Tuesday, 31 May, 2005

May Web Stats

Visits to my Web site peaked in mid-April and began to fall off slightly through the end of the month.  May traffic is down about 30% from April--almost back down to January levels.  Oddly, I'm still getting many "referrals" from what appear to be poker sites.  I still haven't determined if those are spam bots or legitimate traffic.  I'm more curious than anything else, but don't really know how to track down the answer.

I am, however, going to do an experiment.  I'm going to submit my site to the search engines again and see if I get another huge increase in traffic like I did back in January.  If I do, I'll be more inclined to believe that the increased traffic is from spam bots.

Firefox's share of hits on my site hit an all-time high this month with 21%.  Internet Explorer was still on top with almost 66%, and everybody else was under 5%.  I know that I'm just one site, but I have to think that Firefox is gaining market share all across the Web.  Perhaps not the 21% I've seen, but I wouldn't be surprised to see it reach 13%.  I wonder who tracks that kind of thing, and how.

Search terms have been woefully unfunny the last few months, except for one:  "masturbation caused rotator cuff injury."  I don't even want to know the details.

Debra came home from the video store with Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events.  It wasn't high on my list of movies to see.  A friend told me that the story was weak but worth watching just to see Jim Carrey do his thing but even with that disclaimer I was disappointed.  The story is just a thin wrapper around a bunch of disjointed scenes featuring Jim Carrey, who isn't especially good in any of them.

I guess the movie would make more sense to me if I'd read the books or if I had kids and could relate more to the children's characters.  I fell asleep during the film and wasn't interested enough in what happened to go back and see what I'd missed.  For me, the funniest part of the film was the little girl, Sunny, hanging by her teeth from the kitchen table in the first few minutes.  It was all down hill from there.

I wouldn't recommend the movie except as a cure for insomnia.

Saturday, 28 May, 2005

The Housing Bubble

Walk on to any car dealer's lot and engage a salesman.  Shortly after the pleasantries are done, he will ask you two questions:

  1. What kind of car are you looking for?
  2. What monthly payment can you afford?

Your answer to the first question tells him your dream.  Your answer to the second tells him your perception of reality.  I can almost guarantee that the finance company will approve you for a larger payment than you think you can afford.  Knowing this, the salesman will view your answer as a beginning negotiating position.  His job is to talk you into spending more money:  a higher payment amount, a longer term, or a lease.  The salesman will never mention the car's price.  That's irrelevant.  It's all about the payment amount.

Home sales have gotten a lot like that over the years.  "Cheaper than rent!"  "No cost move-in!"  "Own your dream home for under $1,000 per month!"  Advertisements very often will not include the total price of the home, or will include the price and finance terms in fine print at the bottom (or in "fast talk" at the end of the radio ad).  It's not quite as bad as with car sales, but it's getting there.  People aren't paying $150,000 for a house.  They're paying $1,000 per month (PITI).  That would be okay, except for a few major problems.

  • American society seems to condition us to live right at or slightly beyond our means.  Builders and mortgage companies are happy to indulge this gluttony.
  • Most people have no financial buffer and will be in dire financial shape if they miss more than one paycheck.
  • People seem to think that housing prices always go up.  They view their house as an investment.  The housing industry, of course, does all it can to promote this viewpoint.
  • Builders and mortgage companies got pretty creative with the financing during the recent economic downturn in order to keep selling houses, making loans, and keeping their people employed.  The record low interest rates were quite helpful here.

What does it all mean?  Consider Joe Average who bought his $150,000 home for no money down on an interest-only loan at 3.5%, with a five year adjustment term at which time he starts paying the principal.  Right now his interest payment is about $440 per month.  Add taxes and insurance, and his house payment is probably about $700.  That's way cheaper than rent.  You can get a very nice house for $150,000 if you don't mind a 45 minute commute into the city.

Joe is counting on his salary to increase in the next five years, so he's not terribly worried about the higher payment he'll have to make then.  Plus, he figures, if his salary doesn't increase enough, he can just sell the house and reap a small profit from the increased price.  It's a nice dream, and neither the builder nor the mortgage company is going to discourage Joe from holding those ideas.  They're wrong ideas, but following them seems to have worked for people in the past.

So what happens in five years?  First, interest rates have climed to 7%.  Joe's monthly house payment, including principal, interest, taxes, and insurance, goes from $700 to $1,200.  The economy is flat or maybe in a downturn so Joe can't afford that extra $500.  He'd like to sell his house, but there's a glut of homes on the market and the rising interest rates have depressed prices.  He finds that if he's lucky he could get $150,000 for the house before he pays the real estate agent's commission, but there are a dozen similar houses for sale in his neighborhood that have been on the market for over six months.  Joe's only reasonable course of action is to just walk away.  Besides, he bought the place for no money down so he really doesn't have much to lose.

I'm not just spinning a fantasy here.  Check out this Washington Post article.  People are buying more house than they can afford, interest rates are rising, and salaries aren't rising as fast as people are spending their future income.  We're in the middle of a housing bubble and I think we're headed for a crash the likes of which we haven't seen in a very long time.  This will be worse than the fallout from the late 1980s S&L crisis.  I think there are going to be many people walking away from homes that they can no longer afford.  A guy with cash will make lots of money picking up abandoned properties and holding them for a few years.

I've been known to be wrong from time to time, and I sure hope I'm wrong on this one.  But I fear that I've read these tea leaves correctly.  We'll find out in the next couple of years.

Wednesday, 25 May, 2005

Switching Web email clients

My hosting ISP, Sectorlink, recently switched my Web mail from the old software to something called SmarterMail.  I'm not impressed.  In fact, I'm disappointed.  But at least the software is serviceable.  The last thing they switched us to was so horribly broken that they had to switch back after a couple of weeks.

The old Web client interface was minimal but complete.  I could check my mail, send messages, organize my mail into folders, and maintain a contact list.  It wasn't fancy, but it worked.  The simple interface meant that it worked on every computer I used to check my mail, even older machines that were running IE 4 and Linux machines running early versions of Konqueror.  That's all I wanted:  the ability to check my mail when I was away from home.

SmarterMail could be considered a "rich client."  It has tree views for messages, fancy options dialogs, content filtering and spam filtering, and cool-looking gadgets.  Oddly, it doesn't include the calendar feature that I think was in the old client.  It's all nice and pretty, but I'm pretty sure that the demands it places on the client browser will prevent it from working on older versions.  Not having tested that, I can't say for sure, but it certainly looks like there are some features that require later browser versions.

The new spam filtering looks kind of interesting.  Default filter settings use some heuristics to classify messages as good, "SPAM-LOW," "SPAM-MED," or "SPAM-HIGH."  I can disable or change those rules to fit my needs, and I can use Thunderbird's filtering rules to route suspected spam to my junk folder if I want.  Right now I'm looking closely at the SPAM-HIGH and will likely have it automatically deleted by the server after I satisfy myself that that there's very little chance of false positives.

Speaking of spam, I've seen an increased spam count that coincides with the introduction of SmarterMail.  That makes me think that in the past Sectorlink was doing some server-side spam filtering without telling me about it.  I can't prove that, of course, but it does make me suspicious.  I'm doubly suspicious, because Debra has noticed increased spam recently as well.  I thought I asked Sectorlink about that last year when I noticed a dramatic decrease in my spam count that I eventually wrote off to the bouncebacks that people got when my mail account disappeared for a full day.

All things considered, I'd rather have my old Web client back.  It worked on every system I tried and did everything that I wanted it to do.  The spam filtering and fancy UI that comes with SmarterMail just doesn't seem worth having to re-learn my Web email client.

Tuesday, 24 May, 2005

My new camera

Last month about a week before the big bicycle trip, I finally went out and bought a new replacement for the Creative PC-CAM that I broke.  I was unable to find a new PC-CAM and after much shopping I settled on the Nikon Coolpix 4600.  The camera itself is only about $200, but with a 256 MB memory card, heavy duty neck strap, carry case, and what all, the final bill was right at $300.  It's quite a bit more than I wanted to spend, but it's a much better camera than the PC-CAM.  It's also a nicer camera than the Canon that I paid nearly $600 four years ago.  Almost all of the pictures I've posted on this site since mid April were taken with the new Nikon.

The camera has dozens of different modes in addition to the standard "snapshot" mode, including settings for night landscape, portraits, "action," bright sunlight, museums, close ups, and others.  The camera will auto focus, and in some cases even center the picture automatically.  I like the flexibility but it's difficult to know which mode to use in a particular situation, and the small screen and paucity of buttons make navigating the user interface a bit cumbersome.  Still, I can take much better shots than with either of the other two cameras.

The Coca Cola can pictured here is something that I hadn't seen before going to Japan.  It's a 500 ml aluminum can, shaped like a 16 oz glass bottle.  The programmers and artists who saw me taking the picture were a bit amused that I thought it photo-worthy.  Odd looks never stopped me from experimenting with my camera, though.  This is a very good example of the camera's closeup mode.

Monday, 23 May, 2005

Resisting Temptation

A friend of mine once told me that he sometimes has difficulty resisting the temptation to stray from his wife.  He's a nice looking guy, friendly, attentive, reasonably successful:  all in all probably what many women would consider "a good catch."  He's certainly never lacked for female attention in the years that I've known him.  After a few years of marriage he confided in me that he sometimes finds himself in situations that are, to be delicate, uncomfortable.

Now I don't claim to be a marriage counselor, or any other kind of counselor for that matter, but resisting temptation (of many kinds) is something that I've fought with and given considerable thought to.  I've even adopted a quote from Oscar Wilde:  "I can resist anything but temptation."  Taken at face value that statement is ridiculous, but I use it as a kind of mnemonic device.

Resisting temptation is hard.  Faced with immediate gratification of an urge, it's very difficult not to succumb.  This is true regardless of the temptation:  marital infidelity, eating that extra slice of chocolate cheesecake, jumping into an argument or online flame war, partying instead of studying, or any of many others that we're faced with each day.  In almost every case you have to make a conscious decision to resist, and remain vigilant lest you allow yourself to waver.  I've never found an easy way to resist temptation.

I have found, though, that avoiding temptation is relatively easy.  If I don't put myself in the position to be tempted, then I don't have to worry about resisting.  As a side benefit, I've found that the more I avoid temptation, the easier it is to resist when I'm faced with that situation.  For example, rather than trying to resist the friendly advances of an attractive young woman (not that I'm in any particular danger there, but it serves as an illustration), I don't put myself into positions where such advances would be forthcoming.  That means I don't accept invitations to "have a drink" after work unless it's with a large group.  When I realized years ago that I had a drinking problem (more of a stopping problem), I stopped bringing beer into the house.  I make it a point to avoid situations where I'll be tempted, freeing myself from the need to resist.

Consider two recovering alcoholics who are invited to attend a party where drinks will be free and plentiful.  One agrees to go and spends the entire night fighting with his urge to indulge his craving.  "Just one drink won't hurt."  "I can stop any time, I just know it."  "Let's see if I can control myself."  He's constantly turning down drink offers and having to tell people, "I don't drink anymore."  Even if he doesn't succumb to temptation he's going to be miserable all night.

The other alcoholic politely declines the invitation, knowing that it's much easier to maintain his sobriety by avoiding the situations altogether.  He understands the concept of risk management.  The alcoholic who attends and spends the night resisting takes unnecessary risks by knowingly placing himself in a difficult position.

Why resist temptation when you can avoid it altogether?  Resistance might not be futile, but it's damned difficult.  Avoidance, on the other hand, is easy and much more effective.

Sunday, 22 May, 2005

A few random laughs

Just a few things that've made me laugh recently.

  • Unfortunate Star Wars Costumes.  Don't be sipping tea unless you want it sprayed out on the monitor.  You've been warned.
  • I honestly thought that the Masturbate-A-Thon was a joke.  Okay, I still have a tough time believing that it's real.
  • Jeff Duntemann shows us an example of how not to use your spell checker. (See the May 21 entry, or click here for the archived version after August 1.)  I wonder if that editor still has a job.
  • Sith Apprentice.  Donald Trump meets Star Wars, with bits from Highlander and The Princess Bride thrown in.  Definitely laugh worthy.
  • A friend sent me this quote, attributed to Dave Barry:  "A sense of humor is a measurement of the extent to which we realize that we are trapped in a world totally devoid of reason.  Laughter is how we express the anxiety we feel at this knowledge."  Hey, it works for me.

Saturday, 21 May, 2005

More airport security fun

A very unfortunate consequence of our "improved security" in response to the 9/11 attacks is that you can no longer store your bags in airport lockers.  I wanted to attend the graduation ceremony this morning at 11:00, but had to return my rental car before 12:30 to avoid paying an extra day's rental.  I dropped the car off about 10:30 and went hunting for a locker.  No dice.  I ended up checking in for my flight and checking one bag.  The laptop I carried with me back to the school.

Is there really that much danger of somebody storing a bomb in a locker at the airport?  It's not like there aren't plenty of other places to hide something.  Couldn't we post guards at the locker area entrance and have them screen any bags that will be stored in the lockers?

When I got home this evening and opened the bag I'd checked, I found a note from the TSA saying that they had opened it and searched the contents.  I find that incredibly funny, as the only thing even remotely suspicious in there was my electric razor.  I'm glad I didn't have anything really dangerous in there.  Like a fingernail clipper.

It's been almost four years now.  Security keeps getting more ridiculous and yet I don't see any real improvements in the procedures.  There still seems to be plenty of holes that a diligent and imaginative enemy could exploit.  I remain of the opinion that all of this "increased security" is just busy work to make the unthinking majority of the traveling public think that "something is being done."  I certainly haven't seen any data to make me change that opinion.

Friday, 20 May, 2005

Graduation dinner

The staff at the Marine Military Academy paid me a great compliment by asking me to speak at the graduation dinner and present a few awards to the graduating cadets.  In a classic case of misjudging my audience, I prepared a 10-minute mostly serious speech--the kind of stuffy thing that you've come to expect from graduation ceremonies.  But after talking to a couple of people at the school this afternoon, I realized that what I presented would not have been well received.  The graduation dinner is supposed to be a lighthearted affair, and comments should be short.  I went back to the hotel and re-worked my presentation, cutting it in half and lightening it up.

By all indications, my talk was a hit.  I kept the comments short and even got some genuine laughs at my jokes about life at the school.  Graduating cadets and parents alike thanked me after the dinner; for the brevity and for the more serious remarks I made.  I'm not ready to start a business as a motivational speaker, but I think I have the confidence now to speak intelligently to a group of high school students.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and hope to be invited to speak again to the cadets at some point.

Thursday, 19 May, 2005

Tax Freedom Day?

The Round Rock Leader today reprinted Doug Bandow's editorial Paying taxes for months on end, in which the author explains Tax Freedom Day and describes how much of our working lives we spend on taxes.  The average is about three and a half months, and varies from about three months to a little over four months depending on what state you live in.  I heartily agree that government costs too much, but I disagree strongly with some of Bandow's points and the formula that the Tax Foundation uses to calculate Tax Freedom Day.

Early in the article, Bandow states:

The Bush tax cuts pushed back Tax Freedom Day from May 3 in 2000 - a record, exceeding the tax burden even during World War II.

That statement felt wrong to me.  Wouldn't it make more sense to base the calculation on the total cost of government rather than on the amount of taxes collected?  Apparently not.  The Tax Freedom Day Web site has the following to say about how Tax Freedom Day is calculated:

Tax Freedom Day answers the basic question, “What price is the nation paying for government?” We divide the most authoritative figure for tax collections by the most authoritative figure for income

Now I'm no economist, but it seems to me that the real price we're paying for government should include some provision for paying off the accumulated national debt of almost 8 trillion dollars (National DebtClock).  At minimum, it should include the current year's budget deficit of over 500 billion dollars.  Not including the amount we've borrowed is irresponsible at best, and could be viewed as dishonest.  If you include the 20% current year budget deficit, Tax Freedom Day moves to about April 25 this year.

The Tax Foundation's About Us page says, in part:

As a nonpartisan educational organization, the Tax Foundation has earned a reputation for independence and credibility. However, it is not devoid of perspective.

I don't know enough about the organization's history to say whether it deserves the nonpartisan description, and I'm happy to see that they don't claim to be totally objective.  However, I don't see how they can claim credibility when they make the fundamental error of assuming that the price we're paying for government is limited to the amount of taxes collected rather than the amount spent.

Wednesday, 18 May, 2005

Jet Lag

I've often heard people talk about jet lag, how flying halfway around the world throws the body's clock out of sync.  Flying east, I heard, was worse than flying west.  Having made the trip from California to Boston a few times and not noticing any ill effects, I mostly discounted the tales of insomnia and keeping weird hours for a few days after coming back from Asia.

Boy, was I wrong.

I got home about midnight on Monday.  My body was convinced that the time was 2:00 pm, and it took me three or four hours to calm down and get to sleep.  Even then I kept waking every couple of hours.  I slept most of Tuesday, was actually functional on Tuesday evening, and stayed up until the wee hours of the morning Wednesday.  Today was a repeat of Tuesday, except that I'm going to crawl into bed at 11:00 pm (immediately after I write this) so that I can get back on a normal schedule tomorrow in preparation for a trip on Friday.

I can tell you from experience that jet lag is real.  Flying back through a 14 hour time difference will throw you off, and you'll most likely be worthless for at least two days.  Build that assumption into your schedule if you're planning a long trip.

Monday, 16 May, 2005

Wandering around Tokyo

I got a day behind somehow.  I started writing this while waiting for my plane in San Francisco, and I'll probably finish it after I get home.  The trip back was uneventful, which is probably the best kind of airplane trip.  I'm looking forward to being home, although I'm not particularly looking forward to the jet lag.  Re-synching the body clock is always difficult.

Yesterday David went to see some old friends in Kamakura and I was left to my own devices.  I decided to buy an all-day subway pass and see a little bit of the city.  Although I'd learned yesterday how to buy a subway ticket to my destination, I didn't know how to buy the all-day pass.  As I stood there in Jimbocho station trying to puzzle it out, a Japanese woman on her way to somewhere stopped and helped me out.  This was the third time in two days that somebody saw me looking perplexed and offered to help.  I can only hope that I would do the same if our positions were reversed.

My first stop was Shinjuku station, apparently one of the larger stations in the city.  The place is sprawling, with at least three different connecting subway lines, and a huge shopping mall.  I had breakfast in a little cafe there, and then walked out onto the street.  I ended up in a shopping district that had all manner of stores, although nothing quite as elaborate as when I'd seen in the Ginza district the day before.  After wandering around taking pictures there for a while, I went back to Shinjuku station and finally found my way to the platform where I could catch my next train.  I visited Roppongi (the night life district) and Ginza again, before heading back to the hotel to rest up.

I went through three sets of camera batteries while taking 250 pictures.  I took most of the pictures by holding the camera at waist level, aiming in the general direction and pressing the button.  I wanted to get people just wandering by, without them smiling at the camera or turning away.  As you might imagine, most of the shots were average to bad, but there are a few good ones in there.  I'm hoping to put together a page of the best shots with descriptions, but that's a long term project.

Something I noticed while reviewing my pictures is that people here dress better than in the U.S.  In all my wandering around, I saw very few T-shirts, and almost nobody was wearing ratty clothes.  The "I just got up and threw something on" look that seems to be all the rage in the U.S. is unknown here.  Nobody was wearing sweat pants, and with the exception of a few girls in Roppongi on Saturday night, few women were outfitted in the "ho" garb that seems so popular among young women back home.  Everybody seems to take pride in their appearance.  Lots of people wear faded jeans, but they're clean, well-fitted, without holes, and accompanied by a nice shirt and usually a jacket.  The woman at right is dressed a little better than the average shopper I saw in Ginza, but she's not so overly dressed as to stand out in the crowd.  This is one of those good shots I got from waist level.  Click on the image for a larger view.

I was surprised to see that almost everybody was wearing long sleeves or a jacket, and many were hugging themselves as though they were cold.  That was very odd, as I was quite comfortable in a short sleeved shirt.  I wonder now if long sleeves are considered polite, or if the people really do feel cold when it's 70 degrees outside.  I did findmany of the buildings uncomfortably warm.

I also learned that the people here hate to get wet.  It started to drizzle a little bit and all of a sudden the streets in the shopping district were full of umbrellas.  Very quickly the streets were almost empty of people, with everybody rushing into shops or standing under awnings waiting for the rain to stop.  I guess people in the U.S. would do that, too, if they were dressed better.  A damp T-shirt and jeans aren't so bad, and wet hair enhances that "just threw something on" look.  The girl at left is standing out in the rain under her umbrella because she's handing out flyers of some kind.

All in all I had a great time wandering around, watching people, checking out the merchandise in some of the shops, and snapping pictures of the crowds and whatever else caught my eye.  You can learn a lot about a culture just by watching how they go about their daily business.  I think it helps to be alone when doing that, isolated from everybody else almost like an invisible observer. 

Sunday, 15 May, 2005

Sightseeing in Tokyo

My first four days in Japan, I just followed along behind our host, not paying particular attention to where we were going or how we were getting there.  In the subway, for example, he'd go buy the tickets while we waited, and then we'd just follow him to whichever platform the train was supposed to arrive at.

Work over for the week, David and I decided to spend yesterday seeing the sights.  There's a lot to see in Tokyo, of course, certainly more than one could see in a day or even a week.  But we each had a couple of things we wanted to check out, and David wanted to show me a few of the tourist spots.  My job was to figure out how to get us there on the subway.

The first stop was the Kitanomaru National Garden, a very large botanical garden on the sight of what once was (or perhaps still is) one of the Emporer's residences, complete with surrounding moat.  It was only two kilometers from the hotel, so we decided to walk.  I was surprised to see this much garden space in the middle of the world's largest city, and it was surprisingly quiet and peaceful there despite all the people and hustle and bustle around us.  The gardens were beautiful, but not much was in bloom this time of year.  The picture at left gives some idea of the garden's lushness, but it really doesn't do justice to the hard work and care given to maintaining it.

The many people wandering around the garden were quiet, children well behaved.  All seemed to understand that this is a place where people go to relax and get away from the noise of the city.  How I wish people at home would behave so well.

David is an avid Go player, so after leaving the gardens and having lunch we made a stop at the Japan Go association hall of fame and museum.  I know enough about the game of Go to understand the rules, but that's about it.  Still, I enjoyed viewing some of the old boards and other displays.  David told me a story about a samurai who was attacked while he slept, and used a Go board (a very large and heavy block of wood) to defend himself.  He managed to kill several of his attackers before being overcome.  It's a favorite story of Go players and of the Japanese in general, because it illustrates the fighting spirit that the people hold so dear.

People I'd talked to before leaving for Tokyo told me that the subway system was very difficult to navigate, and warned me to stay away from it at all costs.  But tens of millions of people use the Tokyo subway every day, so I figured that it couldn't be too terribly difficult to find my way around.  The map I got, with directions in English, certainly seemed approachable.  My only problem was trying to figure out how to buy a ticket.  I wanted to figure this out without help because I was going to be wandering around by myself the next day.  David stood there patiently while I tried to puzzle things out.  While I stood there looking bewildered, a Japanese man came by and asked if I needed help.  I thanked him and explained that I was trying to learn myself, but I appreciated his concern.  My problem was that I couldn't figure out how to tell the ticket machine where I wanted to go.  I finally gave up, and David showed me that the machine doesn't care too much where I'm going, just that I put in enough money to buy a ticket for my stop.  The prices for each stop are shown on a map above the bank of machines.  I might have figured that out if the map had the names written in Latin characters.  I couldn't read the Kanji.

We had a good old time wandering around and taking pictures in the Ginza shopping district, which has every kind of high end shop imaginable.  I think every major retailer in the world has a store here.  It's a dozen blocks of highrise buildings, with people everywhere.  The few places I walked into had some very expensive merchandise.  I'm not much of a shopper, so I spent most of the time just watching people and taking pictures.  I'll post some of those tomorrow.

Saturday, 14 May, 2005

Touring a War Museum

The other day after lunch, David and I visited a shrine dedicated to Japanese soldiers and a war museum.  The most interesting part about the museum visit was the interpretation of events leading up to the Second World War.  Whereas in the U.S., we're taught that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was totally without provocation, the history presented in the museum speaks of anti-Japanese sentiment and American interference in Japan's quest to modernize.  Having studied a little about the events, I'd say that the truth is somewhere in the middle.  In any case, it's instructive to see the other viewpoint.  Since most of the museum was a "no picture" zone, I'm not able to show any samples.

I was able, however, to take pictures of some of the hardware they had on display.  Above and at right is a Mitsibushi Type 0 Carrier-Based Fighter, commonly called a Zero.  This was the best carrier-based fighter in the world early in the war, and certainly much better than the land-based fighters that we threw against it.  It had long range, good power and speed, and was very maneuverable.  The American F-4U Corsair, P-38 Lightning, and P-51Mustang were better aircraft, but they didn't arrive until later in the war.

This particular machine was put together from parts of four or five others.  The description in the museum didn't say whether the aircraft could actually fly.  I'd be surprised if it could.  Back in the 1970s, I had heard that there were no flyable Zeros in the world, but then I heard that they used some real Zeros when filming the movie Pearl Harbor.  Whatever the case, I suspect that if this airplane could fly, it wouldn't be sitting on static display in a museum miles away from the nearest air strip.

I'm not sure if I was supposed to take these two pictures.  The airplane at left is a carrier-based bomber.  I didn't get a picture of the plaque that described it, and I don't remember what it was called.  The thing at the right is a particularly frightening piece of equipment:  a rocket-propelled dive bomber of the "Special Attack Squadron,"  commonly referred to as "kamikaze."  The Japanese called this human-guided missile "Ohka," or "Cherry Blossom."  It was designed to be carried underneath the belly of a bomber and released in range of an American warship.  It would descend unpowered to a low altitude, and then the pilot would engage the rocket motor to propell the craft into the ship at high speed.  The explosives were rigged with a time delay so that the craft could penetrate the hull before detonation.  The craft was designed to be used in the defense of Okinawa, but was never deployed.

I wish I could have taken pictures of the samurai fighting outfits and many of the other displays.  But there were "No Pictures Please" signs all around, and most of the rooms weren't bright enough for me to take pictures without using the flash.  All in all it was an interesting couple of hours.

Friday, 13 May, 2005

More Lessons in Japanese Culture

How hard can it be to find a beer?  This evening, after enjoying the best sushi I've ever had, I thought I'd find a quiet place to have a drink or two and soak up a little of the culture.  I soaked up a little culture, but not quite what I had expected.  I'll relate the two experiences and then explain what I learned when I asked about things the next day.

As I said the other day, I'm illiterate here.  I should have had the foresight to ask somebody how to identify the Kanji symbol for bar, lounge, or alcohol.  Lacking that prior preparation, I wandered around the streets near the hotel until I saw a sign, in English, that said "Blue Dolphin Lounge, 7th Floor."  The young man dressed in a business suit who met me when I got off the elevator asked, in very good English, whether I speak any Japanese.  When I told him no, he put on a concerned look and said, "The girls speak only Japanese."  I was starting to think that maybe I was in the wrong place, but since I was there I figured I'd learn something.

After a little bit of fumbling with the language barrier, I finally understood that for 4,500 yen (about $45 U.S.), plus a 25% "tip," I could sit down and drink all the beer, whiskey, or champagne (I think, but maybe he meant white wine) I wanted, and a lady would "be my friend" for an hour.  I thought about that a bit, wondering just how friendly the lady would be, and ultimately declined.  I just wanted to have a beer, and I can't drink $60 worth of beer in an hour.

Back on the street, I walked around taking in the night life until I found another sign:  "Bacchus Bar, 3rd Floor."  The bartender looked surprised to see a Westerner, but he greeted me kindly and asked in Japanese what I would like.  Trying not to look like a total idiot, I scanned the shelf behind the bar looking for their beer selection.  That shelf contained just about every kind of liquor known to man, most of them with English labels, but not a beer in sight.  Figuring that any bartender knows what beer is, I smiled at him and said, "Beer."  He nodded and pulled me a beer from the one tap at the bar.  Whatever it was, it was excellent.

There were two bartenders behind the bar and one other customer: a woman sitting a few stools down, talking to one of the bartenders.  I didn't understand any of the conversation, but I got the impression that this woman was a regular.  After a while, another woman came in and sat down next to the first one.  Obviously friends, they proceeded to chatter up a storm while chain smoking cigarettes and drinking.  A couple came in a bit later and sat down at one of the tables.  They ordered drinks and, I think, sashimi.  I sat there drinking my beer and taking it all in while trying to puzzle out the katakana characters on the menu by comparing them against the writing on some of the bottles.  I ordered a second beer, nibbled on the mixed nuts that the bartender had set before me, and then finally asked for my bill.

I was a little surprised to see a bill for 1,700 yen, as I thought that the sign outside said "Beer 600 yen."  I don't remember paying $8.50 for a single draft beer before, but I wasn't going to complain.  I paid with two 1,000 yen notes, left a tip, and walked out the door.  I was almost to the stairs when one of the bartenders came running after me with my change.

The Blue Dolphin, I found out, is a hostess bar--the modern rendition of an ancient Japanese tradition.  For her part of the $60 I would have paid (probably the 25% "tip"), the lady would have listened attentively, laughed at my jokes, and told me what an incredibly good looking and wonderful guy I am.  It's all very proper, with no nudity or inappropriate touching.  Japanese society is apparently very stressful on men, and the culture doesn't allow them to show weakness--even in front of their wives.  The hostess bar allows them an outlet and provides validation of their worth.  It sounds shallow from a Western perspective, I know, but the culture really is different.

The bar thing is very simple.  Service employees are paid a normal wage in Japan.  The Western custom of tipping is not widely practiced in Japan, and the scrupulous honesty which is so prevalent in the culture forces people to return that which does not belong to them, if at all possible.  At least that's the way I read it.  My understanding is that many Americans have had much the same experience after trying to leave a tip.

I continue to be surprised by my own preconceived notions, in large part because I like to think that I'm open minded and receptive to new experiences.  I often see something and have to surpress my first instinct to say, "But that's not the way things are at home."  Fortunately I've learned not to hold my cultural predjudices so closely that I automatically think that any thing different is bad or stupid.  I have to laugh at myself sometimes when I run into new things and catch myself looking at them with a very narrow viewpoint.

We took the Shinkansen back to Tokyo this evening, and after a delicious dinner of traditional Japanese food (I don't remember what it was called), I'm back in my hotel room.  Work is over for the week.  The next two days are set aside for playing tourist.

We took the Shinkansen, or bullet train, from Tokyo to Osaka this evening, arriving at our hotel around 7:00 pm.  The three hundred mile trip took maybe three hours from the time we got in a taxi at the office until we arrived at the hotel in Osaka.  That included three or four stops along the way and taking the subway from Shin Osaka station to the station near the hotel.  I suspect that for trips of 500 miles or less, the bullet train is a much more time efficient means of travel than air.  At home, a 300 mile airplane trip takes at least four hours from door to door by the time get to the airport, check in, clear security, board the plane, and all that.  Another bonus of riding the train is that it's almost always on time.

Our host showed us around the area, and we toured the pachinko and slot parlors. Imagine a Las Vegas slot machine place--one of those downtown by the Golden Nugget.  Now add twice as many people and increase the noise by a factor of three or four, and you'll get an idea of what one of these places is like.  Oh, and double the smoke.  I've never really understood the attraction of slot machines, and pachinko is totally alien to me.  But the Japanese seem to really enjoy it.

Another culture shock is the piles of slot machine tokens on the floor next to some players.  Apparently that person is a big winner, and the house wants to show off that people actually win.  I saw piles of tokens representing thousands of dollars sitting on the floor there.  It would have been trivial to grab a handful and get lost in the crowd.  Nobody does that, though.  As surprised as I am by the honesty and respect that I've seen in this culture, I think the Japanese are more surprised that it's not the same throughout the world.  It really is a sad state of affairs when you're surprised that people can be civilized.

Today I met with the programmers and artists who will be using the 3D graphics tools that I'm developing.  As with most things I've encountered here in Japan, the meeting was an odd mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar.  Japanese programmers and artists dress and act exactly like the programmers and artists I worked with in the games industry six years ago.  I understand the technology we're using, of course, and could follow along with the presentation to a certain extend, but I couldn't understand any questions or detailed explanations that weren't in the handouts.  When it came my time to present, I spoke slowly and paused from time to time to let our host translate.

As excited as I was about this new project, I'm even more excited now that I've met the clients and learned exactly what they'll be doing with the product of my work.  They gave us a lot of good suggestions and asked questions that forced us to rethink our approach to some things.  I'm looking forward to getting started.

Wednesday, 11 May, 2005

Things are small here

The conventional wisdom is that Asian people are short compared to Americans.  I can't say about the rest of Asia, but that's certainly not true of the Japanese.  I'm 5'9", about average height for an American man.  Most of the Japanese men my age and younger are almost as tall, and I regularly saw men who were taller than I.  The women seem to be between 5'3" and 5'6".  Older generations are shorter, sure.  My understanding is that I would have to duck my head to pass through doors in some of the older buildings.

One thing I did notice is that there are few Japanese who are grossly overweight.  There are some, but not nearly as many as I see waddling around if I take a walk in downtown Austin.  Unfortunately, it appears that the Japanese are catching up with us in that regard.  I saw many children walking to school during my morning explorations, and noticed that some of the kids (especially the junior high or high school girls) were packing quite a few extra pounds.  I hope the Japanese figure out how to reverse that trend before their population starts to look like ours.

The people aren't any smaller, but most things in Japan are smaller.  The reason is simple:  space.  Japan is about the size of California, but has less usable land.  Only about 33% of Japan's total land area is fit for habitation.  California's population is about 34 million people.  There are almost 127 million people in Japan.  The Tokyo metropolitan area has 28 million people.  Pack the entire population of California into Los Angeles/Orange County, and you'll get an idea of how crowded things are here.  This tight packing of people puts space at a premium.  At one point, land in Tokyo was going for something like $25,000 per square meter.  That works out to $100 million per acre.  Not that you'd be able to buy an acre in Tokyo at any price.

I knew that the average car here is smaller than in the U.S.  A Dodge PT Cruiser looks huge next to most of the cars you'll see in Tokyo.  I didn't realize that almost everything is smaller.  The towtruck above is smaller than my little pickup.  The truck at left is about the length and width of a Ford Expedition.  It's hauling a backhoe that's about the size of a Bobcat.  I saw a construction site where all of the equipment was miniature sized.  It would be very difficult to move large equipment and trucks through downtown areas.  Trash trucks look just like the familiar trucks in the U.S., but they're about 1/3 the size.  I couldn't get over the Expedition-sized cement truck.  I wanted to get a picture, but I never had my camera at hand when one came rolling by.

Some things, like the itty bitty car at right, are just too small.  This thing is smaller than a golf cart.  David caught it on the streets of Tokyo one night.

My hotel room is very small.  It consists of a "bedroom" that is just big enough for a double bed, writing desk/TV stand, a short hallway, and a small bathroom.  The bedroom part is about 8' by 8', and the hallway is about 8' long.  It's small, but comfortable.  I didn't really need a large space anyway.  About all I used the room for was sleeping, showering, and a bit of writing.

Streets and hallways are narrower, bathrooms are smaller, there aren't any garages that I saw, lots of people ride bicycles or take the subway, the streets are crowded, and there are people everywhere.  It's hard to describe the surprise of finding a smaller version of something familiar, and then wondering "Why don't we do that?"  I've seen delivery vans that aren't any larger than my little pickup truck, and I wonder how many companies in the U.S. would rather have one of those tiny things rather than the big trucks that are so common.  I know many delivery drivers who say that they never have a full load.

The lack of space in Japan is, I think, one of the primary motivating factors behind many of its customs.  I hope to expand on that thought later in the week.

Tuesday, 10 May, 2005

Vending machines in Japan

There is at least one vending machine on every street corner, and several along every block.  I'm not kidding.  There is quite a variety of stuff available in the machines: water, tea, soda, and coffee of all types, snacks, cigarettes, beer, and even whiskey.  Really.  There's a beer and whiskey vending machine in the hotel.  In some of the fast food restaurants you buy a ticket for whatever item you want and present it to the kitchen staff.  It's an interesting concept:  employees don't have to handle the money.  The shot above is of a tobacco shop that's just down the block from my hotel.  The shop itself is rather small, but there are a dozen vending machines outside.

I'm not too sure about some of the stuff that's being sold.  "Pocari Sweat," for example, doesn't sound particularly appealing, even though I don't know what a pocari is.

Calpis doesn't seem too bad, right? Except that the TV advertisments for it include a cow, and the Japanese don't have an "L" sound in their language. "L" becomes sort of a mangled "R", and the result is distressingly similar to "cowpiss." I couldn't bring myself to try it.

I just had to include these two advertisements from the sides of vending machines.  That girl on the left sure seems to like her tea.  And the girl on the right, well ...

You'd think that with all these vending machines there would be people walking down the street drinking out of a bottle or smoking a cigarette.  Surprisingly, that's very rare.  Eating and drinking on the streets is strongly discouraged, almost to the point of being a social taboo.  You'll see some people smoking on the street, but not many when you consider the large number of smokers.  Rarely, you'll see somebody buy a drink from a vending machine and open it there.  But that person stays right next to the vending machine while he drinks it.  It's almost like there is a ten foot radius around the vending machine where the social taboo doesn't exist.

You also might expect to see litter everywhere.  Again, you'd be disappointed.  I saw very few people throwing cigarettes out of their cars or crushing them underfoot on the sidewalks.  The city streets are incredibly clean.  If you take a walk early in the morning you'll see shop owners sweeping the sidewalks in front of their strores and picking up the trash.  In the U.S., even if shop owners swept the walk, they'd just sweep it out onto the street.

U.S. coinage makes selling stuff in vending machines difficult.  Our largest coin is only one dollar, and nobody uses those even though Congress seems to think we should.  In the U.S., nobody uses anything larger than a quarter.  Many vending machines in the U.S. take one dollar bills but very few take fives or anything larger.  And the bill accepters are pretty inconsistent.

Japan has a 500 yen coin, and most vending machines that I've seen take 10, 50, 100, and 500 yen coins.  They also accept 1,000 yen notes.  The current exchange rate is just a little over 100 yen to the dollar, and 500 yen coins are common.  It's easy in Japan to sell relatively high value goods in vending machines.

It doesn't hurt, of course, that there is very little crime in Japan.  None of the vending machines I saw had bars across them or any kind of special protection on the cash box.  They're locked, of course, but I think more to prevent tempting people than to try to avert crime.  In the U.S., vandalism and theft prevent the widespread use of vending machines on the scale that they're used in Japan.  Sad, that.

Monday, 09 May, 2005

First thoughts on Japan

Being illiterate is very frightening.  It's one thing to wander around in Mexico or on one of the Caribbean islands where the language is different but the writing system is similar to English.  I'm bright enough to puzzle out the meanings of many French or Spanish words because they resemble English words with which I'm familiar.  And I can pick up some conversation because words and inflections are similar, too.  My ability to communicate with the people in Mexico is limited, but I can make myself understood if I have to.

In Tokyo I'm illiterate.  I'm also unable to understand any of the spoken language or make myself understood if the person I'm trying to communicate with doesn't know English.  The place looks hauntingly familiar due to the abundance of American companies that have a presence (Starbucks Coffee, McDonald's, 7-11, Denny's, etc.), but most of the writing is indecipherable to me.  Place names very often are written in Romaji (the Japanese term for the Latin alphabet) as well as in Kanji, so at least I can give names to places, even if I don't pronounce them quite right.  But menus and descriptions aren't often written in English.  I have to rely on pictures in order to figure out what something is.  I can't imagine how frightening it would be if there were no familiar signs and no familiar-looking writing at all.

One of the things that will surprise you in Tokyo is how trusting people are.  The most evident for me was bicycles parked on the sidewalk, unlocked.  People dismount and park their bikes without locks, leaving them unattended for hours at a time.  Rarely is a bicycle stolen.  The first morning I was in Tokyo, I woke up and took my walk at 5:00 am.  Bicycles that had been left parked overnight were still there, unmolested.  The mountain bike with the flat tire shown on the left is a good example.  I can pretty much guarantee that a bicycle left overnight anywhere in downtown Austin would be gone long before 5:00 am.

Here's another example.  I took the picture on the right at 10:00 pm.  The display case is outside a shop on a side street just down from my hotel.  It's probably been there for years, unharmed.

This kind of thing is pervasive in the culture.  In the U.S., if you want to send a check or cash in the mail, you wrap it up in paper or make sure to send it in an opaque envelope.  You don't want anybody to know that there is cash in there.  In Japan, they have a special envelope that says, in effect, "Please Mr. Postman, be very careful with this letter because it contains something valuable."  That's difficult to imagine back home, huh?  I doubt the postman would take it, but you can bet there'd be people rifling through mailboxes on a regular basis.

Sunday, 08 May, 2005

Japan, here I come!

With nothing to do before our 1:00 flight to Japan, David and I took our time this morning, made a couple of wrong turns on the way to the airport, and still managed to check into our flight before the rush.  We breezed through check-in and security, and had a couple of hours to kill in the airport departure lounge.  Too bad that T-Mobile wants $10 for a one-day connection on their wireless network.  Austin, too, is charging for wireless Internet access on their Wayport system.  I can't imagine that they have enough people actually paying for access that they can make money.  I thought they'd offer the wireless access as a convenience to travelers in an attempt to keep us happy.  Free wireless is bound to keep people quiet better than televisions in the departure lounge.

A Boeing 747 is a huge machine that holds 400 or more people.  Today's flight was totally full.  The prospect of spending 10.5 hours crammed into that little seat was kind of daunting, but I figure if I can manage to ride my bike for 12 hours, sitting in one place for the duration should be a breeze.  I won't say that I was comfortable during the flight, but the exceptional service, good food, and ear plugs made it bearable.  Time seems to drag on during those flights, and after three or four hours I didn't know how I was going to manage the rest of the flight.  My only real complaint, besides having to sit in one place for so long other than getting up to wander the aisles and use the bathroom, was that the the cabin was so hot.  Either the air conditioner was on the blink, or I'm just overly sensitive to heat.

All in all, the flight was just long, and no less comfortable than most domestic flights I've taken on full aircraft.  The beautiful and friendly JAL cabin attendants made the flight much more comfortable.  They provided the best service I've ever had on any flight.

We arrived at Narita airport at about 4:00.  I'm glad that David had spent some time in Japan, because I was totally lost.  I guess I could have managed to find my way to the train bound for Tokyo and find my way to the hotel.  It would have been a bit more difficult, though.

So now I'm in Tokyo, in a comfortable little shoebox hotel room.  It's 9:00 pm on December 9, or about 5:00 am in San Francisco.  I lost a day crossing the date line, so the entries here might be post-dated a day.  I've been up for 24 hours.  Work starts at 9:00 tomorrow morning, so I'm crawling into bed.

Saturday, 07 May, 2005

Flying to San Francisco

Saturday early morning just might be the best time to catch a flight.   The America West ticket counter was almost deserted when I arrived at 5:10 this morning.  It took me about 30 seconds to check my bag and get my .  I got selected for "additional screening," meaning that I got to participate in a little training exercise for the TSA staff.  They gave me a card that I had to carry through and set off the metal detector.  Then they ushered me over to the pat down area where a too-chipper young TSA employee (I hesitate to call these folks security officers) went through the routine of wanding me, giving me the pat down, and going through my carry on.  I was surprised that he didn't look everywhere.  All he did was run the nitrate test and check that the laptop was real.  Five minutes and I was done.

Somehow I managed to lose the rest of this entry.  I'll have to reconstruct it.

Friday, 06 May, 2005

No Pants Day / Leaving for Japan

Today is No Pants Day, a celebration of ... umm ... well, okay, a day that people celebrate by not wearing pants.  Visit the University of Texas campus here in Austin today and you'll see a bunch of kids wandering around in boxer shorts and briefs.  I guess this is just another part of the "Keep Austin Weird" campaign.

I'm leaving early tomorrow (Saturday) morning for San Francisco, where I have a day of meetings with the other members of my new development team.  Sunday afternoon I leave for Tokyo.  I return late Monday night, May 16.  I'm taking the laptop and will try to post entries, but I'm not sure that I'll have Internet access.

Thursday, 05 May, 2005

Pollution prevents global warming?

Nature.com reports that cleaner skies due to the last 20 years of anti-pollution measures might cause an increase in global warming.  It makes sense, right?  Fewer particles in the air to absorb the sunlight means more solar energy hitting the ground.  Does this mean that the global warming alarmists are going to start asking us to drive more SUVs?

This is good news for the anti-nuclear crowd.  They can tell us that we need more coal fired power plants in order to prevent global warming.

More than anything else, this report shows that we still have very little idea of what factors affect the global climate and how those factors interact.  We don't know if the Sun is producing more or less energy.  We don't have good temperature data for even 100 years.  Our computer models aren't reliable, and conventional wisdom (that pollution increases global warming) is suspect.

Sit back and relax, or do some real science to figure out what, if anything, is happening.  Unthinking, reactionist activism does nothing but increase your blood pressure.

Tuesday, 03 May, 2005

The latest teenage fashion accessory

Every time I think we've gotten as absurd as possible, people surprise me again.  The latest fashion accessory for teenage girls is...you're not gonna believe this one...custom gold tooth caps.  Yes, you too can look like a stereotypical Mexican bandito from a 50's Western.  Or Jaws from the James Bond movies.  Or a gangsta with the latest bling-bling.  All for just $20 per tooth.

I'm pretty sure that, as a teenage boy, I would not have been too keen on any girl wearing a row of gold teeth.  Especially if she had them made with sharp edges.  But then, perhaps that's what these girls' parents are counting on.  $20 per tooth seems like a pretty inexpensive way to keep the boys' hands off your daughter.

On balance, I guess this isn't so bad.  It certainly doesn't compare to the girls at one of the local high schools chipping in to give their "underdeveloped" friends breast enhancements for a graduation gift.

Monday, 02 May, 2005

What idiot wrote that?

Have you ever looked at a piece of code and wondered "What idiot wrote that?", only to realize later that the idiot was you?

In 1998 and 1999 I worked on the world editor program for the Genesis3D graphics engine.  The company had acquired a level editor from somewhere and I was tasked with extending it to support the 3D graphics engine that the company was developing.  Considering what I had to work with and the short timeline I had to get it done, I was pleased with the result.  I'll be the first to admit that the editor has a number of quirks and a few embarrassing user interface atrocities that it would have been nice to change, but when you're working on a schedule you have to set priorities.

I mention this because a large part of what I'll be doing with my new assignment involves writing a 3D world editor and associated tools.  It's instructive to look at what's been done before in the way of features and user interface to see what works well and what doesn't.  In my case, I can look at the Genesis3D editor dispassionately after six years to see what I did right, what I did wrong, and what features should be added or removed.

This is going to be an interesting project.  I have no illusions of creating the perfect 3D world editor, but I think I can do a whole lot better than I did before.

Sunday, 01 May, 2005

Brave New World

Debra inherited about a thousand books a few years ago when her friend passed away.  As with most personal libraries, it's a somewhat eclectic collection with books about the old west, Arizona ghost towns, geology, mystery novels, and many that are hard to classify.  Debra's friend Dee apparently was a big customer of Time Magazine's reading program, as her library included several of their collections.  That's where I found Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

My formal education, what little there is of it, didn't include much in the way of literature.  I'd certainly heard of the book and I had some idea what it was about, but I'd never taken the time to read it, mostly because I figured it was another one of those "classics" that the critics loved but has no redeeming value (i.e. Catcher in the Rye).  As you might expect, I was pleasantly surprised by Brave New World.

The book is short, only 227 pages in the edition I have, not nearly long enough to fully describe the Utopian society and the clash of values that occurs when members of that society encounter non-Utopian "savages."  Huxley's genius is in his selection of language and scenes to place the reader inside that society; to give us glimpses of what things are like and allow our minds to expand on the vision.  The book is more disturbing because of it; because many of the images we see are created in our own minds.

Too many writers from the school of "more is better" produce 800-page tomes that describe every minute detail, leaving little room at all for imagination.  I've read many a book that would have been much better had the writer exercised a little restraint in his description, forcing the reader to engage his brain and visualize the scene.  There is a fine line between enough and too much description.  Too much is junk food for the mind and the words wash over the brain like a television sitcom.  Just enough description forces the reader to pay attention, to pause periodically and consider what he's read before moving on to the next scene.

There are nits I could pick with the book, and I could laugh at the many things Huxley got wrong about future technology.  But I can't fault his writing.  On the contrary, I was delighted by the book.  It got the author's point across very clearly, and gave me plenty to think about.  It was a joy to read, and I'll probably read it again in a few years.  Highly recommended.