for a Graduation Ceremony. That must have been a rude interruption to their ceremony. They were waiting for a friend who was apparently across the street near Ebisu station. I was curious what the mass transit situation was (my cell phone tv was telling me that no trains were running) so I swung by the station. Indeed, no trains were running.

The station was full of people, but the gates were close and the signs all said "Under Preparation". Walking out towards home there were some stores with tvs, and those got a lot of attention. People were intent on finding news, but all the news was saying is that there was an earthquake, a tsunami is coming, and where people should be evacuating. My cell phone has a digital tv tuner, so I would check occasionally with what was going on. Tokyo at least didn't come out of it too bad.

Over closer to Gotanda, much later, there were massive crowds at Gotanda station waiting for buses. I don't think they are going to get anywhere anytime soon. I kept walking, only about 3 kilometers from home now. I passed some large apartment complexes which had set up temporary chairs for people that lived there who I presume didn't like being up high in the building. I could understand their feelings. I think they probably are safer inside the building that outside, but maybe the ground floor would sway less than the higher floors. That is probably a good idea, and I might take that route in the future myself. There is one tunnel I have to take that looked a bit damaged. As I walked up to it, it made a horrible noise. Still, seemed ok, so I went through. I'm curious whether that will be repaired in coming days. There were also some construction workers taking down scaffolding. I would not have wanted to be in their shoes; there were still aftershocks and that scaffolding did not look very safe.

Closer to home near Aomono Yokocho, I finally started seeing buses with people in them. Lots of people in them. Going slowly. Traffic was just jammed by this time. Anyone that could drive was. I bet taxis were charging extra.

Walking by Aomono Yokocho more people were waiting for the trains to start running. The station was also closed. By this point, I was pretty close to home. My feet were killing me, my shoulders were sore from carrying my heavy backpack and laptop, and it was getting cold. On the way home I stopped by Aeon, the local supermarket. They were starting to run out of stuff. I bought some simple things for dinner, and headed home. At home, things were fine, but the elevators were out of action. So I had a 14 floor hike up the stairs before getting back to the apartment. The most amazing thing is that I only noticed one or two things fallen over in our place. Our building was built two years ago, and is supposed to be very safe in earthquakes. The place was a mess, but that is just because I haven't cleaned recently; you would not have known that there was an earthquake just looking at the place.

At home, I turned on the TV and spent the next few hours trying to get in touch with friends (everyone is ok) and sending out some email and facebook updates. I didn't feel tired, so I started playing Mass Effect (1, a game I've been playing lately.) There were lots of small aftershock earthquakes. I lost count. More than ten. More than twenty probably. They kept happening, although our building handled them like a champ. None of this crazy boat stuff (I am really curious how the main earthquake moved the building, but I'm happy not to find out.) I watched a lot of tv. I tried to find out what my wife was doing. She said she was ok, but that she would not be able to come home. I stayed up until 6am. I also finished Mass Effect - very good game. I think that kept me up, but I also just was still unsettled, and didn't feel like sleeping.

I finally got to sleep at 6am, and now on Saturday have written this us. Right now Risa came home. Here is how her day played out: after the earthquake at Disneyland lots of people were motion sick from the earthquake, and there were people that were scared and with minor injuries. She works as a nurse there, and all the nurses were busy. They worked through the night and she got off at 11am Saturday morning (after starting a 10am shift on Friday morning) and then had to walk to the Rinkai line Shinkiba station, about 6km. She is going to hop on the computer for a bit and then go to sleep.

So to sum up: we are safe, our house is fine. We have enough food for today and tomorrow, and I anticipate that most of Tokyo will be relatively back to normal by then. I'm worried and concerned about northern Japan, and I have a few friends that are stuck outside of Tokyo due to the transit system shutdown, but everything seems fine. It should be an interesting few days. All sorts of things are coming out now, the major one being concern over some nuclear reactors and possible problems there, but I think Japan will be able to get through this.

February 27, 2011

A bunch of fantasy books on the kindle

For the past few months (about four) I've had a Kindle. Of course, I get some free content, from places like Project Gutenberg, or Amazon's own list of free book sources. I also have some old ebooks that I bought over the years that are not DRM'd, so I can convert them using Calibre or the like into a format that the Kindle can use (Mobi, in case you are interested.)

I love reading on the Kindle. It is small, fits in a coat pocket, looks beautiful, doesn't strain my eyes (unless I read too much) and is way too easy to acquire new books. In fact, even though I want to try to spend less on books, and I have major problems with ebooks costing about the same as hardcover books when I naturally feel like they should have a lower price structure due to cutting out printing and transportation costs (note that the majority of the overhead probably lies in editing, layout, design, and above all else advertising.) So I have been trying to restrain myself to older titles. But when Tor.com started a poll on best books of the decade, I noticed a few books there that looked interesting.

So I bought The Lies of Locke Lamora. And I read it. Then I bought the next book in the series, Red Seas Under a Red Sky. I really enjoyed the Lies of Locke Lamora, a fun sort of mystery or reverse law and order. Interesting characters, and more humor than I expected. The first novel flowed very quickly, and I had trouble putting it down. The next novel was very good as well, although didn't seem quite as magical to me. I look forward to the next books in the series, but do not look forward to paying the hardcover (or higher) price for it when it releases soon.

After that I moved on to another book that had been seeing a lot of acclaim lately, The Name of the Wind. That book also was hard to put down and a great read. Its sequel comes out in a few days, and I am sorely tempted to buy it at full price to continue reading about the development and growth of Kvothe. Interestingly, the next two books all share a thread of "Legendary Heroes" of some sort. This book also reminds me of The Misenchanted Sword, which also opens (or ends?) with a legendary hero who puts aside his old life in favor of running an inn. (Also a great read btw.)

Next up was a book that I have been meaning to read for a while: Elantris. This is a stand-alone book by Brandon Sanderson, the author of the Mistborn trilogy. I really liked the Mistborn trilogy, and in particular the well thought-out and developed magic system. Elantris is a book that he wrote before the Mistborn series apparently, and also has a well-thought-out magic system. The protagonist is also someone who will become legendary (I imagine) in his world, and is generally a stand-up hero. All three of these books (not the first two) have heroes that are probably written in order to be very, well, heroic. And that is fine by me; I read my fantasy for an escape from the morally ambiguous difficult world we live in. It isn't that I don't like more realistic political stuff (I have been reading George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire) but I also enjoy more fun fantasy with clearly delineated good and evil characters.

After Elantris, I read The Warded Man. The kindle version of this book is a steal at $5.99. I'll have to pick up the sequel which is down to $4.39 for the Kindle. This book has another interesting magic system (well, rules around magical wards, not so much full on fireball throwing wizards, but lots of demons) and another strong protagonist that passes into legendary status.

So I've read enough books on the Kindle now that I know this is a dangerous device: it gets me reading more, and I don't have the time for that. It is keeping me up late, and eating into my free time, when I should be programming or writing blog posts. It is so easy to take around that if I find that I have a few minutes, I can pull it out and read, and then my few minutes turns into a half hour. Really all that means is that I need to get more self control. I've found that I can wait in between books, but once I get involved in a good one, I have a hard time putting it down.

Other things about the Kindle that are great: I like changing the font size. It makes it easy to read. A few times I've run into problems with the DRM and publisher set restrictions on the device. For example, I tried the text-to-speech feature while I was reading Elantris. I was cooking dinner, and over the course of the two hours that I was prepping and cooking, got a good portion of the book read to me. That was great. Unfortunately though, some of the other books have had that feature disabled by the publisher. I wanted to go to the store and have the book read to me while I was shopping, but I couldn't do that. (I had to consume a podcast instead.) The text to speech feature is nothing that would replace an audiobook version of the book. Actually, I don't know if that is true; I would never buy an audiobook because I can read faster than I can listen, and I don't want to be tethered to an audiobook for an extended period of time. Using the text to speech feature for short periods is really great though.

I'm also a bit worried that I am now tied to the Amazon ecosystem for books. That doesn't really worry me too much, because I like Amazon and I think they have my interests as a customer at heart (note: I do work at Amazon, but I am not speaking for them.) The books that I have that are DRM'd though can't be moved to a new reader in the future. I hope I don't have to ever do that, but I have already brought ebooks over from at least two platforms in the past (my Palm Pilot, Treo 600, and OLPC.) So I am hopeful that Amazon will be able to move to a non-DRM'd platform in the future, but until then the DMCA should give me the protection to break encryption in order to view the files on other devices. I think. Actually I'm really very clear on that, but I think it is something I should be able to do. I'll have to spend some time looking into the legality of it. For the time being though, I'm very happy using the Kindle.

February 20, 2011

Molecular Tapas Bar, Tokyo

Last week for Valentine's Day I took R. to the Molecular Bar on the 38th floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Tokyo. I have been wanting to go to this place for a few years now, ever since I first ran across it in Joseph Malozzi's blog (a writer/producer on the Stargate series whose blog I ran into looking for restaurant recommendations but who I follow now for the sci-fi and book content) a few years back.

Ever since I started watching Top Chef I've been interested in trying some of this new-fangled molecular gastronomy, and this looks like the place for it. The place is small - seven seats, with two seatings a night, so you should make reservations in advance if you are interested. The menu is set, the Chefs work in front of you, explaining the dishes in English and Japanese (or just Japanese since I was the only non-Japanese that night) and are very open to questions. Very friendly people. We also chose a Champagne tasting menu to go with the fixed menu, which worked very well. While we were waiting for things to get started, we spent a bit of time watching the random brac-a-brac on the bar float on their magnetic stands. Pretty cool, they twirled most of the night without much to maintain their momentum.

The first dish was a pairing of 38º Salmon sashimi and pork. Very nice, but I'm not a huge gourmand so I don't know how this was particularly a play on how these things are normally served. Next up was a deconstructed Tai (a type of fish) Chazuke, which is normally fish in rice with tea, eaten at the end of a meal (or apparently, when you overstay your welcome in Kyoto and hosts are trying to get you out of their house. Kind of funny that our meal started off this way.)
Next up was a nice foam Bacalao Espuma. Bacalao is a kind of fish (apparently Spanish for a dried and salted cod?) and Espuma is a foam. So this was a fish foam. It was delicious. I don't think I've ever eaten fish as a foam before. The next dish, Garden Caviar, was actually started before the Espuma. They took a contraption with a bunch of syringes filled with liquified vegetables, and then shook it such that droplets fell into a gel like substance that solidified them into little liquid balls. They look a lot like caviar, and tasted great too. I wouldn't have thought they were really vegetables. It took a while for the caviar to solidify so they started it before the espuma, and brought it out afterwards. Following up on the gelled liquid theme we had a Scallop with Cultivated Pearl. The pearl was actually a kind of yoghurt that was somehow solidified and made to look all shiny and nice. Also delicious.
Next up was a delicious Black Truffle and Lily Bulb soup. Very nice. Followed by some really nice pork ("Secret of Ibirico", referring to the little-used or known cut of meat) that was smoked in cherry blossom smoke trapped in the cup. Once you lifted the cup the smoke billowed out and smelled great. The pork itself was excellent. After that was another great dish, which had probably the best sauce of the night, a Foie Gras, Coffee, and potato dish. The foie gras was shaved from a frozen block all over the dish, covering the potatoes and sauce. The coffee sauce was amazing. Maybe that's just because I gave up coffee a few months ago, but I really liked that sauce.
One of the most memorable dishes was the pork dumpling. Usually soup dumplings have a dough exterior with meat and soup inside, and they burst deliciously in your mouth. The twist on this dish is that the soup was inside the pork. It was also delicious and wasn't too hot - one of the problems I always have is that I burn my mouth on the first dumpling or two, but this was just right. Next up was a delicious Japanese beef. The Japanese really love their beef, but don't go the same way Texans do (large.) Usually the meat is a tender cut, small, well flavored and melts in your mouth. Like this beef did. Really nice. I would have actually liked some of the coffee sauce on it.
Another memorable dish was the deconstructed miso soup. The soup was again solidified into some sort of gel ball, with the traditional accruements on the outside. When you eat it all in one mouthful it mixes in your mouth and tastes great. Following the miso course, we started in on desert. First was a liquid nitrogen puff. I don't know what went into the puff, but it was dipped into liquid nitrogen, and when you pop it into your mouth it quickly crumbles and a whole bunch of nitrogen gas shoots out of your mouth or nose.
The last three deserts were quite nice. A nice snowy scene kind of cake that was delicious, and an assortment of chocolate truffles and other sweets. The final desert was sour fruits, then the "miracle fruit" which you suck on for a minute, and then the sour fruits miraculously turn sweet. Very interesting. Hot water will reverse the effects (it seemed to play tricks on my wine actually, also pretty interesting.)

I really had a nice time, and R. seemed to enjoy herself as well. The view from up there is great, I totally recommend the place. They have a seasonal menu that changes 4 times a year, and R. said she wants to go back to sample their menu when it changes. I would like to go back too, but the place is a bit pricey so we'll have to see how things go.

January 23, 2011

Monjya-yaki and the Lion King's Simba

Last night my wife and I went to the house warming party of some friends of ours. They had just moved back from New York, where the husband was studying law at Columbia University. They rented out the lounge on the 37th floor of their building near Tsukishima. It had an excellent view of Tokyo Tower, which I forgot to take pictures of. We hung out for a few hours, and later one those of us that remained went out for Monjya-yaki (the Tokyo specific version of Okonomi-yaki that is more soupy and has less flour) in nearby Tsukishima, which is well known for Monjya-yaki shops.

It was only the second time I've ever had Monjya-yaki, but was quite nice. We had a lot of fun. The most unusual aspect of the night is that one of the people at the party is an actor in "The Lion King" - he plays Simba. Just by chance when my friend was in New York, he sat down next to this guy who was also in New York at the time, and they became friends. So we had a good time talking about plays and musicals and the like.

R. and I actually had tickets to see the Lion King, but due to a comedy of booking errors, ended up giving the tickets away to other friends. So we're going to have to try again to see it in Tokyo. It will be a lot more fun thinking that an acquaintance of ours might be in the show!

October 3, 2010

Fukuroda Falls

Last weekend R. and I took a day trip out to see Fukuroda Falls. It is about three hours by car to the North of Tokyo. We took the car out (for the first time in months) and I drove. It was supposed to be about three hours, but I think the way there took about three and half hours. I'm not a big fan of driving in Tokyo, but I have to admit that the highways in Tokyo are pretty interesting. Some of the central highways through the city are elevated to about the third or fifth story of the surrounding buildings. If I wasn't in such a panic while driving I would like to enjoy the scenery a bit more.

Anyway, once out of Tokyo, we headed through the country-side of Ibaraki prefecture. By country-side R. means that you are on smaller roads and only pass through a town or population center every twenty minutes. Or that there are only five or six cars within site at all times. Compare that to our trip through Eastern Washington state when we went two or three hours at a time without seeing cars or signs of civilization.

We had a nice trip, and got up to the waterfall. Like all things in Japan there is a fee to enter the waterfall attraction. A very reasonable fee, like $3. It was a nice waterfall, and pretty large. I haven't seen many large waterfalls, and this is apparently the third largest in Japan. So now I'm a bit curious about the other two larger ones. It is a pretty nice waterfall and the surrounding area is a bit nice too. There is a nice bridge and lots of hiking paths in the area, but our plan was to get lunch and then head home, because that will take a few hours. We really just hung out near the waterfall, but if we had more time we could have done some hiking. It would have been nice if we had the time to stay overnight and maybe try the hot springs there. It is apparently the only one in Ibaraki. I like the idea of taking a day trip though, and just getting out and doing a bit of driving - it is nice to take that car out if we are going to pay for parking it in this crazy city.

Lunch was a special type of hot pot native to the area. And pretty good. Then we headed home. Of course, on the way home there was an accident or two, and the roads into Tokyo were very busy. I think it took five hours to get home. Still, a nice day trip and fun. The most important thing is that there was this crazy road sign showing the traffic status on the major Tokyo highways. It isn't that bad, but still at speed that thing is tough to take in.

September 19, 2010

The Computer Connection by Alfred Bester

It is about time that I've gotten around to reading some Alfred Bester. I've known about him for a long time, probably when I first saw the character "Bester" on Babylon 5 and looked up that history. I've never gotten around to reading anything by Bester though. Last week I dug up some Bester stuff, and read "Adam and no Eve", and then just today finished off "Computer Connection". I got interested in Computer Connection because of this post over on Tor.com. Super Sad True Love Story sounds interesting, but that post reminded me that I haven't read any Bester at all, and I should be able to find some older stuff somewhere for pretty cheap.

I do miss Half Price Books in Dallas, but just about every time I go back to the States I manage to find a nice used book store.

I enjoyed The Computer Connection, but the created language that Bester used to add flavor to his world seemed a bit dated to me, or perhaps just annoyed me. But still, it was a nice fun read, and went very quickly. The book itself didn't feel dated, even though it really should just because of the gap between how quickly computers and electronics progressed since the book was written.

Next up I'm going to try Tiger, Tiger.

September 8, 2010

What I had for dinner

I made it home an hour earlier than R. today, so I figured I would cook. I do that sometimes. I don't really know what I'm doing; I just look up whatever it is that I want to eat. Or some close approximation. A few weeks back I decided I wanted pasta with a white sauce. So I tried to make it. It was easier than I expected, and pretty good too. Made for a few more meals at lunch. I'll do it again some time.

Tonight, for some reason, I really wanted fried rice. So I tried to make a chicken fried rice of some kind. It was pretty random; just bought a few things I liked and threw them together in some way. The main non-chicken things in the chicken fried rice were mushrooms, red peppers, onions, and mirin + soy sauce. Also the egg. Turned out pretty good, and I bet I will get one or two more meals out of that too.

I'm not really a cook, but I love eating. I've enjoyed cooking recently, but cutting things up is so annoying. I want a machine that cuts things up for me. Or a better knife. It would be nice if I knew what I was doing, but I keep watching Top Chef and then thinking that I can make delicious food also.

August 28, 2010

A week of biking to and from work

A good friend of mine, we'll call him DS for now, has been biking to work in Tokyo for the past few years. He has a very nice bike. His bike costs more than most cars that my family has bought (this though, is a terrible bar to measure cost by - most of the computers we've owned have probably been about as expensive as our cars.)

For quite a while I've been thinking of following DS's lead, and get a bike. He's a big proponent of commuting by bike in Tokyo, and has some good arguments. The main one is that bikes are often faster than the trains. The trains here are great, but there is still some overhead in using them. Usually you have to get to the station, which can take 3-20 minutes depending on where you live. Once you get to the station you probably have an average of five minutes waiting, then your transit time, and walk time from the endpoint station to work. For me, my total door to door commute one way on the train is usually around 45 minutes. On a good day, that only consists of 12 minutes on the train! After about a two years of this commute though, I know that it usually is around 45 minutes.

I tried a few times in the past few weeks to ride in to work on R.'s bike. She has a really cute Peugeot folding bike, like the ones at that link. It took a while before I could try it out because the back tire was flat. I eventually bought new tubes and a new tire, and one afternoon swapped out the tube and tire. The next week I managed to bike into work. It took 50 minutes, but it was possible. I don't think I would like to continue to ride R.'s bike though - it is a nice bike, but a bit of a rough ride for two hours a day.

The more I thought about it, the more I started to like the idea. Even if it takes the same amount of time as the train, I've been having trouble finding time to exercise, and I think even just getting some exercise each day would really make it worthwhile. So I talked with DS (who has been trying to get me to join the bike-to-work cadre for two years) and with R., and eventually decided to get a bike.

So at the start of this week, I bought a bike. I had been planning to get an inexpensive "cross bike" from Giant, since DS is such a fan, but when I went to the local shop, I ended up getting a slightly more expensive but higher spec'd Raleigh Radford-7 which was on sale (a $200 discount, bringing it just down into my budget.) I had some vague memory of Raleigh, and looked it up later. Raleigh is a company with a long history of bicycle manufacture, perhaps one of the oldest in the world. So that is kind of cool. This is the first serious bike I've ever bought - I bought a $300 or so compact bike when I first moved here. Looking back, that thing was kind of expensive. And I ended up throwing it out because R. didn't want it after the move to the new place, and I didn't have a good reason to keep it around (it was a small bike that wasn't too comfortable to ride.)

So what is the outcome? I've ridden to work each day this week. The switch to the Raleigh RF-7 is an amazing step up from R.'s little Peugeot. It is a lot easier to get up to speed and stay there. I have been riding on some of the normal roads in Tokyo, which worried me a bit at first. Of course, I always ride with a helmet while DS does not. That seems a bit crazy to me. I look like a total dork, but at least it is a little bit more protection in a worst case scenario. The ride to work is basically along the Yamanote road, the main circle loop that follows the Yamanote train line. This is a two lane road with lights, no bike lane, and often the slow lane has cars parked in it. It has pretty heavy traffic. At first it was a bit scary to ride on, but after only a few days, I've gotten used to it. The average speed on the road is posted from 40 to 50 km/hr, but I average about 20-25 km/hr on the road, and I think cars don't do too much better than 30 when you take the lights and traffic into account. Sometimes they do much worse.

So on the new bike, my trip into work is about 30 minutes either way. That really surprised me. I expected it to take about the same as the train, but I'm beating the train. I get into work pretty sweaty, and we don't have a shower at work unfortunately, so I just towel off, cool down, and then later change into my work clothes. After a week of biking to work my legs are sore. I was surprised at how sore my feet were after I got home. I work up quite a sweat, and my GPS unit says that one way is about 1000 calories. I'm not sure that I believe that, but still it has got to be more exercise than sitting in the air conditioned train every day.

Bonus: each trip on the bike saves me about $8. So I should be able to pay back the bike before a year has passed. Great! Assuming I can keep motivated to bike in. I think that will work though - I'm really enjoying the exercise, I'm getting a much better understanding of Tokyo, I think it will allow me to explore the city more. According to DS, the more time you spend on a bike, the more you feel you need to buy new, more expensive bikes, but I'll try to stay away from that. I know that at least, I do not want to get a fixed gear bike. Those things look like a nightmare to ride.

August 15, 2010

Summer Comic Market 78 in Tokyo

On Saturday, I decided to take a trip out to Tokyo Big Sight to stop by the 78th Summer Comic Market. I've never been to one of the comic markets before, and have always been interested. They are a large forum for the amateur (although quality can be extremely high) clubs to sell their work. Usually they write comics (同人誌, fan comics) that use characters from popular series, or sometimes their own creations entirely.

Since I've never been to one of these things before, I just kind of winged it. I left the house at about 8:10am, and arrived at Tokyo Big Site at about 8:30am. We live pretty close. The first thing I didn't expect were the crowds. There were lots of people. The first thing I noticed were the staff out there to direct the crowds. I followed the signs for "general admission" (一般参加) and eventually got herded into a large parking lot. A very large parking lot. With other people. Lots of other people. While we were lining up I stopped and bought one of the Comic Market Catalogs. It is about the size of a phone book. It cost 2000 yen. Apparently there are also CD-ROM versions of that thing, which would probably be even more useful for people preparing a strategy for the comic market. We were herded into the parking lot and then told to hurry up and wait. That was at about 8:45am or so.

Checking the Catalog, I learned that the comic market opens up at 10:00am. Crap. I didn't bring a long sleeve shirt or sunblock. I didn't bring much of anything. All I brought was a book (Haruki Murakami's Kafka by the Sea, which I've been reading for two years now) and a camera. I am terrible at sitting on the ground. The line didn't start moving until about 10:30am. I didn't get in to the venue until about 11:00am. I think this was a bit harder to handle than Fuji Rock, because I just was not prepared for it, and also the attendees didn't seem to be as well groomed as your standard Fuji Rock attendee (just joking. Kind of.)

Once inside, Tokyo Big Site was crowded. Very crowded. I kind of went with the flow of the crowd and ended up in East Hall 1-2-3, which isn't where I wanted to go. I had studied the catalog a bit before going in, and that hall had a lot of stuff that I'm not into (mostly groups focusing on Full Metal Alchemist, Naruto, and women's comics.) I wanted to go to East Hall 4-5-6, which had some stuff from Ultra Jump. I was hoping to find some Tenjo Tenge and Dogs: Bullets and Carnage stuff, which are two manga series that I enjoy. I just had a hard time fighting the crowds, and figured I would come back a bit later. On the way, I picked up a sports drink. I was interested in getting "Comic Cure" - a kind of special drink for the Comic Market I guess - but passed on it. A normal Aquarius was 50 yen cheaper.

First, I wanted to check out the Cosplay portion of the Comic Market, which it is pretty well-known for. What is Cosplay? It is generally people dressing up as characters from manga or anime series, and people taking pictures of them. Since I didn't really know what I was looking for, I thought it would be most fun to go and check out the costumes and take some pictures. So I headed over to the cosplay area.

The cosplay area was out in the garden of Tokyo Big Site, outside. Apparently when it is rainy sometimes they cancel it altogether. The weather was nice, but started to get a bit hot. There was an incredible number of cosplayers and probably more photographers with varying degrees of pro-sumer DSL cameras. Some of the people had really incredible gear. I took a bunch of pictures, and some of my favorites are listed below:

You can see the full set here on Flickr, which includes a few women in skimpy outfits.

After the cosplay, I wanted to get something to eat and head back to the East 4-5-6 hall. All the restaurants were packed. So I just grabbed something quick, and tried to go to the East Exhibition hall. The place was jam packed. The hallway to get there looked like it wasn't moving at all. Since it was about 1:30pm, and I needed to get home to prepare for the fireworks in the evening (which I had somehow been roped into providing pizza for) I just decided to call it quits and head home. Without ever seeing any of the main Comic Market that I originally intended!!

So, based on my first foray into the Comic Market, what do I think I need to do to improve the experience?

  1. Find someone who knows what they are doing. Since I don't really have any Japanese friends that are into manga, this might be hard to do. I would like to make more friends though, so maybe I can look into the communities for this and do a more organized outing.
  2. If I can't get a guide, the next best thing to do would be to prepare beforehand. Decide what groups I would like to see, and find out where they are. That means buying a catalog in advance, and doing a lot more preparation work learning about the different circles and what they do.
  3. Prepare for longer lines better. Bring a small portable stool to sit on. Sunblock. A fan. Some snacks.
  4. Buy a bigger zoom lens. I was starting to feel inadequate next to all these people with large DSLR setups!
  5. Or, forget about it and just play it by ear again.

Overall it was a pretty fun day. Took a lot more time than I expected, and was more tiring than I expected, but I think I will give the Winter Comic Market a try too. Probably do a bit more up-front prep work and might just go later to avoid the long lines, but it isn't that far from home and was pretty interesting.

August 13, 2010

Royce Chocolate Potato Chips

For the past few months, we've had a mysterious box in our refrigerator. It was labeled "Royce Potato Chip Chocolate", which mystified me. It looked like it was chocolate. But it said something in there about potato chips. I had a hard time consolidating those two concepts. I was almost convinced that they were chocolates in the shape of potato chips, except the picture on the cover was pretty clear that the contents were chocolate covered potato chips.

Finally, the other day, I wanted a snack, my wife wasn't around, and I noticed the things were two months past their consume-by date. So at worst, I could just say that I threw them out (and I might possibly have to spend some time with food poisoning - but when chocolate is involved, that isn't really a convincing threat.)

Surprisingly, they were great. The potato chips do have salt on them. And chocolate. The chips are a salty, chocolately snack that is a bit strange, but very good. They are filling, and it took three days to finish off the bag, but they are gone now. We received them from a friend, and now when I want to find out where I can get some more, it turns out that Royce is a chocolate company from Hokkaidou. Hokkaidou is a bit far (by Japanese standards) and they might not have a shop in Tokyo. But I bet I can find them again if I try.

Turns out these things have been around for a while; see also this blog post on dessert comes first.

August 12, 2010

More books: Paolo Bacigalupi

While at Fuji Rock, I read two ebooks, both by a new author (to me), Paolo Bacigalupi. I thought they were great. First up: Pump Six and Other Stories (link is to the Baen Webscriptions.net ebook version, which is an amazing $6.) This is a collection of short stories and a great place to start. Not all of the stories are in the same universe, but a few of them are, and they give a very good introduction to the world used in the full-length novel. I really enjoyed most of the stories - although in all honestly some of them are a bit disturbing. The majority deal with a post-peak-oil world where energy is not abundant and people have reverted to a more local economy built on human and (genetically engineered) animal power.

It is a haunting and not-unrealistic vision of the future. Living in Japan, and occasionally going back to America, I keep wondering how long it will be until jet fuel starts to cost so much that I just can't afford the trip back to the US. So far it hasn't happened, but I'm not sure that we will be flying around the world ten years from now. I wouldn't mind a nice relaxing cruise to the US on a well-stocked cruise ship, but I just don't see that happening with current standards for US and Japanese vacation allowance.

Anyway, I really enjoyed Pump Six and other stories. Pick it up!

Next up is The Windup Girl, a longer visit to one of the worlds introduced in Pump Six. The main action takes place in Thailand, and follows the lives of people trying to live in the energy-deficient world that has a surplus of engineered plagues targeting non-GMO foods. The whole thing seems like a completely realized extension of where we are headed with Monsanto's engineered seeds that are not fertile. Also, they'll sue you if you somehow get their seeds into your field by (say, like the wind) accident. Crazy. A really great piece of Science Fiction, and wholeheartedly recommended.

August 8, 2010

2010 Summer Music Festivals

Day 2

Day 3

While on days 1 and 2 we took the full day, on day 3 we got a later start (exhausted?) and only started in the afternoon with the band to which I was most looking forward.

Usually R. and I are Summer Sonic attendees. This year though, we got three day tickets to Fuji Rock, a three day festival up in the mountains in Naeba, Japan. So I took Friday and Monday off work, and Thursday night we packed up. Early Friday morning (about 4am) we loaded up the Mini Cooper and headed out. It is about a four hour drive, and we rolled into Naeba at about 9.

To do a good stay at Fuji Rock, you really need to prepare. Things that are essential:

  • Rain gear. In our case, relatively nice ($100 or so) ponchos. It very likely will rain. You need to be prepared.
  • Rain boots. Even if it does not rain, there will be mud. Lots of mud. Ankle deep mud. So either wear shoes and socks that you don't want to use ever again, or get some good mud-proof boots.
  • Portable chairs. I recommend folding Coleman camping chairs, but you can also get by with smaller portable stools. Generally the deal is that you leave in the morning at about 10am, then go somewhere and set up a small camp. There are not benches or seat or bleachers, so you need to be able to spend a long time in one place. Either standing or sitting, but a portable chair will help either way.
  • Sun protection. Sunblock or long sleeves.
  • Bug spray. You are in the mountains.
  • Possibly a tarp of some sort.
  • Books? Something to pass the time.

Why would you want a tarp? Generally people set out a tarp like thing (normally in the US we would use a picnic blanket or something) take off their shoes, and use the tarp as a home base. No shoes though. They also will leave their stuff at the home base and maybe go out to other stages. You definitely should not leave anything valuable there, but I've left my folding coleman chair at the home base without any problems. So semi-valuable (< $40?) is probably ok. And you spend the entire day going from stage to stage (factor in about 20 minutes to get between the close stages, longer for the further ones) and stopping at the stands to get food.

Overall I find Fuji Rock to be a really tough time. I'm always deathly afraid of sunburns, so I wear long sleeves which means that I pretty much am too hot all the time. I also do very badly at sitting on the ground or in sub-optimal furniture, so end up with sore feet or a sore back, or whatever. I do like reading though.

So what did I see? The bands I checked out are on the left - all merchandised links to either Amazon or Amazon Japan - and the stand outs for me were:

  • Vampire Weekend. I've seen these guys a few times now. They remind me of my days in New York. I really want to see some of my favorite bands from those days come back to Japan (We Are Scientists, and Bishop Allen primarily) but have a really good sound and catchy pop tunes. They were one of the few bands that I dropped my stuff and went up to the stage for. Lots of fun.
  • I hadn't heard Atoms For Peace (or maybe they go by Thom Yorke's solo name? They are Thom Yorke and Flea primarily) before, but they were really good.
  • !!!. My friend, D.S. was the interpreter for them, and it sounds like it was a tough job. They put on a really fun show though.
  • MGMT. White stage was super crowded at that time and they limited entrance. It must have taken us like an hour to get there, but we did get there before MGMT went on. We also left a bit early because it would have sucked to try to walk back with the entire crowd. I suspect White Stage was so crowded because the act on Green Stage at the time was just awful (Chris Cunningham?) It looks like he is primarily a video artist, but when we were walking by his set I was really surprised that he would be closing on Green Stage. Dissonant, noisy, disturbing. I don't think that is appropriate for a Green Stage closing act. I might be wrong though.
  • The Cribs. A favorite of R.'s, and I like them now as well.
  • Mutemath was good. Fit very well with what I was reading at the time (Paolo Bacigalupi.)
  • Scissor Sisters. A bit rainy when they were on, but lots and lots of fun.
  • There were a bunch of acts that I didn't know but saw and liked. On that list: Them Crooked Vultures, Jamie Cullum, Kula Shaker, John Butler Trio.

I had a lot of fun, but I need to remember that every time I go to Fuji Rock it is exhausting. Tiring. If we weren't staying in the Naeba Prince Hotel (sharing a room with people that R. found on Mixi?) it would have been awful. I would never camp out there. There are other hotels you can stay at, but they often involve 40 minute or hour long bus rides from the Fuji Rock site. If the weather is good, and you can relax on the Green Stage hillside with a good book and nice chair, it is really fun though.

The Naeba Prince Hotel also has a nice public bath for 300 yen that you can relax into after a long day at the festival. It also sidesteps problems with 1. No door on the bathtub area in hotel room (wtf? Normally there is a door there so you can change before hopping in the tub.) and 2. with 4-5 people in a room, it can be a long process to figure out how to use the bathroom resources. The big (culturally very normal in Japan) sex-segregated public baths nicely sidestep that issue. Also, the Naeba Prince has a breakfast buffet. Nice.

2 Summer Sonic 2010

The week after Fuji Rock was Summer Sonic. Usually R. and I go both days to Summer Sonic - last year was the 10 year anniversary and they had a 3 day festival for the first time, and we went to all three days. If Fuji Rock is the advanced level Japan Music Festival (it is) then Summer Sonic is beginner to advanced level. You can commute to the festival on the train - it is out in Chiba and about an hour from Tokyo or a bit more depending on where you are at. The major advantage that Summer Sonic has over Fuji Rock is that most of the music festival is indoors. The only outdoor stages for Summer Sonic are Marine Stadium (large baseball stadium) and Beach Stage. The others are either indoors or under a tent (Island Stage.)

The lack of sun, and minor level of air conditioning really makes Summer Sonic easier to attend. You still have to be careful to drink enough fluids and not over-do it though.

This year I wasn't too excited about the Summer Sonic lineup compared to previous years but I was looking forward to Passion Pit. There were a bunch of acts that I hadn't heard of before, but ended up enjoying:

My two favorite acts were Passion Pit - I've liked them for a while - and A-Ha. Mostly because of "Take on Me", which I bet as a band they are pretty sick of, but still. Lots f fun. I hadn't heard too much of Delphic, a group that R. likes, but they weren't really my cup of tea. The last two bands, Pendulum and Orbital, weren't my thing at all. Dance mostly. I'm not much of a dance music fan. I did like the orbital two-flashlights-on-the-head thing.

Otherwise things were par for course for Summer Sonic. The main Corona booth (like last year) had a few stage shows with pole dancers, and there was lots of merchandising around music, alcohol, and clothing. There are some pictures in this Flickr set.

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July 3, 2010

Dave's Delicious Restaurant

Dave Cooking

Ratatouille, corn soup, and steak

Chocolate Fondant and Strawberry Ice Cream

In Japan, the pixar movie "Ratatouille" was called "Remi's Delicious Restaurant" (レミの美味しいレストラン). I have a whole spiel about how Japanese movie titles are basically the entire movie plot in a single sentence (like, The Sixth Sense would be titled "A kid sees the ghosts and his psychologist is a ghost too") but I won't go into that now.

R. and I went to see Ratatouille when it was in the theatres here. It was great. We have the movie at home. I watched it the other day and thought it would be fun to do a "davee's delicious restaurant", so today while R. was at work I spent the day cleaning. And when I was done cleaning I went shopping. The Jusco (large suprtmarket) near us decided that since it is the 4th of July that they would do a big "American Sale". All sorts of "American stuff" was on sale. 24 packs of Budweiser for only $40. I actually think I'll pick one of those up tomorrow just for laughs. They also had some nice American steaks for $12 so I picked one of those up. and since I watched Ratatouille not too long ago, was able to pick up all the ingredients I needed for that. I also checked out what I would need for some chocolat fondant and picked those up.

I'm a bad cook, and slow, but after a few hours managed to get some stuff made. I also threw together a corn soup (Campbells, but it was great.) When R. got home I pretended to only speak French and sat her down at the (cleaned and repositioned) table, then went and changed into some nice pants and shirt. Then we had a great dinner and watched Ratatouille. And ate too much, but man that Chocolate Fondant recipe was great. I wouldn't say easy, but not hard, and great. Too much for two people though.

Also, of course we are following that up now with Wall-E.

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