Friday, 24 February, 2006

MMA Functions

I came to Harlingen to attend three functions at the Marine Military Academy:

  1. A Board of Trustees meeting, because I'm hoping to serve as an Advisor;
  2. The General H.M. Smith Dinner, honoring those individuals who have donated large sums to the school;
  3. The Iwo Jima memorial parade, commemorating the WWII battle for Iwo Jima and honoring those who served there.

As a side benefit, or perhaps the side benefit was the primary reason I attended, I got to visit with some old friends with whom I attended school, and some whom I've met since leaving school.  In addition to the staff and faculty, Board members, donors, parents, and cadets who attended, there were eight Alumni.

Top row, from left

  • Lt. Col. Timothy A. Herndon, USMC, who graduated in 1979.  Tim is a helicopter pilot and Commanding Officer of a helicopter training squadron.  He recently was selected for promotion to Colonel.  Tim was my roommate in 1975, and has remained a very good friend for over 30 years.
  • Next is me, Jim Mischel.  I graduated in 1980.  I'm in pretty rare company with this group, but I'm easily the best looking of the lot, don't you think?
  • Anthony J. McIntyre graduated in 1975.  Tony owns an insurance company and currently serves as Chairman of the MMA Board of Trustees.
  • Craig Matteson also graduated in 1979, and has been a friend for 30+ years.  He owns a business in Chicago and serves on the Board of Trustees.  Craig is the one who helped me turn my little bike ride into a scholarship fundraiser.

Bottom row, from left

  • Kuni Beasley graduated in 1972 and served in the U.S. Army as an artillery officer.  Kuni holds several Ph.D. degrees and is the founder of Gateway Preparatory School.  Debra and I were privileged to attend his wedding in December.
  • Bill Fanning, another 1979 graduate, is the owner of Pilot Insurance Center.  I didn't know Bill very well when we were attending school, but Debra and I have come to enjoy visiting with Bill and his wife Tish.
  • Mike Forrester, a 1972 graduate, is an attorney in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and is a Lt. Col. in the Marine Corps Reserve.  He recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq.
  • Staff Seargeant Hood graduated from MMA in 1993.  He is currently in the Marine Corps Reserve and serves on the staff of the Marine Military Academy as an assistant Drill Instructor.  I think he also was in Iraq recently.

This is just a small selection of the great guys who have graduated from MMA over the years.  I count myself fortunate to be associated with these men.

Thursday, 23 February, 2006

Well-met?

Debra and I drove to Harlingen this afternoon to attend some functions at the Marine Military Academy.  On the way we listened to Stephen King's The Man in the Black Suit on CD.  The collection consists of four stories from King's Everything's Eventual.  In the first story, also called The Man in the Black Suit, a young boy out fishing meets a man who says, "Are we well-met, fisherboy?"  Thus begins another search for the meaning and origin of a word or phrase.

This description is a pretty good summation of what I learned.  "well-met" is generally taken to mean "good to meet you."  It's an archaic term that survives only in Renaissance fairs and medievalists such as the Society for Creative Anachronisms.

That's all well and good, but what of its usage in a question?  "Are we well-met?"  Is that asking, "Are you happy to see me?"  Is it, perhaps, asking whether one's company is welcome, rather than an intrusion?

Once again, I solicit feedback.

Monday, 20 February, 2006

Obligarchy?

One of the advanced Toastmasters programs is interpretive reading, which involves reading out loud a passage from a book or perhaps a speech written by somebody else and trying to capture the intended voice and emotion.  I'm not there in my education, so I'm not really "up" on the full purpose of this exercise.

Tonight, one of our members read part of the speech that Susan B. Anthony gave after being arrested for casting an "illegal vote" in the 1872 federal election.  In her reading, the presenter used the word, "obligarchy" in several places, and after the meeting I asked her if she meant "oligarchy."  She showed me the transcript and, sure enough, the word was "obligarchy."  I'd never heard the word before.

I might have a slightly larger vocabulary than average, but I'm decidedly not a the word junkie that many of my friends are.  Still, I was surprised to find that I was unfamiliar with this particular word.  When I got home, I learned why.  Neither dictionary.com nor m-w.com has an entry for the word.  A friend looked up the word in her Oxford English Dictionary.  No dice.  It's not even listed as an alternate spelling of "oligarchy."  A Google search of the word returns the transcript of Susan B. Anthony's speech as the first hit, and the balance of the 500 or so hits use the word without definition.  Some use it interchangeably with "oligarchy" in the same paragraph.  One site I saw lists "obligarchy" as a common misspelling of "oligarchy," and in fact Microsoft Word's spelling checker suggests "oligarchy" as a replacement.

From all I can determine, Susan B. Anthony coined the term, but it's not a widely-accepted word.

So, my question to those of you who are much better with words than I am, is "obligarchy" a word?  Did Susan B. use it in ignorance to mean "oligarchy," or did she purposely coin the term in order to stretch the meaning to imply some form of obligation?  Or perhaps the word existed before Susan B. used it in her speech.

Sunday, 19 February, 2006

Steganography

Steganography is the art and science of writing hidden messages so that nobody but the person creating the message and the intended recipient know of the existence of the message.  This is opposed to cryptography, the purpose of which is to obscure a message whose existence is known.

Most of us played with steganography as children--constructing messages in which the second letter of each word spelled out, "Susie has cooties," or using lemon juice to write "secret" notes that were revealed by heating the paper over a light bulb or the kitchen stove.  The kitchen stove, by the way, is not recommended, as it has a distressing tendency to catch the transmittal medium (the paper) on fire.

The linked Wikipedia article has a good discussion of steganography's history.

Computers make steganography much easier.  Simple techniques include encoding a message by using the low bit of each byte in a digital image or sound file.  Although such techniques do change the transmittal medium, such changes are often undetectable by human eyes or ears.  Being simple, such techniques also are relatively easy to detect if somebody suspects that a hidden message exists.  Encrypting the message before hiding it in such a way adds further protection, and in fact cryptography is often used in conjuction with steganography in order to provide a more secure message.

You can also use compression techniques such as MPEG or JPEG compression, or even LZ77 to hide a message in a compressed file.  In any such advanced compressor there are many decision points during the compression process, all of which possible decisions result in a valid, but perhaps not optimum, compressed image.  It's possible to write a compressor that bases its decisions on input from a separate file that contains the message that you want to hide.  Recovering the hidden message requires a special decompressor that understands how the compressor arrived at its decisions and can re-generate the message based on the hidden clues in the compressed file.  The beauty of this technique is that the message itself--the bits that make up the hidden information--are not actually stored in the file, but are implied in the way that the file is constructed.  The result is that, even if somebody were to suspect the existence of a hidden message, it would be nearly impossible to extract the information.

Word processor documents offer many subtle ways of hiding messages, none of which involve anything so obvious as selecting every third character or attaching meaning to particular words and phrases.  The micro spacing pattern used to separate words and letters in a justified document could easily contain a hidden message, as could the kerning pairs used in typographic layout.  Such techniques would make the existence of the hidden message nearly undetectable.

In my April 13, 2003 entry, I put forth the suggestion that email spam could be used as a means of passing hidden messages while at the same time obscuring the sender and the intended recipients.  This, too, is a form of steganography.  A related technique would be to use blog postings (such as this one, but don't waste your time--there's no hidden message that I'm aware of in any of my entries) or comments to pass hidden messages.  This would be especially effective if the text of the article were somewhat more random than normal English text.  For example, the incoherent ramblings of the 17-year-old kid whose blog entries are filled with misspellings and seemingly random use of punctuation could in reality be a medium for hidden messages, and the posting date or the entry title the decryption key.  It's impossible to tell.

Forget all the hoopla about 128-bit (or higher) encryption technology.  Organizations or individuals who use such techniques just advertise that they have something to hide.  Governments can easily prevent sending encrypted messages by making it illegal and instituting means to scan traffic for encrypted files.  Governments can't scan every transmitted file for hidden meanings.  The best they can do is sample traffic and maybe--just maybe--find a hidden message from time to time.  The danger is that they will find a hidden message where none was intended--in one of my blog posts, for example.  My protestations of innocence would likely fall on deaf ears.

Saturday, 18 February, 2006

Big Brother in Houston?

Houston's police chief wants to place surveillance cameras all over the city.  (Thanks to David Stafford for the link.)  The city is facing a shortage of police officers due to too many retirements and not enough new recruits.  They've also absorbed about 150,000 refugees from hurricane Katrina, most of whom have moved into apartment complexes in crime-ridden neighborhoods.  The city is looking for ways to combat the growing number of violent crimes.

The police chief proposed placing the cameras in apartment complexes, downtown streets, shopping malls, and even private residences.  The private residences thing is especially frightening:  "[I]f a homeowner requires repeated police response, it is reasonable to require camera surveillance of the property."  But quite honestly, government surveillance of the general public is a frightening thought.  It's one thing for a business owner to have security cameras on his property.  It's something else entirely to have a police agency monitoring those cameras for possible law violations.

Those who favor surveillance always trot out the argument that if you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear.  I used to hold that view.  And in a perfect world, perhaps I still might.  But the truth is that all of us do things that we'd rather not have publicized.  With widespread surveillance under central control, the potential for abuse is impossible to ignore.  It would be all too easy for the agency itself or an unscrupulous employee to use the system for nefarious purposes.

What purposes?  How about watching when people leave their apartments so that you can buglarize the place?  How about blackmail or public embarrassment?  Imagine somebody snapping a picture of the police chief picking his nose in the shopping mall and then plastering that picture all over the city.  How much would the councilman who voted for the cameras pay to prevent publication of a picture showing him walking arm-in-arm through the shopping mall with his mistress?  And no number of police calls is sufficient to justify placing a government surveillance camera in a private residence.  The potential for abuse of such a system is simply too great.

I usually disagree with the ACLU's position on issues, but they're dead right on this one:  the proposal is "radical and extreme."  It almost certainly would violate the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable searchs.  I'm surprised that the police chief--a political animal--of any large city would propose such a thing.  The article doesn't say whether the City Council is actually giving the proposal serious consideration.  I would tend to doubt it.

I suspect that the current proposal in Houston will go nowhere, but I believe that similar proposals in other cities will begin to gain traction in the near future.  We've been giving up our freedoms in the name of "security" for decades now--usually without our consent.  This is just another step towards the totalitarian state towards which extremists on both sides of the political spectrum are working.  At some point, those of us in the middle will have to say "enough is enough," and take steps to regain the freedom from excessive government intervention that our Constitution was designed to guarantee.

Thursday, 16 February, 2006

Your toys own you

In my January 30 entry about assets and liabilities, I mentioned that most things you buy are either liabilities (i.e. they continue to cost you money) or neutral (they neither cost nor put money in your pocket).  This is true in purely financial terms, but that's not the whole story.  I've found over the years that everything I accumulate requires mental bandwidth.  That is, things are mental liabilities.  The things you buy begin to own you.

Jeff Duntemann touches on this in his "Personal Triage" entries dated December 21, 22, 23, and January 23.  Jeff was focused more on the mental energy to keep up with his many interests, but excessive collection of toys has the same effect.  I have friends who have so many toys that they simply can't pay enough attention to any of them.  Every toy requires storage.  Most require maintenance and repairs.  If you let a toy sit for months at a time before pulling it out and playing with it, you'll most likely have to spend time fiddling with the silly thing to make it work before you can play with it.  Or you won't be able to fix it because the parts store is closed on Sunday and so you'll be worrying about that all week.

A friend of mine once owned 18 motorcycles.  Ask him how much time he had to ride each one.  Granted, he could afford it financially, but he was the first to admit that he couldn't enjoy any of them as much as he'd like, because he always had to fiddle with the others.

Hardly a month goes by that somebody doesn't suggest I buy a boat, a motorcycle, a jet ski, build a hotrod, a home theatre system, etc.  They laugh at my seemingly Spartan existence.  I try to explain to them that I don't have the mental bandwidth to give those toys the attention that they deserve, but my explanation usually falls on deaf ears.  To these people, having a thing is paramount.  Actually enjoying it is secondary.  Sorry, not in my world.

Simplify your life.  Identify the handful of toys and hobbies that you most enjoy, and cull the rest from your collection.  You'll sleep better and more fully enjoy the things you do have because you won't be worrying about all the rest.

Tuesday, 14 February, 2006

Home at last!

We got to San Francisco at about 9:00 am Sunday, after circling for 30 minutes or so while waiting for the fog to clear from the runway.  We checked in to the hotel at 10:30 or so, all planning to tough out the day and get a good night's sleep.  Theory is that doing so will lessen the effects of jetlag.  David and Matt headed to Santa Cruz.  I went to the wharf.

I left the cable for my camera in the room when I checked out, so I'm not yet able to post the pictures I took.  The wharf was quite a culture shock after a week in Japan.  People dress more casually (ladies, I know you're proud, but a little restraint is a good thing), are more pushy, and idiots on crotch rocket motorcycles that have been modified to be as loud as possible come cruising down the street at 5 MPH, gunning the engine in neutral.  Still, I had a great time taking in the sights.  And you have no idea how good a slice of greasy American pizza tasted after a week of mostly unfamiliar food.

I got to sleep about midnight on Sunday, and slept straight through to 7:00 AM Monday.  I felt great for most of Monday's meeting, except an hour or so after lunch.  I thought I had the jetlag licked.  But then I had trouble getting to sleep on Monday night.  It was 3:00 AM before I finally nodded off, and I missed my alarm in the morning.  Fortunately, Matt called and I was able to run through the shower and make it downstairs in time to get a ride to the airport.  From there, it was a 3.5 hour flight home.

There's nothing quite like walking into the house to find some flowers, a balloon, and a card waiting to welcome you home.  Debra was surprised when I pulled out the card and present that I'd purchased a couple of weeks ago and had stashed under my desk.  (And now that I've mentioned the hiding place, I guess I'll have to find a new one.)

Debra and I have had sushi for dinner on Valentine's Day for several years, most recently with our good friends Mike and Kristy.  I was pretty well sushi'd out after my trip, but I couldn't break the tradition.  Besides, we really do like shushi, so it's not like I was being forced to eat natto (fermented soybeans).  It was funny, though.  Sunday we were talking about how much we were looking forward to a thick, juicy steak, and that we'd rebel if somebody suggested that we go out for Japanese food.

I'm home and tired now.  I don't think I've completely shaken off the jetlag, but I'm feeling a whole lot better than I did the last time.

Monday, 13 February, 2006

Odd and amusing things in Tokyo

I spent a lot of my wandering about Tokyo taking pictures of things that I found odd or amusing.  The subway is full such things.  For example, you don't have to be able to read Japanese in order to understand what this sign on the door is saying.  I seem to remember a similar picture featuring something else, but in looking through my pictures I don't see it.

Leaving the subway after snapping the cat picture, I ran across this poster of Big Bird giving the Cookie Monster a lesson in subway manners.  This is one of at least a dozen posters featuring the Sesame Street characters, designed to improve (or perhaps maintain) courtesy on the subway system.  It's an ongoing battle between the older, more traditional, generation and the youngsters who are beginning to adopt the less-courteous ways of Americans.

Many restaurants in Japan have plastic replicas of the dishes they serve on display in their windows.  I've seen this in the U.S., but not to the extent that I saw it in Tokyo.  Not surprisingly, there are stores where you can buy an incredible array of plastic foods.   The sushi clock pictured at the right was on display in one of those shops.  David, who has some fluency in Japanese, made a joke--in Japanese--about the time being "salmon minutes after octopus," or some such.  Our Japanese tour guides (our host and clients) found it quite amusing.

In one area there were signs painted on the sidewalk, asking people to please refrain from smoking while walking.  That cigarette looks terribly depressed, doesn't it?

Coming from Austin, where it's illegal to smoke within 15 feet of the door to any public building, seeing the large number of smokers in Japan is something of a shock.  Dining in many restaurants is decidely unpleasant due to the smoke, and pachinko parlours have a visible cloud of smoke.  There are non-smoking cars on the cross-country trains, and smoking is not allowed at all in the Tokyo Metro trains.  Despite this nation-wide nicotine addiction, there is no chewing tobacco in Japan.  The few Japanese I asked said they'd heard of it but had never seen anybody chewing tobacco.  A company called Swedish Match has introduced a chewing gum called FireBreak that they advertise as "chewing tobacco."  It contains 1 mg of nicotine per piece, and about 3% tobacco.  It sounds a lot like Nicorette Gum to me, although it's apparently marketed as a smoking substitute rather than a stop-smoking aid.

I don't know how popular Death cigarettes are, but I saw advertisements and even saw them for sale in vending machines.

As in the U.S. almost all restaurants in Japan have paper napkins.  There are two things that set these napkins apart from those at home:  almost all are made from recycled paper, and the napkins have a thin coating of wax that makes them less absorbant.  As you can see from this picture, many of the napkins include the "tree free" logo to show that it's made from 100% recycled paper.

I think the wax coating is there to discourage people from removing the napkins from the restaurant to be used as toilet paper in the subway bathrooms.  You see, the bathrooms in the subway usually don't have toilet paper, or you have to buy a package of tissue (cost, 100 yen or about $1 U.S.) from the vending machine.

Seeing a need and a captive audience, companies have filled the gap by packaging small amounts three or four tissues in a package similar to the small Kleenex packages.  Advertisers buy space on a card that's visible through the the clear plastic wrapping.  Other companies hire people to wear advertising (a jacket with the McDonald's logo, for example) and distribute the packages free of charge outside the subway station entrance.  Somehow I managed to leave Tokyo without getting a picture of the package or of anybody passing them out.  Maybe next time.

Sunday, 12 February, 2006

The Language Barrier

The sounds in spoken Japanese are almost a proper subset of English sounds.  Japanese contains only a few sounds that native American English speakers have difficulty making.  In contrast, there are many sounds in English that native Japanese speakers have trouble with, the most noticeable being the "l".  This leads to the stereotype Japanese person in movies using "r" wherever there is an "l," resulting in stupidity such as this.  The truth is that the "r" sound in Japanese is kind of a mixture of our "l," "d," and "r".  Yes, the substitution of "r" for "l" sounds strange to our ears, but Americans' insistence on placing emphasis on certain syllables (i.e. "shin-JU-ku" rather than "shin-ju-ku") is equally difficult for Japanese to understand.

Most Japanese in the cities can speak and understand some English because almost everybody studies English in junior high school.  They typically understand a whole lot more English than they can speak, and many Japanese have a very good grasp of written English, with a understanding of English grammar and vocabulary that would put many Americans to shame.  But they get very little practice speaking English, so their pronunciation is not the best.  A little practice and patience go a long way towards building a mutual understanding.

I had some trouble making myself understood on my first trip until David took me aside and explained that I was speaking to them as though they were native speakers.  I was using slang, colloquialisms, contractions, speaking too fast and slurring my words.  Once I listened to the way he was speaking and tried to imitate it, I was much more able to communicate.  It's not "baby English," but it is very simple.  For example, rather than saying, "Charlie caught and killed a fawn in my back yard," I would say, slowly, "Charlie catch baby deer.  He eat."  (They had asked about the picture of my dog Charlie that serves as the wallpaper on my computer.)

("Baby Japanese," by the way, is how they must speak to me, with a lot of repetition and backing up to explain what certain words mean.  I would be very happy if they could speak Japanese to me on the same level that I speak English to them.  Perhaps my Japanese language skills will improve before my next trip.)

After a day or two of speaking this simple English, David, Matt, and I found ourselves speaking it to each other.  That's not so bad, but when you do it with another native English speaker, they look at you strange.  Saturday I ran into an Australian couple near the fish market and we struck up a conversation.  It took me a few minutes to realize that they were looking at me funny because I was speaking to them in this simple English.  Even then I found myself lapsing back into it while we talked.  I wonder if they walked away thinking that I'm not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

If you study Katakana, in addition to learning how to read menus and such, you'll get a much better understanding of the English spoken by the Japanese.  What they are speaking is very close to "Katakana English."  When you can play and win at the Katakana game (converting the Japanese phonetic spelling of foreign words into understandable English words), your ability to carry on a conversation in English with a Japanese English speaker will be greatly enhanced.  You will learn to make the "r to l" translation in your head, and you can more easily help your counterpart to improve his understanding and pronunciation, too.  It's not always straightforward, but it's great fun.

Most of all, don't be afraid to try.  People in general are very pleased if you make an attempt to speak their language and adhere to their customs.  In my limited experience, I found the Japanese especially grateful and willing to help me with my pronunciation and usage.  They'll laugh good-naturedly if you make a particularly bad blunder, but they will also take the time to explain what you did wrong and help you to improve.  It just seems right that we should do the same for them, especially when we're in their country.

Sunday, 12 February, 2006

Random notes at 35,000 feet

It's 3:25 AM in San Francisco.  I'm sitting in seat 56K of United Flight 852, scheduled to land at about 8:30.  I got a little sleep, but I'm not sure how much more I'll get.  Maybe I'll try the trick a friend told me:  force myself to stay up all day, go to bed at my usual time, and get up on Monday ready to go.  It's worth a shot.  The last time I made this trip, I was a complete zombie for about three days and felt the effects of jet lag for almost a week.

A few thoughts, some serious and some not:

  • If you intend to learn anything before traveling to Japan, learn Katakana--the alphabet that the Japanese use to write foreign words.  Yes, it's nice to learn a little of the language so you can ask simple questions and understand the replies, but if you learn Katakana you'll be able to read menus, many signs, and descriptions of most products that you'll need in the stores.  It'll take you a weekend to get the basics down, and a couple of days' practice to get comfortable with it.  I recommend the book Easy Katakana, by Tina Wells. Kanji is cool, but you'll get more bang for your buck with Katakana.
  • We've all seen the balding men who comb their few remaining long hairs over their bald spots.  The Japanese call these people, "bar code heads."
  • I wonder if this is some literal translation that lost all meaning.
  • This one, too.  From the spare tire cover on a small wagon that might have been an SUV.
  • Parting is a ritual, and the person who's leaving is responsible for ending the ritual.  If you get up to go and then don't leave, the other people will feel obligated to continue telling you how much they enjoyed your company.  When you say you're going to leave, do it after saying your brief goodbyes.

With that, I think I'll go juggle in the back of the plane.

Sunday, 12 February, 2006

Getting ready to leave

I'm getting ready to pack up and leave.  I've been going through my pictures and making notes, trying to decide how much of my notes to post here.  Last year I let a lot of experiences fade before I tried to write them down, and as a result I've forgotten some things.  I'm trying to do a better job of it this time.

Last year I was fascinated by the way the Japanese had adapted by making smaller versions of things that we take for granted at home.  I posted a few pictures last year in my May 11 entry.

Here's a little collage of a few little things I snapped pictures of.  All three of the trucks are about the same size--comparable to a Chevy Suburban.  The electric car, a Nissan Hypermini, is about as long as a big motorcycle--say a Honda Aspencade.  Maybe a bit longer.  The motorcycle is quite practical for Tokyo, but not so much in the U.S.  At least, not in Austin.  110 cc engines in the U.S. are reserved for scooters and child's toys.  Which is too bad.  This little bike could probably do 50 MPH with a college student carrying his books in a backpack.  But instead we go for huge cars and 1,000 cc motorbikes.

Click on any picture for a larger view.

It's a 9 hour trip across the Pacific to San Francisco.  I leave at 5:00 PM on Sunday and arrive at 9:00 AM on Sunday.  This time change stuff really messes with my head.  We have a meeting scheduled with the other programmer in Oakland on Monday.  Depending on my schedule and how badly the jet lag hits me, it might be a couple of days before I post again.  I'll be back at home on Tuesday.

Saturday, 11 February, 2006

Tsukiji Fish Market

I got up very early this morning to visit Tsukiji Fish Market.  The idea was to see where the fish for many of Tokyo's restaurants is purchased.  I got there about 6:15 AM and the place was almost deserted.  I wandered around for a while and finally gave up.  Sorry to disappoint.  Please accept this picture of live eels as a consolation.

But since I was down there I thought I'd have sushi for breakfast.  One would think you could get some of the best sushi in the world around there, and not have to pay much.  Seven pieces of sushi cost me a total of $6.00 U.S.  That's incredibly inexpensive, and the fish was good.

I found out later that the reason the fish market was so quiet is that today is National Foundation Day--a Japanese national holiday.  According to the history books, it was on this day in the year 660 BC (by Western reckoning) that the first Japanese emporer was crowned.

I didn't have anything planned until noon, so rather than take the subway back to the hotel, I went for a walk.  I started out planning to walk just a couple of kilometers back to Hibya station, where I could catch the subway back to Jimbōchō without having to change trains.  But the weather was nice and I was feeling good, so I kept going.  I ended up walking the entire way back from Tsukiji to Jimbōchō--probably four to five miles.  It was great fun, and I saw lots of things that I never would have even known about had I taken the subway.

For example, I never would have considered visiting the Wadakura Water Fountain Park, but since I walked right by it I went ahead and snapped a few shots.

I also walked past and briefly visited Kokyo, the Japanese Imperial Palace grounds.  The area is huge, and I suspect that I could spend a whole day or more there.  I'll hold off and visit it with Debra when she and I are here together.

I got back to my hotel about 10:00 and had a couple of hours to rest before heading out on a sightseeing trip with our host and a couple of the guys I went drinking with on Wednesday night.  But I'll post about that later.

Friday, 10 February, 2006

Taking in the night life - Shibuya

This evening was perhaps the most fun I've had in Japan, both trips included.  After a reception hosted by one of our Japanese suppliers, we had dinner at a little Chinese restaurant somewhere near our hosts office.  He then dropped us off at our hotel.  David and Matt decided to call it a night, and I thought I might, too.  But then I decided to get a feel for Tokyo at night.  What a blast!

Leaving my camera and any excess baggage in my room, I headed for Shibuya station.  Yes, it's one of the city's night life hotspots, but I didn't go there looking for drinks and women who like foreigners.  I had heard that Shibuya is one of the night life spots for the locals, and I thought I'd get an interesting feel for the people if I just wandered around the station a bit.  I didn't take the camera because I didn't want to be viewed as too much of a tourist.  But now I don't have any pictures.  Next time I'll just look like a tourist.

Stepping out of Shibuya station, the first thing I noticed was lights.  Everywhere.  I've never lived in a big city, so the whole concept of a subway is a little foreign to me.  Add to that the thousands of people skittering hither and yon, and the lights ... a poor old country boy like me is captivated.  And confused.

There were performers set up just oustide the train station, kindly taking turns entertaining the crowd and trying to sell their CDs.  For the most part it's young men (hardly more than boys) with guitars or a music box that plays a popular tune while the boy sings.  It was 35 degrees tonight with a good wind blowing, and there were pleny of girls out there admiring the singers.  A couple of the singers were pretty good, although they lacked the raw voice that characterizes so many Western pop singers.  I wonder if it's a cultural thing--they never really learn to scream, so they can't scream into the microphone.

I bought one CD by a group called モズキング, which is Katakana for "Mozuking".  I don't know what it means, but when you think about it "Deep Purple" isn't all that meaningful, either.  It's reasonably good music.  A couple of guys playing their guitars and singing.  One of them also plays the harmonica.

The group Glide Age was giving out samples of their latest demo CD called "My Life".  Only three of the five members were out performing last night, and I think the girl was there under duress.  She was bundled up with a heavy coat and scarf, her hands freezing as she played the keyboards.  Their demo CD is much more polished than what I had expected after hearing them perform at the station.  I prefer them without all the fancy production stuff that they used on their demo.

Somebody gave me a flyer for the group High-style while I was watching them.  These two young men had quite a crowd of girls gathered around.  I don't know if it's their almost feminine good looks or their singing, but it was obvious that the girls liked them.  These two don't play any instruments but rather put on a recorded backup track (drums and keyboards, mostly) and sing along with it.  Think karoake done right (i.e. by people who can actually sing), and you'll get the idea.  They really are quite good.

During one intermission (time between groups performing), two guys sitting near the smoking area pulled out their drums--they looked like traditional Japanese drums--and beat out a tune for about five minutes.  That was the best performance of the night, and I was very disappointed that they didn't have CDs for sale and I hadn't recorded any of it.  It really was something.

I caught the train bound for my hotel a little too late, and ended up at Nagatachō station with no train to take me the rest of the way.  So I walked upstairs and got a taxi.  It cost me almost 1,500 yen ($15 U.S.) for a taxi from Nagatachō to Jimbōchō.  The same trip on the subway costs 190 yen.  Don't miss your train.

Wednesday, 08 February, 2006

Odd Signs in Japan

English seems to be an effective marketing tool in Japan, but they don't always do a good job with the translations.  I guess I could leave it to the pros at engrish.com, but I just have to point out a few things.

"Holstein" is the name of a women's clothing store near the hotel in Osaka.  I don't think you could get away with this in the U.S. unless your wife's name was "Bessie."  I actually went looking for this shop because I saw a sign that said, "Holstein sale," and there was a picture of a cow-spotted box that reminded me of the Gateway Computer boxes.  I just had to see what they were selling.

The poster on the left was in the window of a pachinko/slot parlor.  I think it was adversiting the new slot machines.  If you look below the Kanji on the poster you'll see the English:  "Super Exception Great Sea Story."  I think something was lost (or perhaps added) in the translation.

I don't really know what "fight the power" is supposed to mean, but if it's intended to get the Japanese to step out of their strict conformity, if even for a moment, then I'm all for it.

The Royal Bank of Scotland has a presence in Japan.  Their new marketing slogan, "Make it happen," is backed up by an interesting Rube Goldberg contraption.  Click on the RBS logo there to the right and check it out.  That display was in Tokyo Station.

This is part of a sign on the bathroom door in my hotel room.  The sign requests that guests close the bathroom door when taking a shower, lest the steam set off the fire alarm.  The translation (click on the image here) is actually better than many that I've seen.  It's not perfect, but it's perfectly understandable.  And yes, steam will make a fire alarm go off.  I've seen it happen in hotel rooms that are a heck of a lot larger than this one.  I ripped the smoke alarm off the wall in my house years ago because taking a shower would regularly set the darned thing off.

"Ducky Duck" is the name of a restaurant that's across from the sushi place we visited on Monday.  I got another chuckle a few days later when I saw one of their delivery trucks.

I don't want to make the individual entries too big, so I'll stop here for now.  I have plenty of other pictures to post, but hate just putting the pictures there without some commentary.

Tuesday, 07 February, 2006

To Osaka

Osaka is about 320 miles (512 kilometers) east of Tokyo.  The quickest and easiest way to get there is to take the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo station.  I don't know if Tokyo station is the largest train station in the world, but it is huge.  It took us about 15 minutes to get from our hotel to Otemachi station, which is connected by walking tunnel to Tokyo station.  It took over 30 minutes to walk from Otemachi station to the platform where we boarded the Shinkansen.

We had some time to kill in Tokyo Station, so I entertained the crowd with my juggling.

Actually, the money on the ground is mine, and the guy throwing the coin is Mr. Shoji--one of our host's employees.  The Japanese are rather more reserved than Americans, and it's quite possible that many didn't even see me juggling there simply because it's so out of the ordinary that their brains wouldn't accept it.  I did get a few looks as the crowds rushed by.  It was great fun.

We rode the "Nozomi Super Express," which made only three or four stops along the way.  Traveling at 200 or 250 kilometers per hour much of the way, the trip to Osaka took a little over two hours.  Once again, due to the weather, I was unable to see Mt. Fuji.  I guess I'll have to keep coming back to Japan until I get a view of the mountain.

We'll be in Osaka for two full days for meetings with the users.  These meetings are interesting because they involve programmers and artists trying to communicate and come to an understanding--a process that is difficult even when both parties speak the same native language.  Things take a little more time, but we are able to reach an understanding.

I have a few pictures to post, but that'll have to wait for another time.  I don't have Internet access here in Osaka except briefly from my client's office.  I'll have to write my updates in the hotel tonight or tomorrow and then upload them before or after our meetings.  I'll be back in Tokyo with high speed access on Thursday evening.

Monday, 06 February, 2006

Sushi Dinner

After work today, our host Mr. Usami took us to Shinjuku where we did a little shopping and had a wonderful sushi dinner  I've mentioned here before that I like sushi, but I normally stay with a small selection of dishes that I've discovered I like.  I haven't been terribly adventurous with my sushi  selections in the past few years.  Mr. Usami ordered the special for all of us, which meant that I was presented with things that I normally wouldn't pick.  In fact, I had actively avoided some of the stuff.  But I was hungry and it would be impolite to refuse.  Figuring the worst that could happen was discovering that I didn't like something, I tried everything.

I've always avoided any kind of roe.  Having tried and disliked caviar, I had no desire to sample other types of fish eggs.  The salmon roe appetizer (not pictured) was okay, but not among my favorites.  I'm not likely to order it myself, but I'll no longer be afraid to eat it.

I can't name all of the fish on my plate there.  Of the five at the top of the plate, there are two types of tuna and two fish that I don't recognize.  The piece on the far right (next to the pickled ginger) is unagi, or freshwater eel.  This is grilled and glazed with teriyaki sauce.  This stuff tastes delicious, but something about the texture makes it difficult for me to enjoy.

On the bottom is another type of roe (fish eggs), two pieces of sweet shrimp, and another piece of unagi.  On the far right is uni--sea urchin wrapped in seaweed.  Uni is another dish that tastes incredible but has an unpleasant (to me) texture.  My friends who enjoy uni all tell me that you eventually get accustomed to the texture, but I'm not yet convinced.

In any case, I ate everything, enjoyed most of it, and discovered a few new types of sushi to enjoy.  Once again I realized that my own pre-conceived notions and  prejudices had prevented me for years from trying new things.  I keep re-learning that I have to actively work at expanding my horizons or my comfort zone shrinks.  I wonder if I'll ever internalize that lesson.

Sunday, 05 February, 2006

Japan Again

A 15 hour time change really messes with the mind.  I got up at 4:30 Saturday morning in Austin to catch my flight to San Francisco.  I arrived at my hotel in Tokyo at 6:30 Sunday evening--about 3:30 Sunday morning, Austin time.  It's 10:000 PM now and my body thinks it's 7:00 AM.

The trip from Austin to San Francisco was uneventful except for a particularly odious person sitting near me.  I'll just say that I found his conversation offensive and I was happy to have ear plugs.  Saying, "these things really take the edge off," while stuffing an ear plug in your ear is an effective way to avoid conversation without giving offense.

My seat mates for the 10-1/2 hour trip from San Francisco to Narita were a very pleasant older couple from Houston who were headed for Manila to attend two reunions:  her 45th high school reunion and his family reunion.  He was asleep most of the way, so she and I shared a friendly conversation when I wasn't up roaming the aisles.

I hate sitting in one place for that long, especially when I'm trapped against the bulkhead next to a window out of which I can see only cloud cover or, if the clouds clear, the Pacific Ocean.  The ocean might be teeming with life, but from 35,000 feet it might as well be a barren wasteland.  Even large ships are hardly noticeable at that altitude.  I usually pass a large amount of the time by wandering the aisles.

I brought my bean bags this time and stood at the back of the plane, juggling.  This is a great way to strike up a conversation, and I got to meet a number of different people:  a Korean woman whose husband works for the U.S. State Department, a games programmer from Tokyo, and several people whose homes and destinations were unknown to me but with whom I shared a few words.  Boredom is contagious on those flights, so people often are more than willing to talk about almost anything.

The fastest and easiest way to get from Narita airport to most places in Tokyo is the Narita Express.  Board the train at the airport and in under an hour you're stepping onto the platform at Tokyo Station.  From there you can catch a subway train to anywhere in Tokyo.  The problem is the cost--about $30 U.S.  There is a much less expensive way, but it takes longer and can be confusing for the uninitiated.

Take the Keisei Limited Express from the airport bound for Ueno, but get off at Aoto Station and transfer to the train bound for Oshiage.  From Oshiage you can catch the subway to anywhere in the Tokyo metro area.  You also can go all the way to Ueno and catch a subway there, but it's much easier to get to the station by my hotel from Oshiage than from Ueno.  Total cost for the trip was about $12.  The drawback is time.  The Limited Express makes a dozen or so stops.  This route takes about 30 minutes longer than the Narita Express and carrying luggage through the subway stations isn't a whole lot of fun, but it's not $20 inconvenient.

If you decide on the less expensive route, you should get a map of the stations in the outlying areas.  Although the Tokyo Subway Map shows all of the stations that are on the Metro network, it only shows the major stations between here and the airport.  If you don't have a map of the stations outside of the Metro area, you're going to be a bit confused.  The people in Japan, however, are incredibly friendly and willing to help a bewildered foreigner find his way.  Often I didn't even have to ask:  somebody would see me looking confused and offer assistance.

Voice chat, by the way, is a great way to stay in touch when you're overseas.  I installed Yahoo Messenger with Voice on my machine and on Debra's, and we agreed on times to attempt conversations.  10:00 PM in Tokyo is 7:00 AM in Austin, so it works out well.  I should have thought of this the last time rather than relying solely on email for communication.  I know that there are other, and perhaps better, VOIP solutions, but Yahoo Messenger works well enough for our purposes.

Postings will undoubtedly be spotty later in the week, as I might be without Internet connection Tuesday through Thursday.  Time for bed.

Friday, 03 February, 2006

Prepping for the Trip

As I write this, I'm also installing the MSDN Library for Visual Studio 2005.  This install, and the Visual Studio 2005 install that I just finished are doing something very strange:  they're copying data to my 150 GB USB drive (drive E:) and then installing the software onto the laptop's built-in hard drive (C:).  I can't for the life of me figure out why the installation program decided that it needs to use the USB drive in this manner.

It's been a busy week, finishing up the last few things for my client and trying to get some home projects finished before heading to Japan.  It's midnight now.  My flight leaves at 7:45 AM.  I figure it'll be about 22 hours from the time I leave the house until the time I get to my hotel in Tokyo at 6:00 PM Sunday (3:00 AM, U.S. Central time).  Here's another case when I wish everybody would use UTC.  I'll leave my house at 11:00 AM UTC on Saturday and arrive at my hotel at 9:00 AM UTC on Sunday.  Why don't people understand that it's much easier to convert from one standard to local time than it is to convert between two local times?

My neighbor Tom and I got the new engine and rebuilt transmission mated last weekend, and this morning we managed to get it all bolted back into the truck on the new motor mounts.  The project is far from finished, but at least I was able to clear enough of the other garage bay to park the Mustang in there while I'm gone.  When I get back it'll take several days of work to bolt everything back onto the engine block, hook up all the wires, hoses, and other things before I can start the engine.  But getting the new engine into the truck was a major milestone.

My next posting, barring anything unexpected, will be from my hotel in Japan.  Again, due to the time change and because I use local time (even though I complain about people not using UTC), entries will likely be dated with my local date and time.  You might read the next entry before I post it!