Tuesday, December 20, 2005

We're Turning Japanese

I really think so!

Yeah yeah, I know it is a bit of a cliché, but Lyani and I really are taking serious steps toward resolving the nature versus nurture debate, in the favour of the latter.

To wit:

My bento boxI am currently in the throes of eating an お弁当 (o-bento, or Japanese boxed lunch), pictured above. This particular one (if you clicky clicky, you might just be able to make out the details) contains the following items:

Gaspard and Lisa keitai strapAnd Lyani? Well, she has been bitten by the Gaspard and Lisa bug, big time! In Japan, Land of the Rising Cute, as soon as the "Hello Kitty" craze showed signs of slowing down, Japanese girls quickly turned Gaspard and Lisa into a huge fad. So now you can find Gaspard and Lisa merchandise of every description. Lyani, whose consumer sense is pretty sharp, has been able to get off with just a keitai strap (pictured at left) and a couple of postcards.

Are we the Japanesiest? (Apologies to Ota!) Maybe not, but we are getting there! ;)

And this has little to do with the entry, but it is a genuine Christmas miracle: a seat on this evening's Tokaido Line train from Tokyo to Yokohama. Gaze upon it in all of its glory (those are Amazon's coding conventions saving the seat for me, BTW--they were also a bit of a Christmas present to me, as they filled my heart with joy--let's just say that Amazonians know how to hack code and leave it at that, shall we?).

Monday, December 19, 2005

Good vs. Evil

Bono and the GatesesI think my head might have just exploded! My favourite man in the whole wide world (well, maybe second favourite, after me dear old da), standing next to my arch-nemesis!? Time has really done it this time! ;)

In all seriousness, I think that it is great that Bill Gates is so serious about doing some good with his piles.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Earthquake: No Worries

Quake jolts JapanThere was an earthquake here early this morning (03:30 to be exact) measuring 6.2 on the (worthless) Richter scale, according to this article.

The earthquake had an intensity of only 2 here in Yokohama, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. "What does that mean, an intensity of two?" my more astute readers may be asking? Well, allow me to introduce you to the wonder that is the Japanese Meteorological Agency Seismic Intensity Scale, or JMASIS for short, though no-one calls it that but me--Japanese people use its real name: 震度 (shindo).

An intensity of 2, according to the 震度 scale, means: "Felt by many people in the building. Some sleeping people awake. 0.025–0.08 m/s²". And by "the building", they mean our building. And by "some sleeping people", they mean Lyani and I. The shaking only lasted 15 seconds or so, and we went right back to sleep.

Don't worry, no serious injuries or major damage was reported. One such quake is expected every month in Japan, which sits (unwisely) astride not one, two, or even three, but four major tectonic plates. Lyani and I have felt three so far in the three-and-a-half months we have been here, so I guess the Law of Averages has not been revoked.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Clone Pong, Using Only SDL (and Your Brain)

Clone Pong, Using Only SDL (and Your Brain)As excited as I was about "Retro Gaming Hacks", I was a little sad that my favourite hack got cut from the book due to space considerations (the book was more than 100 pages too long!). But O'Reilly, like the fine bunch of fellows that they are, published the hack as a standalone article on their LinuxDevCenter.com site. So read, in all its glory, the first part (of three parts) of my "Clone Pong, Using Only SDL (and Your Brain)" article.


Oh yeah, and while you are at it, don't forget to have a look at my author bio.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

I Owe My Soul to the Company Store

Well, maybe not yet, but I do plan to start spending at least half of my monthly salary on Amazon.co.jp before long! ;)

Note: I starting writing this entry on Saturday, 03 December, so a lot has transpired at work since then. As such, this entry will only cover my first impressions, leaving other stuff for other entries.

After having completed my first week (well, it was actually not a full week, since Tuesday was my first day) of work at Amazon (for those of you who have not been reading this blog--for shame!--I am a UNIX Systems Administrator), I now have the perspective (and energy) to tell you all about it. So grab a coffee or something and get comfortable, as this might take awhile.

Let me start out by sharing my first impressions, then move on to the specifics, such as what a normal day is like, what the facility is like, etc.

My cubicleI can sum up my first impressions with one word: impressive! :) I am really excited about work after getting a taste of what it is going to be like. First of all, the building is quite impressive, both in terms of size (it is the fifth-biggest four-storey building in all of Japan--five times the size of the Tokyo Dome) and in design. It is a brand new building, custom-built for us! It is all shiny and white and functional, inside and out. I am back in a cubicle (pictured at left), but it is quite nice. The chair is probably the highlight of the whole cube; the damned thing has more controls than the Space Shuttle, and probably works better, to boot. I have a nice, 17-inch LCD monitor and a fancy new PC (running Linux, of course) to display stuff on it. I also have a tiny, lightweight little Dell laptop (which must run Windows; the only blemish in an otherwise fantastic environment), which is primarily useful as a portable terminal for the various systems administration tasks that arise. I have a sweet IP phone, running Linux, and a sweet little VPN device, custom-made for Amazon, which also runs Linux.

In the intervening time since I wrote the last paragraph, two things have changed:

  1. I have acquired another laptop, for the testing of the Linux laptop image. Hurrah!

  2. rdesktop goodnessThrough the magic of rdesktop, my Windows laptop has been transformed into a terminal server. :) I now run "Windows" on a virtual desktop in FluxBox, as pictured at left (clicky clicky for the full-size image). Of interest, I predict, only to Unix geeks will be my rdesktop wrapper script.

There are four other chaps on the IT team: Mauro, who is the IT Manager for all of Japan (and who I have known for a few years through TLUG, and to whom I owe a huge debt of thanks for hiring me!); Sato-san, who is an expert on Unix and The Beatles (he has actually written a Japanese book on the Fab Four, which Amazon.co.jp sells, but I could not find with a simple search; I could, however, find his webpage on the subject); Miyoshi-san, with whom I have had the opportunity to talk at great length (in Japanese); and Fujimoto-san, whom I have not yet met, since he wisely took a vacation when he heard I was coming. ;) These guys are all really great to work with; they are knowledgable, fun, and a bit geeky. You know, just like me?

Hey, what do you know? Now I've met Fujimoto-san! He's a cool guy, like all the rest of the Japan IT staff. :)

Thus far, most of my "work" has been getting setup to do actual work, though on Tuesday, I spent most of the afternoon in a server room in the old Fulfillment Centre (FC), gutting it of everything we might need to use in the new facility (we moved our operations from the old FC to the new one on 01 November, which was to be my original start date, before the reality of the Japanese bureaucracy intervened to push that back a month). This involved lots of climbing around on ladders, cutting plastic ties, unscrewing stuff from racks, and rolling up cable. Lots of cable! I must have rolled up two kilometres of CAT5 (network) cable that day!

Other than the odd bit of manual labour, I have been just learning Amazon's system, which is completely global. That means that even though we are in the Japan, our operation is driven by the same databases that power Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.de, and so on. This also means that all the Fulfillment Centres around the world (here's a fun fact: Fulfillment Centre is abbreviated as FC by all Amazon operations around the world except for Europe. Can you guess why? Because when you say "FC" to a European, he will understand it to mean "Football Club"! So in Europe, FC becomes DC, for Distribution Centre) run the same way, on the same equipment. This is a smart design, because it lets Amazon field a Global Infrastructure Team--of which I am a member--that can solve Information Technology-related problems at any facility in the world, from wherever in the world they might be.

Also of interest is that Amazon has an internal blogging system (based on Moveable Type, fellow bloggers), which I have already made use of. :)

There is also a Wiki, which is a great resource for documentation! Unsurprisingly, Sato-san is one of the top 100 Wiki editors, out of Amazon's 1500 or so employees! That man is a literal fount of knowledge: he has a seemly inexhaustible supply, and he spews it forth liberally! ;)

I have already written a few articles for the wiki, about Japanese input and Linux, mainly. No surprise there, right? :)

I have also completed training in all of the functions of a warehouse worker:

  • Receiving - unpacking boxes of books from publishers / vendors.

  • Stowing - taking said books and putting them in the stacks.

  • Picking - Retrieving the books in customers' orders from the stacks.

  • Packing - Putting orders together, placing them on the cardboard sheet that you know very well if you have ever ordered books from Amazon, and placing the whole pile on a conveyor belt, where it is shrink-wrapped, boxed, and dropped into a shipping container.

I cannot go into any more detail than this, I am afraid. What I can tell you is that if you were ever so lucky to get one of those library student jobs back in university, stowing and picking are not so different from what you would have been doing. The only difference is you probably only had to do it for 15 minutes or so before going back to a desk where you would effectively be getting paid to do your homework, and I had to do it for almost three hours!

For those of you who know me well, you will realise that it is no overstatement when I say that I love working for a bookstore! This has actually been my lifelong dream. I kid you not!

And Amazon is ever better, since they are a book store with lots of computers and network gear that they pay me to play with!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

I Get Around Like Sushi on a Kaiten

So after yesterday's wonderful sushi mockumentary, we were all inspired to have a little kaiten-zushi today.

The Amazon Japan IT Crew
So the Amazon IT crew went to a little sushi place in Ichikawa for lunch. Pictured are, from the front / right: Mauro-sensei, the Director of IT for Amazon Japan; watashi-dono (me), UNIX Systems Administrator; Fujimoto-san, Support Engineer; and the inestimable Miyoshi-sama, Senior Support Engineer.

Fujimoto-san showed me how to operate the hot water spigot at the counter, for which I am eternally grateful. Mauro and I were giggling the whole time over reference to the sushi mockumentary, and Miyoshi ate a pregnant prawn. Good times. :)

After lunch, on the way back to the office, we tried to think of all of the Japanese words that sound like bad words in English, Spanish, and Bulgarian. Needless to say, we compiled quite a list.

When I got home, Lyani met me at Isezaki, and we went to (what else?) a sushi-ya for a little more kaiten action. And beer. Mmm.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Sushi Mockumentary

Sushi Mockumentary (Flash)Oh my. Lyani emailed me this today, and it is the funniest thing I have seen in a good long while. Probably the funniest thing, in fact, since the truth about the sinister man behind Bush's public speaking was revealed. So what is "this?", you may ask. "this" is nothing other than a mockumentary on how to properly eat sushi, the Japanese way.

The film runs eight minutes and 10 seconds; the dialogue is in Japanese with English subtitles; it is implemented in Flash. Which simply means, for the non-geek audience, clicky clicky and watchy watchy, whilst you laughy laughy.

The Colour Green

My green shirtIt just occurred to me (almost certainly due to the fact that I am wearing a dark green shirt today), that I have based quite a few of my decisions on the presence of a certain shade of green (yes, this is the one).

  • The College of William and MaryMy School

    My beloved alma mater loves their colours so much that everything is green and gold.

  • My Wife
    The first time I kissed Lyani, she was wearing her dark green sweater.

  • 2001 Honda Civic EX Sedan, 4-speed, GreenMy Car
    Honda called the colour "Emerald Green Metallic", and boy was it ever sweet. The colour was not the only thing I loved about the car--far from it, as it was the most perfect driving machine ever manufactured--but it certainly made me buy the thing in the first place! ;)

  • AmazonMy Job

    Amazon has the holiday colours out now, but the site certainly used to have dark green title bars!

So there you have it. My fate is ruled by the colour green!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Amazon.co(mmute).jp, Part II

I have showed you my commute, now let me tell you about it as well. (And by doing so, hopefully lend some context to the pretty pictures.)

I might have mentioned this before--and if so, it bears repeating--my daily commute is arduous! My day starts at 06:40 (if I don't need to shave, I get to "sleep in" until 06:45!), when I have to wake up to shower and dress. Just like when I was in kindergarten, I lay out all of my clothes the night before, to minimise prep time. I have to be out the door by 07:20 to catch the 07:25, 07:29, or 07:33 train from Ishikawa-cho Station to Yokohama Station. That train only takes about seven minutes or so to run its course (standing room only, but seven minutes of standing is nothing) before ejecting me at Yokohama Station, where I have to walk down some stairs and two platforms over to the Tokaido Line platform, bound for Tokyo Station. Trains leave every two minutes, if I recall correctly. I usually catch the 07:43 train, unless it is really crowded, in which case I wait for the 07:46 one. The Tokaido is one of the busiest train lines in Japan, behind only the infamous Yamanote Line (Tokyo's mass-transit beltway loop) and maybe the Chuo Line (which runs smack dab through the middle of Tokyo). (Actually, according to Wikipedia, the Tokaido is the busiest. Not sure how accurate this is.) Which means that there is no chance of getting a seat. None. Perish the thought. And so on (ad nauseum).

When I get on at Yokohama, I try to grab a spot by the door, so I can lean against the arm of the seat. If I'm lucky, there is room in the overhead rack to stow my bag. In any case, after everyone has gotten on at Yokohama, the train is at capacity. In a normal country, I meant. In Japan, well... the next stop for the Tokaido train is Kawasaki, where roughly five people get off every car, and twenty get on. So yeah, breathing room pretty much vanishes. I am in no way, shape, or form exagerating the number of people that are crammed into that train. So what happens at the next stop, Shinagawa? Well, no-one really gets off, but not many people get on, either. Which is good, since if lots of people got on, they would have no choice but to sit on the laps of those lucky bastards who got on the train at an early enough stop to earn a seat! (I have never seen this happen, by the way. I am sure it does not.)

Finally, at Shinbashi, the penultimate stop, about half of the people on the train get off. Which means that I can usually find a seat for the remaining five minutes of the journey before we arrive at Tokyo Station. Not that there is much of a point, since I have to start putting my coat, scarf, bag, hat, etc. back on. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that the first order of business after I get on the train is to take off all of my winter wrappings. Failure to do so dooms one to a hellish experience, given the soaring temperatures caused by that many human beings crammed into one rectangular box.

So what do I do between Yokohama and Tokyo? Well, sometimes I listen to some music on my MiniDisc player. I always run through some kanji flashcards, since they only require the use of one's hands, and I can usually manoeuvre my hands into the appropriate position at Yokohama before all locomotive control is wrested away from me at Kawasaki by the force of bodies pressing against me. I have found that, compared to the discomfort and relative boredom of the train ride, studying kanji is not so bad. :)

Anyway, so the train arrives in Tokyo at about 08:15, giving me nine minutes to traverse the 600-plus metre distance to the Keiyou Line platform. Trust me, NFL running backs ain't got nothing on me in Tokyo Station. In fact, they have it easier--throwing the stiff arm at a fellow commuter is frowned upon, as the police had to explain to me once. (Kidding! Or am I?) Luckily, there are a few moving sidewalks to accelerate the process a bit, so I can cover the distance in the allotted time. But I have to book.

Yeah yeah, you may think that 600 metres in nine minutes is no big deal, and you are right--if the distance to be traversed is an open trail, a Staunton sidewalk, or even Grand Central Station in Manhattan. But 600 metres in Tokyo Station during rush hour, leaving the platform of the busiest train line in Japan, is the equivalent of maybe twice that distance in ideal conditions.

Anyway, I have my technique down to such a science that reaching the Keiyou Line platform inside of nine minutes is not a problem for me--even though my Japanese friends claim that it takes 10 minutes--but I only have nine minutes if I catch the 07:43 train out of Yokohama. If I wait for the 07:46 one, I only have about four minutes to make it to the Keiyou Line platform (I know the math doesn't work, but the 07:46 train takes two minutes longer to run than the 07:43 one). Four minutes, now that is a challenge! But one I am up to; I have successfully done this twice, so far, with no failures to report. Granted, I do arrive, panting, just seconds before the Keiyou Line train's doors close, and there is no chance of getting a seat.

If I get the earlier start from Yokohama, however, my reward is my very own seat on the Keiyou Line train! In that case, I stow my bag and coat and all of that stuff (the heaters are cranking on these morning trains!) and sit down to do more kanji flashcards. From Tokyo, the stops for the Keiyou Line kaisoku (rapid) train are: Hatchobori (which is just 90 seconds or so from Tokyo--more on this later), Shin-kiba, Maihama (which is where Tokyo Disneyland is located; see my slideshow), and Shin-Urayasu, where I get off. Actually, there are more stops after that, but I neither know nor care about them.

At Shin-Urayasu, I have to walk across the platform to catch the Keiyou Line futsu-densha (local train), because the rapid does not stop at Ichikawa-Shiohama, my ultimate destination. I always position myself on the rapid so that, on my walk to the other side of the platform, I encounter the "Let's Kiosk!" snack bar and newsstand (I swear that I am not making up the name). I always have ¥80 handy, which I toss into the little basket that Japanese store provide for you to deposit your payment, than grab a donut and wave it about until the kiosk cashier notices, says, "hachi-ju en desu... a, hachi-ju en wo chodo o-azukari shimasu. Domo arigato gozaimashita!" ("80 yen, please... oh, I'll collect exactly 80 yen. Thank you very much [you god of consumerism]!").

Having secured my breakfast, I enter the local train, put my scarf and coat back on--without buttoning up yet--and sit down and relax. The local is so empty that I just drop my bag on the seat beside me (no need to rack it). Now, I get to wait approximately five minutes for the local's departure at 08:45. Once it does depart, it only takes about three minutes to reach Ichikawa-Shiohama Station (not to be confused, please, with Ishikawa-cho Station, which is where my crazy commute begins). From Ichikawa-Shiohama, I have a three or four minute walk to work, during which I produce my name badge from my bag. Once I reach the Fulfilment Centre (a hulking four-storey structure that is 250 metres long by 100 metres wide, and probably 50 metres tall), I say "ohayo gozaimasu" ("good morning") to the guards, scan my badge on a turnstile (a very similar motion, in fact, to scanning my Suica commuter pass on the turnstiles at the train station), and enter the facility. Once in, I drop my bag off and head to the 09:00 daily meeting.

That is how my day begins. Fast forward then to 18:00 or so, when I am finished working for the day (don't worry, I will blog about work--in fact, I have a fairly lengthy draft underway--but in a separate entry), I shutdown my laptop and throw it in my bag, retrieve my wallet from my desk drawer, then head down the hall to the locker room, where I retrieve my coat, hat, and scarf from my locker. Then, it's down to the first floor, out past the guards (with a hearty "o-tsukare-sama desu"--"thanks for your efforts [for the company]"), and back to Ichikawa-Shiohama Station. There is a rapid (kaisoku, remember?) on the Mushashino Line that leaves Ichikawa-Shiohama at 18:17, and another one that leaves at 18:31. It is the latter train that I have taken more often thus far, but I am now making a concerted effort to leave work in time to catch the former, since I have so far to go.

Anyway, the Musashino Line trains run on the same physical rails as the Keiyou Line trains, but the Musashino Line rapid stops at Ichikawa-Shiohama (luckily for me--otherwise I would have to take a Keiyou Line local to Shin-Urayasu, then switch to a rapid for Tokyo--the inverse, in fact, of what I do in the morning). Other than that, it stops at the same stations as does the Keiyou Line rapid: Shin-Urayasu, Maihama (Tokyo Disneyland), Shin-Kiba, Hatchobori, and then the terminus, Tokyo. I can usually get a seat on the Musashino Line train--especially on the 18:17 train, which seems to be less crowded than the 18:31 train, for some reason--for the 25 minute ride back to Tokyo. I sit and chill, sometimes do a little blogging (this entry was begun on just such a train, continued on a Minato Mirai / Tokyu Toyoko Line train from Motomachi / Chukagai to Shibuya, worked on at Amazon headquarters in Shibuya, during a bit of work on a Saturday night, and finally finished on the Tokyu-Toyoku Line train back to Yokohama from Shibuya), and relax until the train stops at Hatchobori, the final stop before Tokyo. As I noted earlier, the train only takes about a minute and a half to traverse the distance between Hatchobori Station and Tokyo Station--compare this to the time it takes me to simply go from one platform to another in Tokyo Station!--so at Hotchobori, I have to leap into action. I have only 90 seconds to put my laptop away, then get my back on and drape my scarf and coat over my bag (it is far too hot in Tokyo Station for the wearing of such things).

A funny thing happened to me last night: a Japanese salaryman got on the train at Hotchobori and stared at me for the entire time it took to get to Tokyo! I thought about saying something rude to him in English or something polite to him in Japanese (such as "nanika mondai ga gozaimasuka?", for you Japanese speakers out there), but I finally decided--wisely--to just grin and bear it. After all, you never know who is Yakuza these days. ;)

When the train stops at Tokyo Station and the doors open, it is off to the races again as I head for the Tokaido platform. I am not really in danger of missing a train, but the earlier I get to the 18:50 (or 19:05, if I caught the 18:31 train from Ichikawa-Shiohama) train, the better my choice of where to stand (no sitting on the Tokaido! ever!) becomes. Like I said, I prefer the space right by the door where I can lean on the armrest of the seat by the door. The Tokaido takes about 35 minutes to get back to Yokohama, and becomes increasingly crowded outbound from Tokyo until Kawasaki (the stop right before Yokohama), where more people get off than get on. At Yokohama, I calmly walk downstairs off the Tokaido Line platform and cross over the the next platform, where I can catch a Negishi Line train back to Ishikawa-cho Station. Or I can get off a stop early, at Kannai, if Lyani and I are meeting for supper at Saizeriya, McDonald's, Moss Burger, the katsudon place, or any number of other fine eating establishments in the immediate vicinity of Kannai.

If I get off at Ishikawa-cho, I usually make it home by 19:40 if I took the early train from Ichikawa-Shiohama, or 19:55 otherwise.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the long, sad story of my commute. Then again, unlike Chris Loda, I don't have to drive in Beltway traffic. :)

New Tasty Blogs

I just added two more blogs to my sidebar, and renamed the thing "Blogs that I Read" (it used to be called "Links"). Here are the new entrants (I thought that since I did a run-down of blogs that I read previously, I should cover new additions as well):

colinsteele.orgcolinsteele.org - Colin Steele's blog is a bit more than a blog--he also has his del.icio.us bookmarks and his Flickr photostream accessible. Colin is a very interesting guy from a very interesting family--yes, he is Adam and Sean's big brother--and he always has something interesting to say. He is brutally honest (especially about himself) and a thinking man. But my favourite thing about Colin is that he is a chap who can excel at anything he decides to learn. The story that I always heard from Adam while growing up was how Colin taught himself C++ and then went on to get himself hired as AOL's first UNIX programmer and design a little program called AOL Instant Messenger. Heard of it?

Sorry, the point was not to turn this entry into the Colin Steele Fan Hour (though maybe I should do a weekly radio show), but to explain why I like Colin's blog. His latest thing seems to be photography, and in typical Colin style, he "McGuyver'd up" his own home photo studio, and proceeded to mess around with some still life photography, which turned out, in this art critic's humble opinion, quite well. Which just goes to prove that Wil Wheaton (plug number five-hundred-and-one on the day!) is right, "when you are interested, you'll be interesting". So keep being interested in a lot of stuff, Colin, cause I find it interesting reading! :)

Sad Faced BoySad Faced Boy - This blog is written by Carey Hall, a friend and co-worker of mine from my TFCC days. Carey, who we tend to call "Chall", for reasons that should be fairly obvious to anyone familiar with Unix usernames, is a really nice guy, who went well out of his way to make Lyani and I feel like we had friends in Columbus. Chall and I also have a lot in common, being blond guys who have been married for just over three years, have studied abroad in Japan, and drive (well, drove, past tense, in my case, sadly) Honda Civics. He also turns out to be a very interesting blogger!

It's Beginning to Feel a lot Like Christmas

Because the weather outside is frightful, and the fire--er, portable heater--is so delightful.

Seriously, the weather is cooling off and becoming overcast and wintery (finally!), and everywhere you go outside, there are Christmas decorations and lights and an explosion of consumerism. But do you know why it feels Christmassy to me? Because my wife and I have spent the whole week-end together!

Friday night, we went to the TLUG bonenkai (by the magic of Blogger, once I have finished the entry on the bonenkai--I have about four different entries still in draft state--I will link the previous text to my entry, and strike this whole parenthetical aside right through!) and had a jolly good time. On Saturday, we slept in, had a nice breakfast while watching "Ally McBeal", then went shopping on the Motomachi pedestrian shopping street and up at Don Quixote. We came home to pack a box, then went over to the Yokohama Central Post Office to mail it, then headed up to the McDonald's by Yamashita-koen for supper. I then had to go into Shibuya for work, but when I came back, we had wine and cheese while watching a little more Ally.

Sharp HX-123CX-G Ceramic Fan HeaterRight now, she is sitting at the computer working on a sakubun (essay) for school, and I am sitting beside her on the floor, next to the warmth of the virtual fire (which would be a Sharp HX-120G Ceramic Fan Heater, very similar to the one pictured at left), writing this and other blog entries. This feels like home, and I can feel a strong sense of warmth, happiness, and family.

And that is what Christmas really means to me.

Japanese Mobile Phones (携帯電話)

Sean asked about my mobile phone. What he did not know is that I have two of them--my personal phone and my company-issued one. Here then, is the skinny:

My personal phone is a Sony Ericsson A1404SII. The link is to a Japanese page, but there is plenty of Flash eye candy (Firefox users who are running the excellent Adblock extension, just click on the "Play button"--I promise the Flash is not nasty).Sony Ericsson A1404SIIThe most interesting thing to do is probably to click on first little image on the left under the main pane (it looks like the image to the rightSony Ericsson A1404SII Flash movie): it will pop up a window in which a Flash movie extolling the virtues of the phone will be displayed. Clicking on "DESIGN" will show you close-up images of the phone--mine is the light blue one in the first few pictures--if you click on the thumbnails at the top--and clicking on "USEFUL" will give you information on some of the phone's main features.

Speaking of the phone's main features, for those of you who do not read Japanese, here is a run-down:

  • Digital camera - My main display image: the glorious autumn colours of Minato MiraiMy quick display image: the Honda logoLike all Japanese phones these days--you literally cannot find one without anymore--my keitai has a built-in digital camera! It can actually be set to 640x480 resolution, which makes it almost a digital camera replacement (but not quite, since the camera is probably not quite even 1 megapixel). The phone has a reasonably large amount of memory, so you can save quite a few photos on it, and it supports renaming them and slideshow mode, which is really cool. Not to mention being able to set your main display's background image to any photo (mine is pictured at left) and set a photo as the quick-display image (mine is pictured at right).

  • C-mail - C-mail is what my mobile carrier, au, calls their version of SMS that works only with other au customers. Which is fine by me, because both Lyani and Ota have au phones.

  • E-mail - Yes, just like most American phones these days, all Japanese phones have email capabilities. This is how I accomplished my moblogging on the train the other night. The best part about the emailing support is that you can attach photos that you have taken with the built-in camera, so you can get your photos to your computer even if you have been too lazy to setup Linux-IrDA! :)

  • Address book - OK, this is pretty standard, but since everyone in Japan has camera phones, you can attach photos to address book entries, so when your phone rings, the quick-display literally shows you who is calling! Nice! Of course, there is tight email and C-mail integration, and if you have a GPS-capable phone, I bet you can even tie a GPS map to a contact.

  • Web browser - Again, most mobile phones these days have this. Luckily, the browser that au provides with EZweb (which was actually developed by Openwave, for whom my friend Michael Smith works) works just fine with Google and IMDb, so Lyani and I can resolve almost any factual dispute, even while walking around in Motomachi. ;)

  • Etceterata - And of course, my phone has all of the standard applications and utilities, including a schedule manager, a calculator, games, downloadable ring tones (even animated ones!), games, and so on.

My work phone is a Vodofone 802NVodafone 802N (made by NEC). I have the blue one that is prominently pictured on that page. It can basically do everything that my personal phone can (but its camera--despite cracking the 1 megapixel barrier--can only go up to 352x288 in resolution, sadly), and has a few extra features, to boot. Peruse the following list to see what they are (have you ever been reading a webpage and gotten the sneaking suspicion that some of the text is just there to make sure images are laid out correctly on the page?). Here is the list (OK, I think that is enough textual padding):

  • miniSD - Yes, the 802N supports plugging a miniSD card right into it! This means that I should be able to transform my phone into the ultimate commuting multimedia device, once I figure out how to encode audio and video in a format that the phone will play (and the Unix / Linux platform provides great tools for this kind of byte-level reverse engineering!). Then, I should be able to listen to music and interesting podcasts (there, Wil Wheaton, I have plugged you about 500 times today!), and watch episodes of "The Wire" on the train! :)

  • Front camera - Me on my Vodafone 802N's front cameraYatsu on my Vodafone 802N's front cameraIn addition to the standard camera on the back of the phone, the 802N also has a front camera, i.e. one that faces you while you are talking on the phone. This allows the phone to be used as a videophone (see images left and right)! While this is not quite as Earth-shattering as implications of Skype videotelephony, it is still a pretty cool feature!

And there you have it. Happy you asked, Sean? ;)

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Hot Moblog Action

So here I am, stuck on a Tokaido Line train, just shy of Shinagawa. The time is 20:07. The train is stopped, due to some undisclosed safety issue. So, the first thing that occurred to me, after firing off a C-mail to Lyani to tell her that I was delayed, was that I might die of old age on this damned train! No, just kidding (kinda); my first thought was that, holstered to my side, I was packing an Internet-capable computer with hundreds of times the computing power of ENIAC: my keitai (mobile phone). So why not pass the time--and get some much-needed text-entry practise--by doing a little mobile blogging (or moblogging, as it is called in the 'sphere)?

In the time that it took to write the preceeding paragraph, I reached Yokohama Station, caught a Negishi Line train, got off at Ishikawa-cho Station, and am now walking home. The time is now 20:51. Good night!


Yeah, so I have a long commute. Clicky clicky for pictures.

Now stop complaining that I haven't posted about Amazon yet! I'm getting there.

I'm just sooooo tired!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Unbearable Lightness of Being...

...made to use a Japanese keyboard at work.

Clicky clicky for the pertainent technical information; or maybe you would prefer to open the fullsize version of the image in another tab (you are using a decent web browser to read this blog, right?) for reference while you read this blentry. For more information than anyone could possibly need on keyboard layouts, it is Wikipedia to the rescue!

The differences between a standard US keyboard--by which I mean the 105-key model with the Windows keys that even we non-Windows users have thanks to the Software Company That Shall Remain Nameless (and by this I mean Microsoft)--and a 106-key Japanese keyboard seem slight at first glance. They are both based on the almost-ubiquitous QWERTY layout, and most of the keys seem to be in the right place. In fact, the most obvious difference is that each alphanumeric or symbolic key has an extra set of overlays (meaning, the letter, number, or symbol printed on the key itself), so alphabetic keys have two letters on them: the normal Latin one (e.g. 'A') and a hiragana character (e.g. on the aforementioned 'A' key, ら--ra ち--chi; thanks to Tim Meggs for bringing this mistake to my attention!); while numeric and symbolic keys (e.g. '1', '2', '[', ';', etc.) have four characters printed on them: the normal numeral or symbol, the symbol that is produced when the key is pressed while holding Shift, and the same deal for the Japanese keymap.

This is where things start to get complicated. You see, the Japanese keyboard can operate in four different modes: Latin, Hiragana, Katakana, and henkan (変換, literally "conversion"). The first three are straight-forward: you hit a key, and the symbol that is printed on the physical key (which I am calling its "overlay") appears on the screen (well, almost; in Katakana mode, the katakana corresponding to the hiragana character on the overlay appears on the screen, since there is a one-to-one mapping between the two syllabaries). In Henkan mode, WYTIWYG (What You Type Is What You Get--just as good as WYSIWYG, right?), but when you hit the space bar, the Input Method Editor (hereafter: IME) sends the string of hiragana to the henkan dictionary server, and the dictionary server replies with a list of conversions, which are typically iterated through by pressing Space again and again, and finally pressing enter to accept one of the conversions.

Perhaps an example is in order. I want to type "私の名前はグラバー・ジョシュです。" ("watashi no namae wa Gurbaa Joshu desu.", "My name is Josh Glover."), so here is how I go about it (assuming I am already in henkan mode--more on this in a second):

  1. I type "watashi" (i.e. I press the 'w' key, followed by the 'a' key, followed by the 't' key, and so on), and わたし appears on my screen (this is how watashi is spelled in hiragana--see the Wikipedia article on hiragana for an explanation). Now, I hit Shift, and わたし is replaced by 私 (the same word, only it is now represented as kanji--Chinese characters used in written Japanese) on my screen. As this is just what I want, I press Enter to accept the conversion.

  2. I type "no", producing の, which is correct, so I just hit Enter (no is the possessive particle--I want to say my name).
  3. Now for another bit of kanji: I type "namae" (name) and see なまえ. I hit Shift, and immediately am rewarded by the conversion that I want: 名前, so I hit Enter to move on.

  4. Now I type "ha" (this is the subject marker in Japanese, written with the hiragana は (ha) but pronounced as "wa"), producing は, then immediately hit Enter, as I want the character to remain in hiragana (the whys and wherefores are beyond the scope of this entry, but again, Wikipedia has a pretty good explanation).

  5. Now, I type "guraba-", hit Space, and get 愚ラバー (note to Unix geeks: I am using the SCIM IME with the Anthy conversion engine), which is actually not what I want. Holding down the Shift key, I press the right arrow key three times so that the selection expands to encompass all four characters (thus instructing the IME to only consider conversions for the entire string). This causes the incorrect 愚ラバー to change to the almost correct ぐらばー. Now, I press Space one final time, and get the conversion I wanted: グラバー (the katakana version of "guraba-"; I must use katakana because this is my last name, Glover, as it is rendered in the Japanese sound system, and that is one of the major uses of katakana).

  6. I type "ten" (which is how this little dot, ・, is read--it is used to separate last name from first, just as we Westerners would use a comma: Glover, Josh), producing てん on my screen. Hitting Space gives me what I want: ・. I hit enter to accept the conversion.

  7. I type "joshu", giving me じょしゅ. I hit Space and get ジョシュ, which is what I want (again, the katakana version of my name--my first name, this time), so I hit Enter.

  8. Finally, I type "desu." (the so-called "state-of-being verb" of Japanese, which has no literal translation, but is required for simple polite form--also known as desu / masu form--which I am using in my example), getting です。, which is spot-on, so I hit Enter.

Now I'm done! Note that while this took awhile to explain, it took me about 10 seconds to type, and I am not even a particularly fast henkan typist. So it is a reasonably good system for entering Japanese on a computer. In fact, most Japanese people prefer using Henkan mode (i.e. typing in Latin, transliterated from their native writing system) to Hiragana mode!

OK, now that you know something about Japanese input, you know why the keyboard layout is so similar to a US layout. But where does it differ?

Here's the low-down, starting at the top left of the keyboard (you may want to open the fullsize version of the Japanese keyboard layout image in another tab for comparison to your--presumably US105--keyboard whilst you peruse this list):

  • The backtick / tilde key is replaced by a 半角 / 全角 (hankaku / zenkaku, half-width / full-width) key, which is used by most Input Methods (hereafter, IMEs) to return to Latin mode from Henkan mode.

  • Shift-2 changes from at-symbol to double-quote.

  • Shift-6 changes from caret to ampersand.

  • Shift-7 changes from ampersand to single-quote.

  • Shift-8 changes from star to left paren (left bracket).

  • Shift-9 changes from left paren (left bracket) to right paren (right bracket).

  • Shift-0 changes from right paren (right bracket) to tilde.

  • Shift-minus ('-') changes from underscore to equals.

  • Equals / plus changes completely; it becomes caret / tilde (or underscore--does this actually vary from keyboard to keyboard?).

  • The Backspace key is basically chopped in half, with the left half becoming a new key: yen sign / vertical bar ('|')--"pipe" to us Unix folks.

  • The "QWERTYUIOP" keys remain untouched, but the left square bracket / left curly brace key becomes at-sign ('@') / back-tick ('`').

  • Right square bracket / right curly brace becomes left square bracket / left curly brace.

  • Backslash / vertical bar (pipe) is assimilated into the Enter key.

  • Next row: "ASDFGHJKL" remain the same, then Shift-semicolon becomes plus.

  • Single quote / double quote becomes colon / asterick.

  • A chunk of the Enter key is snagged to become a new right square bracket / right curly brace key.

  • Next row: "ZXCVBNM", comma / less than, period (full stop) / greater than, and forward slash ('/') / question mark as on a US layout; then a new key, with a bit of right Shift stolen to accomodate it: backslash / underscore.

  • On the bottom row, the space bar is ravaged, with three keys' worth of space stolen from it, one on the left side and two on the right side. These keys are 無変換 (mu-henkan, "no conversion") to the left and 前候補 / 変換 / (次候補) (zen-kouho, "first candidate"; henkan, conversion; ji-kouho, "next candidate") and カタカナ / ひらがな (katakana / hiragana) to the right. These keys will be explained in a moment.

Of these differences, the ones that tend to matter most to people used to US (and most Western) keyboard layouts are: the shortened space bar, the reconfigured Enter key area, and the migration of the single and double quote keys.

Now, what about these strange keys with Japanese names? In Hiragana and Katakana modes, these keys do just what their names imply:

  • 半角 / 全角 (hankaku / zenkaku) toggles between half- and full-width characters (second paragraph of the "Character encodings" section of the link), which probably matters only to professional typesetters.

  • 無変換 (mu-henkan) deactivates the conversion engine.

  • 前候補 / 変換 / (次候補) (zen-kouho / henkan / ji-kouho) activates conversion mode, requests a conversion candidate, and iterates through possible conversions.

  • カタカナ / ひらがな (katakana / hiragana) toggle between Katakana and Hiragana modes.

In Latin mode (which is, remember, the mode actually used by the majority of people doing Japanese input on a computer--Japanese and foreign alike), only the 半角 / 全角 (hankaku / zenkaku) and 前候補 / 変換 / (次候補) (zen-kouho / henkan / ji-kouho) keys matter. In Windows, using Microsoft's (excellent) Japanese IMEs, the 前候補 / 変換 / (次候補) starts conversion mode (i.e. your input stops showing up as literal Latin characters and becomes hiragana, ready to be converted using the Space key, as in my above example). Most newer Unix IMEs (or the distributions that package these IMEs) tend to bind this key to do the same thing, though the popular kinput2 IME uses Shift-Space. The 半角 / 全角 (hankaku / zenkaku) key then, oddly enough, is used to disable conversion mode (無変換--mu-henkan--probably does the same thing. Again, Unix users can probably use this key to accomplish the same thing, unless you are using kinput2, in which case you simply hit Shift-Space again.

And that, ladies and gents, is an introduction to Japanese input, cleverly disguised as a simple explanation of how US and Japanese keyboards differ. You have Jim Prior to thank, as he was the poor soul who foolishly asked me for an explanation. :)

For further reading on these topics, see: