Thursday, March 30, 2006

Tips for Commuters

1. If you are carrying a Louis Vuitton bag, like every other woman in Japan, I will not be removing my tired ass from my seat so that you can sit down. Sorry. This is one man's stand against rampant lemming-like behaviour. Listen: Louis Vuitton bags are ugly, and they are expensive. This does not make them très trendé, this makes them très stupide. D'accord?

2. In a similar vein, if you are a high school baseball player, and you have a Louis Vuitton wallet... for shite's sake! What are you thinking? Not only are you an idiot for blindly following a crappy fashion trend, but you are a man, remember! Men are not supposed to give a damn about this sort of thing!

I have a Calvin Klein wallet, but you want to know why? Because it is high quality, and it looks nice. And I got it for $12 on sale. So paying for nice stuff is not a crime in my book, but paying for stuff that looks crappy just because it is a famous brand is pretty stupid.

3. I realise that the train can throw you around a bit from time to time, but if you step on my foot, you'd bloody well better apologise. I know it was an accident, but that does not change the fact that my foot is broken. Ass.

And on this angry note, I'm out. See you tomorrow for the promised "A Name for a Girl" entry, which should be less ranting and more interesting storytelling. Or whatev'...

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Train Safety

Yesterday, I was standing on the Tokaido Line train, riding into work. To while the time away, I was using my nifty new Signeo SN-M700 media player (or iPod, as the kids are calling them these days) to listen to one of the early episodes of Alpha Rant, a podcast done by the authors of Alpha Shade, a webcomic that I regularly read (and I think I have mentioned here before). The podcast is done by two brothers, who are funny guys to start with, but what makes it really worth listening to is their witty back-and-forth; they have been talking to each other for all their lives (20-odd years, given that one of them is in his early 30s and the other in his late 20s).

So anyway, in the middle of the episode I was listening to, one of the brothers gets a phone call. The other one, instead of pausing the recording, decides to do a faux-dramatic, documentary-style commentary on the one side of the phone call that we can hear in the background. And what we can hear is the guy on the phone getting increasingly irritated. So when he comes back to the mic, he explains that it was one of his friends on the phone, telling him about some train wreck that just happened.

And why would his friend do that? Because the older brother (the one who got the phone call) is a locomotive engineer. As in he drives trains for a living. So he goes into this long spiel on how people are always doing stupid things like stopping on the train tracks, or driving up the tracks in a snow storm, or what have you. He advances the theory that you have to try really hard to get hit by a train, because they--wait for it--run on tracks, and thus go in a straight line. And oh yeah, you can see exactly where they will be going, because you can see the tracks. And so on.

And then he mentions that he actually had to pull an emergency stop just the other day (well, it would have been just the other day as of September, 2003, since it was an old episode of the podcast I was listening to) because of some idiot who stopped his car on the tracks because traffic was backed up. So here is Chris (the older brother is named Chris, and I reveal this because it is getting unwieldy to write about two guys without using their names), cruising into town at 50-plus miles per hour in a 15,000 ton train, and he sees some moron stopped on the tracks about a mile ahead of him. So he slams the controls to full stop, and any physics major can compute how long it took him to stop. Let's just say that a mile was insufficient. Luckily, the emergency stop gave the aforementioned cretin time to figure out a way to get the hell off the tracks, and no-one died.

Chris winds down his rant, and about a minute later I find myself airborne. You know why they always told you to sit down on schoolbuses and the like? Well, it turns out that if the vehicle on which you are being conveyed needs to make a sudden stop, thanks to Newton's laws of motion, you want to continue along at the same velocity as the vehicle was going. And if you are not "attached" to the vehicle in some way, such as having a seat back in front of you against which to brace yourself, or a handhold to cling to as if your very life depended upon it, the result of this desire to remain in motion can result in you flying through the air.

And this is what had happened to me. Commuter trains are not necessarily known for a smooth ride (contrast this with the Shinkansen experience, which feels like the train is floating gently on a cushion of air above tracks made of the finest silk), so you tend to get thrown around a little from time to time if you have not managed to secure one of the 50 various hand-holds per car (which sounds a little irresponsible unless you know that the car is designed to transport 50 people in relative safety, but more than 100 people are crammed into it, so your choices can be limited). So in the first several milliseconds of my flight, I thought that it was just a standard jolt that had caught me off guard, until I realised that everyone else who was standing in my general vicinity was also in mid-air. When I finally caught my balance, I had been shifted about three metres toward the front of the train, and I became faintly aware, through my Sony noise-cancelling headphones, of a voice announcing in Japanese that the emergency brake had been applied.

"Oh great," I thought, "another suicide. I'm going to be quite late for work."

For trains, you see, are probably the most common way to commit suicide in Japan. I guess this is because it is pretty easy to do--you just step of the front of the platform into the path of a train, and the many tons (I am not sure how much commuter trains weigh under a full load; I am sure it is less than Chris's 15,000 ton train, which he said was loaded with rock at the time, but it still has to be 1000 tons or so, I would imagine) of fast-moving metal will take care of the rest.

Strangely, one of the reasons cited for the popularity of trains as a suicide method is that it is easier on the family of the victim. Not sure why this is true, since whenever a suicide happens, holding up many thousands of commuters for several hours, the company that owns the rail line gets sued for many many yen, and then turns around and sues the victim's family (hmm, is "victim" the right word to use when talking about suicide? anyway, by "victim", I mean the dude or dudette that shuffles off the mortal coil or whatever).

Oh yeah, and this is bizarre and slighly amusing, if in a twisted sort of way: some of the suicidal chaps have taken to wearing brightly coloured masks over their faces when they jump, so as to spare the engineers from having their nightmares haunted by the face of a soon-to-be-dead person, courtesy of the split-second glimpse they might catch before the train brings sweet release.

Sorry, I don't know what came over me there... ;)

Anyway, in this case, it must not have been a suicide that induced the train to stop, because it started up again in a matter of minutes, and I was not too late to catch my next train, and I got to work on time, and so on. So hurrah for that.

And remember, kids, buckle up for safety!

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

So Exclusive

Yeah, I know I have not been the paragon of frequent updates recently. And when I did write stuff, it was pretty lame.

But like I learned from Wil Wheaton, when you are interested, you will be interesting. And I now submit that the converse also holds true: that when you are not interested, you have no chance of being interesting. And recently, I have not been. Interested, that is.

It is not that I don't enjoy my life. I do. It is just that I have a pretty grueling routine, and it seems to drain the creativity right out of me. As recently as a month ago, the simple act of taking a train home got me excited about two images (the swirling galaxy / starfield illusion, and lighted pods of people seemingly flying through space) and gave me the inspiration for a short story. Which of course I did not write, being a lazy bastard.

But now, it just all seems so routine. I wake up no later than 06:00, get on a train, ride it for an hour and a half into work, stay there for nine hours, then take a train home for another hour and a half. Chat with the wife for a few minutes while we prepare supper (and by we, I mean she, since I am a lazy bastard). We watch a movie or some "Family Guy" with supper, then I take a shower and go to bed. Or I don't take a shower and go to bed, and then wake up at 05:30 the next morning, take a shower, and take a train... and so on.

There are plenty of things during my day that are interesting, enjoyable, etc. But it seems that the routine that scaffolds it all just drains me.

And that, dear reader, is why I have forsaken you.

But the fact that I am writing this entry should reassure you in some way that I remain committed to writing in this blog. Because I think it does me no small amount of good to write on a (semi-) regular basis, if for no other reason than to keep my English from atrophying here in the Land of the Rising Percentage of English Loan Words Being Used in a Way that Bears Little Resemblance to How They are Used in English.

So I have a few things to write about, queued up, and I shall hereby commit to writing a short entry per day for the next two days. Topics shall be as follows: "Train Safety", and "It's a Name for a Girl" (Bates, you should get that reference!).

If you want to see me write more shorts, one thing you can do is email me or leave a comment on this entry with a question or topic. Anything you want to know about Japan, illustrated! (Though I might have to email Matthew for research purposes.)

And I'm out.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Analyse this Technique / Tech Process

Having not written much here as of late (business ensued, vacation intervened, etc.), I feel ashamed.

Things have occurred that are of sufficient import to warrant their own blentries, and I may get around to writing them (or not--who can tell, knowing me): Ian and Briana came to visit, we went to Kyoto, were nearly eaten by a giant crow, etc.; the weather sucks; the plum trees are in bloom but the sakura are taking their sweet time; Japan won the World Baseball Classic (hurrah! and that just goes to show that Democracy beats Commie Pinko Reds every time, Fidel Castro!); Lyani and I have watched two of the big Oscar pictures: "Good Night, and Good Luck" (Lyani's pick for Best Picture so far), "Brokeback Mountain" (my pick so far).

Oh yeah, but the point of this entry is that I have been reading my email, and I decided that I am highly amused by the language in emails that we send to vendors, requesting a price quote. So let me present a tremendously literal translation of one of them (details of the request have been altered, both so I don't get in trouble for revealing proprietary information that could be used to bring down the company, and so that it is funnier) for your reading pleasure.

To Lord Suzuki of the Japan Mouse Wheel Company, K.K.,

This is Fujiyoshi from Amazon Japan. We humbly accept your assistance.

I am filled with guilt to trouble you in such a busy time for your honoured self, but would it be possible for us to receive the great honour of a quote on the following two items?

Part no. X7180A, mouse wheel, grey (10)
Part no. V963, mouse wheel ball bearing (20)

This is terribly troubling, but we humbly request this favour.

"OK, so you are polite to vendors. So what?" you might be thinking. Well, let me assure you that the above pales in comparison to some of the polite language in intra-office emails. Contrast this, as Dave Barry did, with American companies, where it is common to greet your co-worker thusly: "Bob, you hairy sonofabitch! How's that ugly wife of yours?"

And to continue the great tradition of exiting with a poignant song lyric, how's about:

Purple haze, and I don't know why. 'Scuse me, while I kiss the sky!

Friday, March 10, 2006

Smile Like You Mean It

Best band I'd never heard of until two months ago? The Killers. And Holy Crap, but are they ever good! If you like rock music that is good and does not suck, you owe it to yourself to buy their debut album, "Hot Fuss". Better yet, since Amazon ruleth most righteously, you can listen to sample clips of every song on the album before choosing to buy. If you need to make up your mind, I recommend starting with track 2, "Mr. Brightside", and listening to each clip all the through track 7, "On Top". If that does not convince you that you must own "Hot Fuss", there is most likely something wrong with you.

I almost called this entry "All These Things that I've Done", but then I realised that I have actually only done one thing thus far. The other things are in the pipeline, and I will tell you about them when they are actually Things that I've Done and not just Things that I Would Like to Do but We'll See.

rikaichan on Thing that I've Done is as follows: there is this groovy Firefox extension called rikaichan, which does inline lookups to Jim Breen's EDICT Japanese dictionary when you simply hover your mouse pointer over a word. Since a picture is worth 1,000 yen words, clicky clicky on the screenshot pictured at left, which shows me using rikaichan on's page for NATSUME Souseki's Kokoro (夏目漱石著 こころ).

rikaichan in ThunderbirdSo that is what rikaichan could always do. What I did is made the extension also work in Thunderbird, the Mozilla email client. This was mainly to scratch an itch of my own: reading email in Japanese every day. When I got it working, I sent a patch to the author, and he included my work in his next release (0.5.8 for those of you who are keeping score). Clicky clicky on the screenshot to the right to see rikaichan working in Thunderbird.

Finally, I just got assigned to lead a fairly big, important project at work. One that Must Be Complete by May 31. The good news is, if I do a good job, my name will ring out. The bad news is, if I make a mess of this, it could break everything and we will go out of business. Well, OK, we won't go out of business, but people will consider me a Small Tima, and laugh when they see my name in printed form.

This is actually good for me, because I do not make a habit of messing up. In baseball terms, I am a pretty decent choice for who you would want coming up to bat with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. I seem to work pretty well when stakes is high.

And before I go, let me leave you with this jewel: even mechanics walk around with their tool.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Честита Баба Марта!

A typical martenitsaTo all the Bulgarians in the house.

For the rest of you, I will update this entry later with an explanation. SFB might remember this: the First of March, red-and-white bracelet. Ringing bells, Chall?

Update: The Meaning of Баба Марта

From Wikipedia:

Baba Marta (Баба Марта, meaning Grandmother Marta in Bulgarian) is the name of a traditional Bulgarian custom celebrated on March 1 each year, symbolizing the coming of the spring season. Bulgarians wear martenitsi (singular martenitsa) to observe the occasion. The martenitsi are signs of good luck and health.

I have celebrated the First of March for the past three (or four? five?) years with my wife Delyana (a Bulgarian, for those of you who have not figured this out yet) by tying on a red-and-white мартеница (martenitsa). According to tradition, when you see the first stork of spring, you should remove your martenitsa and tie it on a tree. Of course, Wikipedia being the fount of knowledge that it is, I just discovered that in some parts of Bulgaria, you put your "spent" martenitsa under a stone, and depending on which insect happens along first, your luck for the year is set.

So for me, the second half of February is always something to look forward to, for we will be receiving martenitsi in the mail from each of Lyani's relatives. So come the first of March, we have a huge selection of martenitsi from which to choose. Lyani's approach to this "problem" is simply to wear her favourite four to seven, while I--concerned with being "manly"--choose to wear only one minimalistic bracelet. The others, we place around the house.

Yatsu's necktieOf course, this year, Yatsu demanded a martenitsa for himself, which he has been wearing as a necktie. According to him, it has brought the good luck it is supposed to; apparently his consulting business is doing better than ever before. When pressed about the actual nature of his consulting work, he tends to answer something like, "I develop high-value solutions focusing on efficiency, both process- and materials-oriented, based on the exact needs of the client, and taking into consideration the external factors congruent to the scenario."

OK, bear, whatever.

Bulgaria has lots of interesting traditions, so I will attempt to keep you foreigners appraised of them as they become seasonal. :)

Speaking of which, today (March 3) is Liberation Day, a public holiday that commemorates the liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule, in 1878.