Sunday, September 30, 2007

Dusk, Dawn, and 30-Day Challenges

Note: This post is old old old, and is being published now just for the sake of self-ridicule; none of my 30 day challenges were met, and only one was even begun.

Frequent readers of this blog will need no introduction to my good friend and erstwhile roommate, Ota. Frequent readers of this blog will also know that I subscribe to the Neal Stephenson never-say-in-100-words-what-you-can-say-in-1000 school of writing, so said (illusory?) frequent readers will not be surprised that I shall now proceed to tender an introduction to the illustrious Ota anyway.

I met Ota on the very first day of classes back at The College of William and Mary in 1997. We had both signed up for Japanese 101, and the first day entailed learning the fine art of 自己紹介 (jikoshoukai, self-introduction). Both of us claimed to be from Virginia, and Computer Science majors. As computer geeks are wont to do, we sized each other up warily, then met after class to compare programming credentials. I had more "serious" experience, having written a couple of trivial programs as a consultant (but in Visual Basic--a toy language). He was more into game programming, and showed up to class the next day with a floppy in hand (in 1997, the idea of transferring files over a network was iffy at best, except to Unix geeks, which I would not become for another year or two). I went home, popped the floppy in, and copied the binary over to my hard drive. Executing it (I seem to remember it being a compiled QuickBasic binary, but I suppose it could have been written in Visual C++; maybe Ota remembers) revealed a tasty riff on Pong; multicoloured balls flew about, and you had to smack them this way and that without letting them go in your goal (at least, if I recall correctly, which I may not; 10 years still seems a long time ago to me).

So Ota, having proven himself as a cool game programmer, rapidly became one of my friends. We worked together on the various group projects demanded in Japanese class, and started meeting occasionally for lunch or breakfast at the Caf (our dining hall). Toward the end of freshmen year, when it came time to decide on housing for the next year, we agreed to room together, in the Japanese House, which was a dorm for students of Japanese and Japanese exchange students.

Three years after graduation (well, just two for me; I took five years and thus graduated in 2003), we found ourselves both living in the Tokyo area, and started hanging out more frequently than once every three years. :)

A year later, I was working in Shibuya and he in Naka-Meguro, so we started meeting for lunch once a week, a habit that we have more or less maintained until the present.

Ota has had a blog for even longer than I have, and he's written in it even more infrequently than I have. ;) This is until about a month ago, when he started blogging at Dusk and Dawn a cool little bi- (tri-?) lingual blog he and his girlfriend do. I subscribed to the feed a couple of weeks ago, but did not have time to actually read any of the blog until today.

I have to say, it is neat. The layout is nice, the photos adorning the header are gorgeous, and the writing is interesting. I was especially inspired by his post entitled "The 30-day challenge; a year of self-improvement". I like the idea of trying to bootstrap a good habit by just committing to it for a month, and seeing what happens.

Ota and I had all sorts of contests back in school, some of them involving self-improvement and some... well, not. So I think this is a great opportunity for me to announce my own 30-day challenge goals, and see if Ota and I can keep each other honest and inspired. :)

  • October 2007 - (same as Ota's, but a lesser time) run, every day, for at least 15 minutes (Ota is doing 30, but I don't have that kind of time, man!). My motivation here is two-fold: to become more fit overall, and to increase my endurance so I can become a more effective striker on the futsal pitch.

  • November 2007 - no swearing. I have a, let's say, colourful vocabulary, which is not always the most appropriate to every situation. 'specially situations in which my baby boy is also a participant. I'll go the entire month without uttering a swear word (should there be an accidental slip, I'll pay for it with a household chore, above and beyond my normal share).

  • December 2007 - TBD

  • January 2008 - TBD

  • February 2008 - (same as Ota's) write a blog post a day. I enjoy writing, and need to do it a lot to keep my prose honed.

  • March 2008 - TBD

  • April 2008 - TBD

  • May 2008 - (same as Ota's, but with a twist) read a book a week... about software engineering or the management thereof. Reading a book a week would be a slam-dunk goal for me, since I average that already. But I have quite a backlog of work-related reading to do, and I am always wanting to pick up tips here and there to improve my craft.

  • June 2008 - TBD

  • July 2008 - TBD

  • August 2008 - TBD

  • September 2008 - TBD

Monday, September 17, 2007

iHave become iNfected

Note: this post is old old old, and finally published just for historical curiosity, mostly my own.

Yes, it is strange but true; this Linux jockey has succumbed to the world's most powerful marketing machine and is typing this blentey on the sweet sweet virtual QWERTY keyboard of an iPhone. Worse yet (because the iPhone is not mine--'tis a company plaything), I must confess to buying my wife a MacBook for last Christmas. Disgraceful, I know.

I originally bought the MacBook for the hardware; I was planning to just peek at Mac OS X, then partition most of the drive out for Linux, using a filesystem that both Linux and OS X could use. But tragically, I waited too long, and when I finally got around to trying Boot Camp, it failed to repartion my drive. A real hacker would have booted up a Gentoo LiveCD and fired up GNU parted, but I feared the potential time sink and the wrath of my wife--who had become quite enamoured of OS X--if things did not go according to plan. So I ended up sticking with the Mac OS, but mainly using my old Linux 'top, as I could not live with giving up my Openbox keybindings and virtual workspace config.

So what, you may be wondering, do I think of the iPhone? Well, given that I am typing this on one, feel free to assume that I *love* it. This weekend, I've used it for checking my Gmail (which works, but shame on Google for not detecting the iPhone User Agent and doing something optimised for the iPhone's screen size, like we do), reading through my WWdN:iX backlog (reading blogs may well be one of the iPhone's--and, by extension, the iPod Touch) killer apps; a native RSS/Atom reader might be a good idea), and written this blog entry.

So the iPhone works as advertised, and will work even better once some of the bigger sites out there get their act together and offer an optimised experience.

Sunday, August 05, 2007


...or how the Japanese have misplaced their damned language and replaced it with English.

Chilled Beer and Glass Set
All my Japan-bound readers who are fans of beer should beat a path to your local 7-11 and pick up the titular 「チルドビール3本&グラスセット」, or "Chilled Beer 3 count and Glass Set", from Kirin.

Aside from being a indicator of a sad (to me, lover of Japanese lanugage) linguistic phenomenon, it is a good value at ¥749 for a bottle each of Kirin Ichiban (KIRIN 一番搾り), Kirin Grand Ale (グランドエール), and Kirin Maroyaka Kobo (まろやか酵母)--each of which retail separately for ¥250--and a decent if faux-haute couture beer glass (I assign the faux prefix due to the fact that the glass is basically an attempt to dress up what has assured me is called a "footed Pilsner"--or were they going for the "tulip"?--which is completely unnecessary for any of the beers it ships with; calls for an English pint or Shaker for the Grand, and suggests that either would be appropriate for the Ichiban and the Maroyaka, plus a Dimpled mug, Lager glass, or Stein.

So you save ¥1 outright (what a deal!) and get a free glass that, while it is not as fancy as it pretends to be, can be used to drink beer from. :) That is OK by me!

What is less OK by me is the fact that there exists a perfectly fine Japanese word for all but one word in the title (「ビール」, though I would entertain the argument that there is not a great word for 「グラス」--「水飲み」 is perfectly reasonable, but is not much in common usage anymore, and 「猪口」 is not quite the same thing), yet Kirin has chosen to use katakana loan words instead. This is actually worse than 和製英語 (wasei eigo--"Made in Japan" English); at least the latter is Japanese in origin.

Japanese companies, try using the Japanese language for naming your products. I would not want to see them go as far as the French, who have erected the ediface of the Académie française in a foolish and ultimately doomed attempt to halt linguistic evolution, but I would like Japanese people to have some pride in their language.

Groove to my Flickr set to view more gratuitous pictures of beer.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

SoftwareCompanies.getByName("Fog Creek").getProductByName("Copilot").getUsers().getSatisfiedUsers().increment;

Fog Creek CopilotI have been reading "Joel on Software" for years, but I have not until this week used a Fog Creek product.

Until my sister's laptop crashed right as we were trying to set up a Skype video chat. :(

My wife and I live in Tokyo, and have a three month old baby boy who has not met my parents, my sister, or her nine-month old baby girl, since all of those relatives live in Virginia. So Skype video chats (which are few and far between, unfortunately) are basically the only way we have to connect.

I am a Linux user, and my wife uses a shiny new Mac Book. But I seemed to remember Joel mentioning that Copilot supported Mac OS X, so I grabbed the Mac, browsed on over to, found after a few missed clicks (usability tip: stick the product links *above* the support links, as I would assume the crushing majority of "Joel on Software" readers are not--yet!--Fog Creek customers, so most people want to buy or try before they need support).

I clicked on the "Help Someone" tab (beautiful, functional layout, BTW!), snagged a free trial, and read my sis the code over the phone (well, SkypeOut from my wife's Mac to her phone). After a pause of 20 seconds for the 980K app bundle to download, mount (on my end), and execute, we were connected, and I saw that I had 90 seconds to work! :)

I have not used Windows since 1999 or so, so Windows XP is a little unfamiliar to me, but I blasted over to the Control Panel, then "User Accounts". Created a new user, turned on the "Welcome Screen" so my sister would not be auto-logged into her borked account, and restarted the computer. With 30 seconds left in my free trial. From over 10,865 kilometres away! On a Mac! Without knowing Windows from a hole in the ground, really!

Now *that* is software that Just Works.

And then I look into the purchase options, and see that I can buy a Day Pass, for $5.00 US, that gives me unlimited usage for one day. And I can pay with PayPal! Needless to say (so why am I saying it?), I grabbed one right then and there for the next time somebody in my family needs my help.

And I hate giving free tech support, usually. But Copilot makes it so easy to help on my terms: when I want to, from the comfort of my own home, with "Joel on Software" and other fine blogs loaded up in Firefox, sipping a fine beer.

Thanks, Fog Creek! Now I feel a burning need to purchase the Project Aardvark DVD! :)

Sunday, July 22, 2007

OpenSolaris Journal II: BeleniX hdinstaller

Continuing to play with BeleniX, I used the hdinstaller tool to install it for reals so I could boot OpenSolaris from my hard drive.

The install itself came off without a hitch. I:
  1. Booted off the LiveCD
  2. Ran hdinstaller
  3. Selected my hard drive
  4. Deleted all my partitions
  5. Created one Solaris partition
  6. Chose auto-layout with swap, /usr, and /opt as slices
  7. Installed GRUB to the MBR
  8. Set the root password

After the install finished, I booted up off the hard drive, logged in as root, created a user account, logged in as that user, and ran startgui kde to start X:
bad interpreter: Permission denied
To read the rest of my tale of woe, click through my " Open Solaris Journal - BelleniX hdinstaller" Flickr set.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

OpenSolaris Journal I: BeleniX LiveCD

I booted a Dell Latitude D620 up with an OpenSolaris Starter Kit that I picked up from Saturday's TLUG meeting for Erin (yeah, I know; I'm a short-stopping bastard). Selected the BeleniX 32 bit LiveCD, and after selecting a keyboard layout (jp106, which was not honoured by KDE) and saying OK to the autodetected screen resolution / colour depth / etc., I found myself in KDE 3.5, and snapped a screenshot with import -window root belenix.png (import is from the ImageMagick).

BeleniX LiveCD, KDE desktop
Let me just say that the fact that the LiveCD Just Worked was very impressive to me, given the fact that Solaris is known for supporting less end user hardware than Linux (whether this is fair to Solaris is a topic that I will be exploring in future OpenSolaris journal entries).

Having said that, I quickly ran into problems (stop reading here unless you want to see my criticisms).

I just wanted to send my screenshot over to another box so that I could upload it to Flickr and stick it in this blog entry (I like "blentry", are you guys cool with that?). So, I plugged in the network and ran /etc/init.d/dhcp start, which returned success right away. So I then ran ifconfig -a to see what IP address I got.

No network?
To my surprise, I saw that I had only lo0, which is the loopback interface for localhost ( sweet "That won't play!" quoth I, and double-clicked on the "BeleniX Info" icon on the desktop. To my delight, it was a guide / FAQ (this doc, I think). I searched for "net", but all of the hits assumed that the NIC was detected and claimed by a driver, which mine was clearly not.

So I Googled more, then tried some stuff which you can see in my Flickr set, before being defeated by my bad memory (I could not recall how to load Solaris kernel modules; or more precisely, where to find which kernel modules one can load with modload or whatever it is).

So, having spent 10 minutes trying to get the network working, I turned my attention to USB mass storage, for I have a AU WIN W41H (Flash, sorry) phone that acts like a USB hard drive. First, I just plugged it in in hopes that vold and KDE would cooperate and give me a little icon on the desktop to which to drag my screenshot image. No such luck. So I tried mounting manually, but could not figure out which entry in the /dev filesystem was appropriate. So I Googled more:
This stuff "worked", but then I tried to mount the correct device and the mount command just hung for 60+ seconds until I unplugged the USB cable.

So all of my screenshots were taken the old-fashioned way, with my keitai's camera. :)

The bottom line is that I spent 20 minutes trying unsuccessfully to get my screenshots off the BeleniX box, and I consider myself well above average competency when it comes to Unix. But this is really a documentation problem, and one that I'll be happy to help solve once I get my Solaris admin legs back. :)

Good work, OpenSolaris and BeleniX crews! The product looks nice and Just Works; at least 95% of the way.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Earthquake and Fire II

We're fine, people in Niigata are less so.

Earthquake Information Issued at 10:19 JST 16 Jul 2007

There were a series of earthquakes starting at 10:13 JST yesterday (2007/07/16). The epicentre was in Niigata Prefecture (新潟県), where the larger quakes reached 6-upper on the Japan Meteorological Agency seismic intensity scale (if that sounds just like the Wikipedia article, don't worry, I am only plagiarising myself).

Earthquake Information Issued at 10:19 JST 16 Jul 2007 (Kanto)

Down here in Tokyo, it was only a shindo 3, so our experience was summed up by the JMA as follows:
Felt by most people in the building. Some people are frightened. Dishes in a cupboard rattle occasionally. Electric wires swing slightly.

As I said, people in Niigata were not exactly OK; 7 dead / 790 injured, according to the Daily Yomiyuri. Also, there was a fire at a nuclear power plant; from the same article:
The Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 7 reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power station in the prefecture automatically shut down after the earthquake, according to Tokyo Electric Power Co. A small fire broke out in an electricity transformer of the No. 3 reactor, but no damage was reported to the reactor. The fire was extinguished at about noon.

Google News info:

Niigata quake damage

Sunday, July 15, 2007

News Hounds: We watch FOX so you don't have to

Note: this post was originally made to Politics Schmolitics, another blog to which I contribute.

Pretty cool news aggregator blog: They also have a nice YouTube videos page.

I found it through YouTube while watching the two Wolf Blitzer interviews with Michael Moore:

Oh shit, there's more:

Sanjay Gupta says a lot of good stuff here, but the thing I like the most is his point about how we need to spend more on preventative care so we will not have to spend so much on care after people get sick, which is harder and thus, more expensive.

On to Larry King Live (which I just misspelled as "Larry Kink Live", much to my amusement):

Gupta points out that "free health care" is not "free", says France is "drowning in taxes" and running a 15 billion dollar deficit. From a US Department of the Treasury press release, entitled "U.S. Fiscal Outlook Improves Significantly in December Fiscal Year to Date Deficit Down; Monthly Surplus Up More than 300 Percent":
The Fiscal Year to Date deficit ($80 billion) is down 33 percent ($39 billion) compared to the same period last year. The President's tax relief has stimulated strong economic growth. This strong growth has contributed to record-level receipts and the creation of more than 7.2 million jobs since August 2003. October to December receipts for FY 07 are at $574 billion, running 8 percent ($43 billion) higher compared to the same period for FY 06.

So even though we are not "drowning in taxes", we are running an 80 billion dollar deficit (five times that of France, which is pretty much the same per capita; France's population of 63,713,926[1] is 21.16% of our own population of 301,139,947[2]), and that is a "significant improvement". Hrm... what would be one way to pay for universal healthcare without raising taxes to the "drowning" point? Maybe reducing the 4.06%[3] of GDP we spend on the military (and that was in 2005, estimated, let's see what the GAO thinks about this year... this just in: the GAO's search functionality fucking sucks! To wit: my search for keywords "military spending" for this year returns a bunch of hits, all of which are to PDFs with almost worthless abstracts. Let's see if Google can do better: my search for keyword "military spending" on turns up this (Warning: PDF; click here for Google's HTML version) as the ninth result. Ugh. In the 21st century, transparency means findability, and while PDFs are great for reading and printing, they are not ideal for searching, quoting, and sourcing. Note to the GAO: please provide HTML versions of all of your documents!)...

Where was I? Oh yes, military spending. The CIA World Factbook says that we spent 4.06%[3] of GDP--or 536.33 billion dollars (based on a GDP (official exchange rate) of $13.21 trillion[6]), or $1786.40 per person per year (based on a GDP - per capita (PPP) of $44,000[6]). The 2007 military budget (Warning: PDF; click here for Google's HTML version) says $439.3 billion, but that is just what is budgeted, not what is being spent. I had hoped that the GAO would give me a good number on what is being spent, but I could not find it in finite time. :(

Anyway, even if we take the DoD's numbers at face value, that would still be 3.3%[6] of GDP, or $1463.22 per capita. I don't know about you, but that is a sizeable chunk of my total tax bill. Assuming the mean US tax rate of 17.5%[7] and the mean household income of $58,208[8] (as of the 2001 census), the average household pays $10,186.40 in taxes per annum. Assuming the average household contains 2.0 people (I could only find census data for Hispanic households, which was 2.58[9], so I'm fudging the number, but in a way that actually weakens my case), that is $5093.20 per capita, making our military spending an astounding 35% of each person in America's tax dollars!

As an aside, if you want to read something amusing, try the rosy picture painted by the CIA World Factbook of the US economy on for size.

And now, the exciting conclusion of the Michael Moore vs. Sanjay Gupta fight, refereed by the disgusting hack excellent journalist, Harry Thing Larry King.

[1] SOURCE: CIA World Factbook
[2] SOURCE: CIA World Factbook
[3] SOURCE: CIA World Factbook
[4] DIRECT SOURCE: Wikipedia
[5] INDIRECT SOURCE: FY 2007 Department of Defense Budget, page 19. I verified that Wikipedia was, as of 2007/07/15 01:20 GMT, correctly representing this data
[6] SOURCE: CIA World Factbook
[7] SOURCE: WWW.WORLDWIDE-TAX.COM (please do not view me using this source as claiming it is reputable; I used it only because I could not find hard numbers from the US government--I tried both the IRS and the CIA World Factbook--and it came up quickly in a Google search)
[8] SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau
[9] SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau (not a very good source, but the best I could find; see the above points about the relationship between transparency and findability)

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Blunt Instrument

This is a shite post, but I am way too busy with Life, Work, and Fatherhood.

My love for Penny Arcade has been chronicled here before, of that I feel certain, though I am too lazy and/or short of time to poke and prod at the daemons that lurk in the dusty corners of my archives, for to force them to relinquish said juicy tidbit of blog wherein I proclaim Yea! Unto the very Floor of Hea'vn! dost my love for the Arcade of the Penny soar!

Tycho BraheLeaving aside the excellent art and the irreverent humour, the thing that really keeps me coming back like a literary junkie is the excellent writing of Monsignor Tycho Brahe, pictured at left.

To wit, this is one of the most amazing bits of prose I have encountered in recent history:
I have faith that, in a fundamentally just universe, things will be set right. And, in those cases where the universe is slow to act, let my rage be the instrument.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Apparently I am an American Idiot

...for being so late to the party on this one!

Green Day - American IdiotI am speaking, of course, of Green Day's 2005 effort, "American Idiot", which I do not hesitate to call the best rock concept album of this century. Holy shit! This is the leftist answer to the likes of American idiots like Toby Keith (yeah, as if angry jingoistic bullshit will help "win" the "War" on "Terror").

One of my personal favourite lines from the album is this one:
Well maybe I'm the faggot America.
I'm not a part of a redneck agenda.
Now everybody do the propaganda.
And sing along to the age of paranoia.

Now, let the debate begin on whether this is a punk rock album. I hold that punk more an attitude than a musical style, and Green Day's (correctly) anti-(fucking idiotic) establishment stance is very much in keeping with punk rock stalwarts such as The Clash ("Know Your Rights", anyone?). Three cords and yelling do not punk rock make, kids.

SFB, care to comment?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Mitsuya's Liquor

Or Sam's Town Strikes Back.

It has been quite busy recently, so I've not had a chance to blog much, but we took a walk over to Daiso and Mitsuya's today, so I figured I'd dust off this entry and add a few photos to my directions.

Sam dusts off a bottle of Segura Viudas Brut Reserva NV for me.

I went into Sam's tonight to restock my beer fridge with a bottle each of Балтика 3 Классическое and Heather Ales Kelpie Seaweed Ale, and decided while I was there to grab a bottle of the bubbly to celebrate the end of a truly hellish work week. Sam recommended the Segura Viudas Brut Reserva NV, a real value at ¥1,450, and I was not disappointed. I am not a big champagne fan, but this was a very nice, dry one that even I could appreciate.

So if you too want to experience the magic that is Mitsuya's Liquor, clicky clicky for the map.


  • From Tokyo Metro Minami-Asagaya Station (南阿佐ケ谷):
      Minami-Asagaya Station, exit 2b
    1. Assuming you are coming from Shinjuku, get off the train and take the transfer passage under the tracks--it is in the middle of the platform--to the other side (if you are coming from Ogikubo simply stay on the same platform), then go out the turnstiles and up the stairs.
    2. Alley leading into the shopping arcade
    3. The left fork of the stairs (exit 2b) will dump you out in front of the Suginami-ku-yakusho (杉並区役所--ward office).
    4. Turn right and walk in front of the kuyakusho, taking the first right, which is a little path between the kuyakusho and Asagaya Middle School (阿佐ケ谷中文).
    5. The path will take you out behind the fenced-in playground of the school and to a small alley.
    6. Mituya's from the Minami-Asagaya Station side
    7. Turn left to follow the fence, then right with the alley when it turns (approximately 30 metres).
    8. The alley will dead-end into a shopping arcade; turn left, take five steps or so and Mitsuya's will be on the right-hand side of the arcade (you'll recognise it by the beer and wine bottles in boxes out front).

  • From JR Asagaya Station (阿佐ケ谷):
      Asagaya Station, North Exit
    1. Take the North Exit, then turn left and walk to the corner of the main street (there is a McDonald's across the street more or less in front of you).
    2. Cross the street, then the entrance to the shopping arcade will be horizontally to your right (at two o'clock on the dial of a watch, or at an angle of roughly 50 degrees--one radian?).
    3. Pass a Book-Off on the left
    4. Head into the arcade, and follow it for roughly 600 metres (you will pass a Laox on the right, then a Book-Off on the left, then a Peacock on the left).
    5. After you pass the Peacock, you will pass two alleys on the left, and Mitsuya will be on your left hand side, on the corner of the second alley.
    6. Pass a Peacock on the left
    7. Again, look for boxes of beer and wine out front.

Mitsuya's from the Asagaya Station side

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Whiskey, You're the Devil

You're leading me astray /
Over hills and mountains /
and to Amerikay /
You're sweetness from the Bleachner /
and spunkier than tea /
oh whisky you're my darling drunk or sober!

Oh yes; I've done it again; I've been drinking again and having too much fun!

First and foremost, I'd like to give shoutouts to mah boyz: Erin, Keith, Mauro, Pietro (capiche, paisan?), Edward, Alberto AKA Prez fo' Life, Lyle (nice to see you again, playah; let's make it twice a year from now on!), Dave B., Curt (you fake American Canuck you!), Edward "Holdin' Down His Set" Wri-zite, Marty and Karen, et al. Nice to meet Kim, Marty and Karen's awesome Irish guest (let's just call him Dougal), miscellaneous 日本人 (sorry gents, you did not give me cards and I cannot remember your names).

Big props to everyone who was man (or woman: Karen) enough to partake of The King of Beers (ビールの王様). Sorry 'bout that, Edward. ;)

Much fun was had, much beer was drunk; I am proud to say we exhausted Town Cryer's supply of Bass, Anchor Steam, and some other beer that is not coming to mind at the moment.

Yeah, TLUG nomikai; act like ya know!

Soundwave Presents the Mos Def CollectionIn other news, hot shit includes:

Monday, June 11, 2007

Ogikubo Yuki

I have no idea who this Ogikubo Yuki chick is, but she must be pretty famous, since they are always talking about her at the Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line stations: 「一番線に荻窪行きが参ります。」

Lyani and I left a sleeping Kai in his grandmother's loving care and set off for Ogikubo this afternoon. We walked the back way, and were treated to parts of our picturesque little neighbourhood that we've never seen before. Suginami-ku is overflowing with greenery and flowers (those of you who think Tokyo is an ugly city really need to pop over this way and have a look-see), providing a lovely olfactory as well as visual treat for the pedestrian. This we knew. What we did not know is that people with a penchant for building unique and at times bizarre houses seem to flock to our little section of the -ku. There are two houses that we know of that are completely covered with ivy, with only the main door clear. There are houses that look like they belong in 17th century Holland, and houses that look like they belong in 23rd century floating cities. Words really cannot describe the fascinating stuff around here; I owe you all some pictures. Stay tuned.

We went to Ogikubo ostensibly for some grocery shopping, but mainly just to take a walk and enjoy each other's company. Mission accomplished, we arrived at Ogikubo Station with light hearts and lighter stomachs. Kentucky Fried Chicken I had a craving for some greasy chicken, and The Colonel was only too happy to oblige. I got the "Red Hot Chicken", which lived up to its name only inasmuch as it had a slightly reddish hue. The hot? Not so much. I also got a biscuit for desert, and really craved some butter on it, so I asked the cashier if they had any. She looked at me as if I were crazy and said no. I sighed and accepted the packet of Honey Maple Imitation Sweet Sticky Shite Sauce that comes with biscuits here in the Land of the Rising Diabetes Rate and started humming "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" softly to myself, a nostalgic tear forming in the corner of one eye as I dreamed of buttermilk biscuits slathered thickly with high-fat butter, washed down with a thick glass of buttermilk, extra butter please.

Give me butter!

Speaking of butter, we went to this fancy-smancy French restaurant a couple of weeks back when my boss was in from Seattle, and they had this butter that cost ¥500 it was so good. As if the Hokkaido butter that they dispensed gratis was not good enough. But, to quote the immortal John Travolta when presented with a five dollar shake, "Goddamn! That's a pretty fuckin' good milk shake pat of butter... I don't know if it's worth five dollars, but it's pretty fuckin' good."

I also was pleased to see that I spoke better Japanese than the Japanese register jockey. The fast-food staple phrase, "For here or to go?" in Japanese is rendered, 「店内でお召しあがりますか?」 ("Ten'nai de omeshi-agarimasu ka?"). To which the お客様 (okyaku-sama--the customer/god) replies 「はい」 (hai) if he is, or 「いいえ、持ち帰りです。」 ("iie, mochi-kaeri desu"--"no, takeout (please)") if he's in a hurry and must to blow this popcorn stand. But this teenager had shortened it to 「お召しあがりますか?」 ("omeshi-agarimasuka?"), which means, precisely, "Are you eating (oh most honoured and wonderful customer/god, to which I am not even scum upon the pond into which you urinate, most honourable and with a vigorous golden stream, glistening in the sun that has risen solely to honour your most honourable self... &c.)?" I should have replied, 「いや、見るだけのつもりですけど。。」 ("No, I was planning on just looking...").

Japanese people do not know no keigo no mo', unlike me, master of my own language and dabbler in theirs. Ain't ah thuh most smartest kid in skool, Mamma?

Anyway, we had us some finger-lickin' good chicken, then hit the Seiyu for to get our grocery on. I hit the jackpot by locating ice cream, which has all but disappeared from Japanese grocery stores and konbini in the past year (any Japan experts know WTF? Ota? Matthew?)--I am convinced there is some sort of conspiracy on. Maybe the Keizai Yakuza are shorting chocolate or something.

Then it was back to our station, where Lyani lit out for home with the hard-won chocolate ice cream clutched tightly in her hands, and I popped up to スタバ to procure some Arabian Mocha (also known as the crack rock of coffees).

cocaineThat reminds me of a funny story Keith told us at lunch yesterday. This Bolivian guy is stopped at the airport in Zurich by Swiss customs officials. He's importing this big 13kg (26 pounds or so) wheel of Bolivian cheese. Into Switzerland, a country famed almost as much for its cheese-making. as for its banking and chocolate producing. So they inspect this wheel of cheese, and needless to say (so why am I saying it?), beneath a thin veneer of cheese was tightly packed Bolivian White. Yeah, cocaine, baby. Awesome.

Teppanyaki chefStopped by Mitsuya's Liquor on the way home to pick up a bottle of Red Stripe and one of Tusker. Oh yeah, and a bottle of Napolean brandy, which is the closest thing to rakiya that I can find in Japan. Sam was there, so I asked him more about his personal history, and it turns out he spent 10 years in the good 'ol U.S. of A., in Tex-ahw and North Carolina. He was nothing other than a teppanyaki chef at Benihana's. I asked him if he can still do all the samurai badass stuff on the grill, and he said, "Yeah. I wanna do that stuff out on the street near here. There is this big festival in the summer every year, and I keep meaning to do a demonstration. It would blow people's minds, man."

Teppanyaki, you see, while not exactly a for-export-only product, in Japan is is just basically stuff cooked on an iron grill (鉄板 means "iron plate", and 焼き means "to grill"), minus all the showmanship.

Sam never ceases to amaze me. The next entry will be solely an advert for his beer store, with fancy Google Maps and the whole nine yards.

Sunday, June 10, 2007


You may have noticed Google AdSense links have appeared on my blog.

I harbour no illusions of these ads actually generating meaningful revenue, but I am curious about AdSense for two reasons:

  1. I want to see how it works so I can possibly use it for websites or webapps in the future, and

  2. I wonder what kinds of ads will be generated for the crazy-ass content I have on this blog. :)

If you really hate the ads, say so in the comments, and I will consider removing them. But you have to have a pretty good reason, as I think the AdSense stuff is pretty unobtrusive and does a good job of generating links to stuff I actually might care about.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

So, How Cool is Neal Stephenson?

Amazon.comYesterday was a day that reminded me how lucky I am to work for Amazon.

I started out the day by interviewing a candidate for an internal transfer to a new team under our umbrella (mobile retail). One of the coolest things about working for Amazon is that they encourage you to try new things; if you get burned out or bored with your job, apply for a different job with Amazon. This is an extremely good idea for a lot of reasons, but mainly because we have a lot of very smart people working for us--if our highly selective hiring process is working right--and why not give them chances to grow their career or try a different career with us instead of losing their talents and brains? I got my current job through an internal transfer, so maybe I am a bit biased. ;)

Anyway, internal candidates are given preferential treatment in two ways:

  1. They skip the phone screen stage (where we reject over 90% of candidates; anyone involved in hiring for engineering positions can surely understand this), and

  2. All other things being equal, and internal candidate always gets the offer over an external candidate.

The guy who I was interviewing was an absolute joy to talk to. He was a very smart, interesting guy, he knew his Computer Science backwards and forwards (which he should, since he has a Ph.D. therein; but some Ph.D.s seem to completely forget the basics due to an extreme focus on their specific research area) and best of all, he was passionate about his work.

The last interview I did for an internal transfer candidate also went very much like this. Interviewing is fun and rewarding when you get good candidates, people you cannot wait to work with.

Roppongi Academy HillsRight after the interview, I wrote my feedback like a good boy (Joel would be so proud), then popped out for lunch with Mauro and Keith. We went to TGI Friday, where we were met by our esteemed fellow TLUGger, Erin. We dined lustily on haute cuisine Américaine, then the three Amazonians rushed back to Cross Tower to get on a bus for Roppongi Academy Hills, for a special all-hands meeting with none other than Jeff Bezos.

All-hands meetings have been described as pep rallies, and I suppose that's basically fair. If so, this meeting was a resounding success, as I had a great time and came out of it feeling more energised and excited about the future of the company, &c.

Jeff BezosJeff Bezos is an extremely engaging speaker. He is funny, thoughtful, and modest with no traces of false humility. He had come to Japan to announce the launch of Amazon Prime, which is our "all you can eat" free shipping service. I am proud to say the Japan is the first international Amazon site (the others being Germany, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Canada) to launch Prime, and I am even prouder to say that we on the Anywhere team launched Prime on the mobile phone site at the same time as the PC site.

Neal StephensonThere was a Q&A session at the end of the meeting, and someone asked the typical Japanese question, 「趣味は何ですか?」 (what is your hobby?). Jeff replied that his primary hobby was fatherhood, then went on to talk a little about Blue Origin. I just had to ask a follow-up question: "So, how cool is Neal Stephenson?"

Jeff laughed at that, then explained briefly who Neal Stephenson is ("metaverse" was the only word the Japanese interpreters had trouble with all day) and why he is relevant to Blue Origin, then he answered my question thusly:

"Very cool."

Kinda sums up the whole day for me. :)

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Game Theory, Selfishness, Economics, Science, and Beer

In that order!

Scientific American June 2007 issueThere was the a very interesting article in the June 2007 issue of Scientific American about game theory that got me thinking. The article was written by the inventor of Traveller's Dilemma, which is a simple game devised as an experiment to test some principles of game theory.

It works like this: you and another person return on a plane from a tropical island. Both of you pack a souvenir that you bought on the island in your checked baggage. Predictably, your baggage is handled roughly, and the souvenir is reduced to fragments. The man in charge of the baggage claim desk has to reimburse you for your loss, but he doesn't want to overpay. So to keep you honest, he offers the following deal: both you and the other passenger write the cost of the souvenir, which can be no less than $2 and no more than $100. If both of you write the same number, he will assume that you are both honest and pay you that amount. However, if one person writes a lower amount than the other, he will assume the lower amount is the real price and pay you both that amount, but with an honesty bonus of $2 to the person who wrote the lower amount and a dishonesty penalty of $2 to the person who wrote the higher number.

For example, if you write $55, but the other passenger writes $45, he would get $47 (the low price of $45 plus the $2 honesty bonus) and you would get $43 ($45 minus the dishonesty penalty of $2).

Got all that?

Now how would you play the game? Your first instinct might be to simply write $100, or some other very high number ($98, $95, etc.). But the optimal strategy is actually to write $2!

It may sound counter-intuitive until you run the logic a bit. Here is an example of the voices inside the heads of the two players:

You think: I'll write $100.
He thinks: I could write $100... but if he writes $100, I'll write $99, that way I'll get $101 instead of just $100!
You think: But what if that bastard writes $99, thinking I'll write $100? I'll show him! I'll write $98, and thus get $100 even though he tried to screw me by undercutting my bid.
He thinks: But what if he is thinking this way too? I'd better write $97, so if he writes $98 to try and beat me, I'll still get $99.
You think: I've got it! I'll write $2, the lowest allowable, and there is nothing he can do to screw me over!
He thinks: I have to write $2, or otherwise he can undercut me.

Congratulations, you have arrived at the optimal strategy: $2. And since so has he, you guys are mired in the Nash equilibrium (yes, named after that John Nash).

But the interesting thing that Dr. Basu--the author of the article and inventor of the game--points out, people tend not to play as dickeshly as that. His conclusion is that humans have an altruistic instinct that is in constant conflict with the selfish one, and that models that start with the assumption that people are going to make decisions rationally and selfishly tend to get hack-tacular when they are munged to reflect people's actual observed behaviour.

This is the old argument: must a theory be elegant to be correct? Does nature allow for ugly models?

Stephen Hawking is an interesting chap, and he has an interesting viewpoint on reality. He subscribes to the so-called positivist doctrine, saying that a good scientific theory must make predictions about a wide variety of phenomena that can then be observed experimentally. Following from this is the idea that reality is completely subjective, that different mathematical models can be equally valid and equally basic if their predictions agree with observations. So this would mean that ugly theories can be as valid as elegant ones, but the history of science has often showed us that mathematical ugliness hides a flaw in the theory or the maths.

(Seems like I read a book review in SciAm a few months back on a book that talked all about elegance in mathematical models... I think it may well have been Why Beauty Is Truth: A History of Symmetry.)

Anyway, returning to the Traveller's Dilemma, the observation that people do not play selfishly and reduce the TD to a zero-sum game is a very interesting result. Classical economic libertarianism, as espoused by Adam Smith et al., assumes that people do act selfishly, and the very act of everyone trying to serve his self-interest above all regulates the market. Hence the invisible hand.

So most studies of economics and game theory have assumed, until fairly recently, that people will be selfishly rational. Seeing as how this is not necessarily the case might complicate the question, but should simplify the maths.

However, these experiments have been carried out on people, not corporations. It seems to me that corporations as a whole probably do act in a rational, selfish way, controlled by the aggregate authority of their shareholders (or, in the case of private firms, stakeholders). So maybe classical economics is not dead yet. I need to read more about game theory and how it has developed in the latter half of the 20th century in order to understand its implications for global capitalism.

There was plenty of other good stuff in this month's issue of SciAm (and every month's issue, for that matter): an article on network coding; another on an alternate hypothesis to the RNA world one to explain the origin of life (isn't it great that Wikipedia has an "Origin of life" category!?); a bold new idea in the depressing field of conservation; etc.

Which leads me to my next point, that popular science is a wonderful and important thing. Today's scientific fields are so specialised and technical that it is very difficult for a layman to understand the exciting work going on. This simply means that scientists must work harder, because a public that is enthusiastic about science is one that is more likely to push for their elected representatives to fund science (other than extremely dubious weapons research).

Some scientists and laymen alike are rising to the task, and here are three fantastic books I've read about science in the last year, in order of ascending excellence:

  1. A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson - a fantastic history of scientific thought, theory, and of the characters who did the thinking and theorising. This really is the best general introduction to the foundations of modern science that I have seen. It covers everything from how our solar system formed to how human civilisation arose to the structure of an atom, and much more.

  2. The Universe in a Nutshell, by the great Stephen Hawking - Though not as good as the next book I'll talk about, TUiaN is a wonderful look at the basics of string theory, supergravity, M-theory, parallel universes, black holes that ain't so black, quarks, massless force-carrying virtual particles, and my all-time favourite, imaginary time. Simply brilliant. But wait, it gets better, with...

  3. The Illustrated Brief History of Time, also by mah homey S-dot. This book is beautiful in every way, from the lavish illustrations to the thick, creamy paper to the lively prose to the mind-blowing science. Stephen Hawking makes science more exciting than anyone, and the most amazing thing about ABoT is how accessible it is without being dumbed down. Dr. Hawking leaves all of the ideas in and only omits the maths, which are frankly over our heads anyway. :) Just buy this book, or check it out from the library or something. But read it! Now!

Ah yes, beer. I have not forgotten you, my constant companion! I've been having tremendous fun with I started using it just as a way to keep track of the interesting beers I've tried, and what I thought of them, but I now find myself addicted to beer tasting. I swore that I would never be one of those haughty-taughty types that drank their beer only from a glass and remarked on the palate of the brew, etc. But damnit, it is just so much fun!

So yes, my hobby is now beer tasting. Unlike wine tasting, however, you get to actually swallow the stuff. If you care to, you can probably keep up with my adventures on my beer rating page.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Sam's Town, Redux

Sam's Beer Store is also known as Mitsuya Liquors. I'll provide an address and directions soon, as all of my readers who are located in Tokyo will want to make for it with the quickness.

I rated both the Cave Creek Chili Beer and the Taybeh Golden 2.3 out of 5, but for very different reasons. You may be able to see the details at without logging in, but the gist of it is that the Chili Beer was not beer as much as Picante Salsa without the chunks, very interesting but without any beerlike redeeming qualities, while the Taybeh was a perfect copy of a German pale lager, except minus any especially good taste. It reminded me of the worst Bulgarian beers, which is no insult. I certainly believe the superlative on the label: "The best beer in the Middle East".

But give me a Kamenitsa or a Zagorka any day. :)

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Sam's Town

Cave Creek Chili BeerOr How I Located the Finest Beer Store in Japan.

We have lived in Suginami-ku for almost exactly six months now, but I just found out the best beer store in Japan is a 15 minute walk from our house about six weeks ago. There is this little shopping arcade connecting the nearby Tokyo Metro station and the JR station, and it has the usual assortment of liquor stores, among the cafes, massage parlours, drug stores, &c. I had noticed a time or two that one particular liquor store had a few import beers on display outside, among them Sam Adams, one of my personal favourites. But never did I venture into said store, for reasons unknown to me.

So one day, I come home from work to find Lyani grinning like the Cheshire Cat. She said she had a surprise for me, and that I should open the refrigerator post haste. I did so, and what to my wondering eyes did appear but a bottle of Sam Adams, the perfect beer. Lyani said that she had visited the aforementioned liquor store and got me a Sammy, which to my great surprise was only 300 yen or so. I had seen Sam Adams elsewhere in Japan, but for double that price. She also told me that it was hard to find it inside, because they had so much beer. I assumed that she meant so much Japanese beer (for the big Japanese breweries--Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo--each produce a stunning assortment of varieties, all tasting more or less alike), but she told me of beers with Cyrillic labels, Chinese labels, Spanish labels, etc.

Needless to say (so why am I saying it?) I had to see this marvel for myself. So I made for the liquor store of legend the next time I needed beer (no, not five minutes after I finished the Sam Adams, but that is a reasonable guess, for those of you who know me). And Lyani was not mistaken. This little store had given over the entire back wall to beer coolers--four in all--offering at least 100 varieties of import beers and Japanese microbrews (of which there are sadly few).

Taybeh Golden beerBut wait; it gets better!

One day, Lyani and I were returning along this shopping arcade from the grocery store, and we stopped in the Beer Store, as I had started calling it, for to pick up something interesting. I bought two bottles, and the cashier rang them up: 641 yen. I was paying attention to the register, so I did not notice that he had said "roppyaku yon jyuu en" (640 yen) whilst I fished in my pocket for change. I dropped 641 on the counter, at which point Lyani, who had been listening instead of looking, told me, "without the one". I picked up the one yen coin, and the bag, then turned to Lyani and said, "Oh, I thought it was 641." To which the cashier said, "It was. I took one off." In American-accented English!

Those of you who do not live in Japan may not appreciate how shocked I was. You have probably heard that all Japanese people study English for ten years in school, and you may be under the illusion that this means they can speak it. You would be quite surprised, then, to hear that even in Tokyo, the vast majority of Japanese people cannot understand English unless it is spoken to them directly, slowly, simply, and accompanied by generous hand gestures. So to have a Japanese guy understand what I had said to Lyani out of the side of my mouth was impressive enough. So have said dude reply not "itto wazzu, ai tsukku wan", but in American English blew my mind, man.

Anyway, I was too flustered by this development to say anything beyond, "thanks", but the next time I went to the Beer Store, I made a point to ask this guy what his story, and the story of the Beer Store itself, was. It turned out that he had lived in America for some time, and he just really liked beer. I complimented him profusely on his selection, telling him that it rivalled all but the very best American beer specialty stores, and it was surely the best beer selection I had ever encountered in Japan. He asked me where I was from and what I was doing in Japan, and when I told him I was working for Amazon, he replied, "Oh, so you know Jimmy, then?" Jimmy being a software engineer who sits right next to me at work!

So I have been taking advantage of this excellent selection of beers for about six weeks now. Today, I picked up a bottle of Cave Creek Chili Beer (the link is to a Flash site, but it might be worth clicking on it to see a anthromorphic chili pepper kick the shite out of a lime)--a lager spiced up by the addition of a whole chili pepper!--and one of Taybeh Golden beer, which is brewed in the West Bank, Palestine. I have not drunk either of these yet, but here are a few varieties that I have enjoyed over the past few weeks:

  • Singha (Thailand): a really crappy Southeast Asian lager. Not much in the way of flavour, but I am sure that is OK on a blazing hot day in Bangkok. I'll have to ask my sister Bethany if she's ever had it in its native environment.
  • Tiger Beer (Singapore): a crappy Asian lager, but not as bad as Singha, no matter what says.

  • An Indonesian one that I cannot remember the name of, but it was the best non-Japanese Asian lager by far.

  • A Brazilian Pilsner that was really excellent.

I'll be sure to let you know how the Chili Beer turns out.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Zombies and the Greater Tokyo Bulgarian Conspiracy

In Tokyo these days (and presumably all major cities in Japan), a non-trivial portion of the population walks around, both on sidewalks and in train stations, consulting the tiny screen of their mobile phone like it contains the only thing worthy of their attention. Lyani and I have dubbed such individuals "zombies", as they shamble around, completely oblivious to the world around them. Except that these zombies value text messaging, web browsing, and playing Final Fantasy more than sweet sweet human brains.

As I have frequently noted here, Bulgarians have invaded Tokyo in great numbers. Their diabolical plan has but one weakness: for one month out of the year, they can be easily detected by the fact that they will be wearing at least one martenitsa.

I was at a TLUG meeting a couple of weeks ago, and noticed that a guy behind me was wearing something red and white on his wrist. At the break, I gave him the secret Bulgarian conspiracy challenge, and he responded correctly. We exchanged the secret handshake and spoke no more of this.

It has been a long time since I have written anything here. A combination of lack of time and lack of motivation is to blame; I think the finally breaking spring weather (and the sakura that it entails) is responsible for supplying me with the desire to write something.