Saturday, December 15, 2007

Batmobile State University

As some of you may know, I'm looking at graduate schools to apply to, though it won't be until the fall of 2009. Right now, it's looking like U of Wisconsin or one of the UCs. My grandmother's worried about me going to California, what with everyone there being hippies, so I found an alternative. I'm looking at a BA of Transhumanist Philosophy with minors in Ninjutsu and Socks.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Visiting the family

Last Sunday I headed to Yokohama to spend the day with Sayaka in her natural habitat - that of outer Yokohama. I got to see her house and meet her dog, an ancient little Pekingese named Dairi, or "Big Power." As a gift, I used a recipe sent to my by my aunt Kathy for buckeyes. Basically, I've discovered the recipe for reese's peanut butter cups, or an approximation anyway. It took rather longer than I'd hoped to make them, but I was able to make about 4 dozen sizable peanut butter balls and dip them in chocolate. They weren't salty, but I didn't have Chef's recipe on hand.

The Kosuges loved them, and as a thank you, her mom gave me the tupperware back with a couple apples, a pack of dried udon noodles and a package of dried squid. I think that one's for my folks. Sayaka's house is typically Japanese - more vertical than horizontal. It's footprint is probably the same as my apartment, or less, maybe 50 square meters, but it's three stories. And immaculately kept. Sayaka must think I live in a pigsty when she comes to my place.

Her sister and brother-in-law live about a block and a half away, so we wandered over there and partook in some Wii Sports. I got my butt kicked by her in-law, Toshi, at tennis, only to narrowly beat Sayaka at both tennis and bowling. I'll have to let her win next time, I guess.

In the evening, her folks took us all out for yakiniku, at a great restaurant. They're big fans of the raw beef liver. Me? Not so much.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

J's Book Report: "First into Nagasaki"

I just finished a really good book loaned to me by my roommate. It's called "First Into Nagasaki," by George Weller. Basically, it's a bunch of news reports written by Weller, who was, literally, the first free Westerner to enter Nagasaki after the 2nd atomic bomb was dropped. The thing about these reports is that they were never published - General MacArthur had them all censored before they left Japan. Weller's son discovered them, half molding, in a box of his father's documents a few years ago.

I was expecting more of a book documenting the effects of the bomb on the city and its inhabitants. What I ended up with were essentially news reports - short stories and essays about the bomb, as well as a ton of statements from surviving POWs - American, British and Australian. The most disturbing part was reading the accounts of the 'hell ships.' These were ships used by the Japanese to transport Allied POWs, often unmarked by Red Cross or any other signifier, so some of them were attacked by Allied aircraft and sunk. The account discusses the depravities undertaken by the POWs, who were stuffed into the holds in such numbers that many asphyxiated or went insane.

One of the more interesting accounts was by a group of American prisoners who were directly beneath the blast, yet managed to survive by hiding in a shallow trench when the plane flew overhead. You have to wonder what people would've said had they known that 'the Bomb' had been dropped on their own countrymen.

Another interesting idea that can be gleaned from the book is the capacity for barbarism in the human soul. A lot of the prisoners were quoted as saying the Americans should drop more bombs just to clean up these 'animals,' as the Japanese were called. A rather understandable sentiment from someone who survived the Bataan death march and 2 1/2 years as slave labor in a deathtrap coal mine. But what strikes me is seeing the Japanese of today, and thinking how unlike the people I've met the Japanese of sixty years ago seem. It just goes to show that you, I or any other person is capable of the things done by the Japanese during WWII. "There, but for the grace of God, go I," and all that. It's only the rule of law and the mores of our society that prevent this, somehting that should be kept in mind when people try to tell you, 'waterboarding isn't torture.' It sure as hell is. The American POWs underwent it, as did they stress positions and being placed in rooms with vast temperature swings. They also suffered a million other atrocities, depths we have yet to plumb - but if a stand isn't taken here, I don't think it will take long for Americans' sense of decency to break down.

The book does an amazing job of recounting the Japanese response, essentially unchanged from now - "Oh, pity us poor Japanese, upon who was visited this most horrific of atrocities for no reason, none at all. What, war? I didn't see any war around here, did you?" Anyways, that's about all I'm going to rant about it. It's well worth your while to read about the semi-forgotten (at least in the American mind) other half of WWII.

(edited for title)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

I'm special

Via Matthew Yglesias at The Atlantic, the NYT has a report on the commonality of surnames in the US released by the Census Bureau. In addition to discussing the dramatic rise in Hispanic surnames from the 1990 census, they have a field you can use to look up your own surname. 'Eades' didn't make it into the top 5,000, but the alternate 'Eads' make 3682, up from 4803 in the 1990 census. 'Eades' turns out to be ranked #6,396 in between 'Shaner' and 'Ribeiro'.

The whole list can be found in an Excel document here (ZIP file). Incidentally, 'Featherson' is the
least common, coming in at #65,536. Sayaka's last name, 'Kosuge' (小菅), isn't even on there.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The return of Julian

My good friend from Manchester, Julian, came back for a 2-week visit with his girlfriend, and he graced his humble old stomping ground Hiratsuka with a couple of passes through the drinking establishments with yours truly.

His first time out, last Thursday, ended in typical (read: bad) form for any night out drinking - three of us slumped in a karaoke booth wailing away at hair metal music until 2:30am, with a 6:30am alarm to get to work.

Friday saw me somewhat loopy and extremely exhausted doing quiz games with 15-year-olds, and getting to bed early so I could be in some semblance of shape for the big meet-up on Saturday night.

Saturday saw the whole gang getting back together, complete with all available SO's and heading out to the nearest cheap izakaya. After that, it was a run to ye olde bar Sad Cafe, a place where Ju left a large portion of each month's salary, and then back to the old, back-alley karaoke bar. This place is really dodgy, in the more-or-less red-light district and right next to a cheap, seedy-looking love hotel. Utandamura, baby! I managed to hold it together that night, Sayaka and I winding down around 3:30am while the karaoke raged on.

It was good to see Ju again, he's always the life of whatever party you invite him to. He might end up back here, but not teaching English. I think he does enjoy his current job as a tree surgeon (basically a sap who climbs 150ft into the air and lops of tree limbs while trying not to lose any of his own). He doesn't seem to be getting much intellectual stimulation, not surprising considering his co-workers being rural yokels whose idea of a holiday is driving to the next town over and drinking. I don't know what he's got planned, I doubt he knows either, but his lady will be headed back next year, which will be good for him.

Julian heads off Friday, so I doubt I'll get to see him before he goes. Such is life, I guess. He's always talking about a motorbike trip somewhere, I'll have to try to get to Europe one of these days to do it.

School lunch

One of the things about teaching in elementary school is that you have to eat lunch with the kids. Usually it's not that bad - they ask questions if they're bold enough, and since you get the same questions over and over again, it's not bad Japanese practice (what? You thought they'd ask in English?). The food is average school food. Well, average for Japan. Quality is about what you'd find anywhere in the US, but the type of food you get is completely different. I'd thought the worst was the cold slab of squid covered in some tasteless 'sauce.' Then Monday happened.

I try to be adventurous, but some stuff you just can't choke down. And being from Indiana, I just have a revulsion for certain things. Like fish. Now, I love fish, but I prefer my fish cut up and easily eaten, without the difficult things like bones, tails, and heads. But Monday's lunch was whole fried fish, each about six inches long. And I mean whole - I don't think the thing was gutted, even. The idea of eating whatever said fish had lined up to be expelled while doing it's fishy business doesn't exactly appeal to me. And, because I'm a grown-up, the kids had decided I need extra nourishment and gave me two of the little buggers.

Fortunately, the lunch also included a hot dog bun-shaped roll, conveniently sliced down the center. The first-graders I was dining with tucked in, and after poking my fish for a bit, I stuffed one into the bread and bit down on the head. It'd been fried thoroughly so the bones weren't too bad, though the spinal column gave me some trouble. I chowed down, trying to avoid looking into the ever-shrinking cross section of the half-fish. I was starting to worry when I got to the entrails, and didn't look at all. Eventually I noticed a change in the flavor and glanced down. My stomach churned and I showed it to the little kid next to me, who'd been staring throughout the meal at my giant, freakishly blue eyes. "Oh, you're lucky, you got the pregnant one," he exclaimed (well, something to that effect, anyway).

And thus ended my appetite, looking at a fishbelly full of little white eggs. Yuck.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Nova's bankrupt

Well, it was to be expected. Nova Corp's going to shut down for a month while they try to find a sponsor to get them out of hock. Unfortunately, that means that the teachers, like my roommate, won't get paid for the work they did in September, nor for the work they've done so far in October. Their pay was delayed from the 15th to last Thursday, but it still didn't come through.

To hear Mike tell it, it's been rampant lawlessness there. Teachers just decide they don't feel like being there and leave, many of them have taken emergency leave and said, "until I get paid, I'm not coming back."

It all started a while ago when Nova got busted for deceptive advertising and strong-arm sales tactics. That got them a 6-month moratorium on signing new students. Their business model was always based on expansion, and their corporate structure was always too top-heavy, which meant they couldn't consolidate their gains in the marketplace. In addition, as part of their court settlement, they had to increase hiring of new teachers. Unfortunately, by the time they got it ramped up, it was September and they were in severe financial trouble. So now they had all sorts of financial problems. Like I said earlier, some teachers had been evicted from their company-run apartments, the Japanese staff was last paid in August, and now they're going to shut down all schools for a month.

The really sad part is that if the teachers pulled together, went to work and did their best, the students would probably stay happy and resign with the company, giving them new revenue. The problem with this is that Nova has never given its employees any reason to feel any loyalty towards it. They were notoriously micro-managing, they'd take any opportunity to take advantage of the teachers and the people who got promoted were the ones who could either kiss ass or stab others in the back best. The ideal area manager would be one who could do both. This sort of corporate environment never made me feel any sort of loyalty to them whatsoever.

While maybe they could've pulled out of it reduced in size but intact, like the clusterf*ck in Iraq, you can't really expect the fools who got themselves in the current situation to extricate themselves with any semblance of competency.

So Nova lied to and coerced students, and exploited foreign teachers who have little to no idea of how to operate in this culture. I guess you reap what you sow.

One interesting side effect I've discussed with a few people is what will happen to the general job market for English teachers here. Right now, there are 5000 people suddenly dumped into a small job market sector looking for work. Many of the ones who don't have ties to Japan and live in Nova housing will probably wind up leaving. The motivated ones are the guys who've been here 10 or 15 years, have families and a mortgage to pay. Right now it's nigh impossible to find a job. But many people are betting that after a few months, when people who are trying to stay despite not having a home or much in the way of resources start giving up and heading home, the job market will swing to the other direction. One niche Nova served very well was as a gateway for foreigners to come to Japan. Many of them would do like me: work for your first year (if that) with Nova to finish your contract, then look for other employment. Many jobs here require you to currently live in the country and have a valid work visa. Without this gateway, if no other major company steps in, there could be a severe shortage of teachers. This might not be all that bad, because the recent glut has led to a general stagnation of wages, which really sucks for most of us.

Keep your eyes on this story, it's only going to get more interesting. There are some unconfirmed rumors I want to see about, then I'll write more.

Culture Festival

Last Saturday was the Culture festival at the junior high schools. In addition, for one of the schools, this year is its 60th anniversary, so it was especially important. If I haven't mentioned it before, for the Japanese, junior high school has the same kind of emotional attachment that high school does for Americans - it's the end of your geographic-based schooling, where you've been with the same people for nine years. They even have reunions. My girlfriend went to her 15th this summer.

Culture day kicked off with a ceremony to commemorate the school. And as with any special occasion in Japan, there were speeches. Lots of speeches. Lots of very long speeches. Since I couldn't understand 80% of it anyway, I found myself dozing off. I started to feel bad, but then realized the gym teacher next to me was dozing as well, with a nice stream of saliva mucking up his shirt as well. So I went back to sleep. To make up for all the boringness, they'd hired a taiko group to come play. So I was jolted out of my nice dream by a shout and lots of banging on drums. The group was pretty awesome, really.

Afterwards, the booths and things opened up. The students had created a variety of activities and so on to entertain the family members and locals. A really cool one was called somen. I'd seen the ichinensei (first-years) building the setup earlier in the week, but didn't really understand what they were getting at. They'd taken lengths of thick bamboo and cut it in half lengthwise. These lengths were connected and made into a kind of ramp. A hose at the higher end spat out water and ran all the way down, winding up in a kiddie pool at the far end. People would buy tickets and sit alongside the ramp, with a pair of chopsticks and a bowl of tsuyu, a kind of weak soy sauce. The high end was obscured by a cloth, so you couldn't see the students behind there dropping noodles into the stream. They'd come down at a pretty good clip, and you had to be quick to stop the noodles and pick them up without letting too many continue down the chute. I was lucky, the two students next to me weren't very handy at snatching the somen, so I got a bit more than my fair share when half of a clump would slip out of their grasp. For 20 cents a go, you can't really argue with that.

Another group of ichinensei were running a small cafe, with a talent show scheduled. There was a demonstration of balloon animals, spinning pie tops on sticks, and my favorite, juggling. I'd brought my juggling balls along and jumped out to perform with the kids. Besides dropping the ball a couple times, it went pretty well, we got lots of applause.

The ninensei (second-years) had a haunted house going, which I was disappointed to have missed, and a reflexology room run by the tennis team (go figure). I got a nice little foot massage by a really embarrassed student. The poor lady next to me got one of the troublemakers, who decided to really dig his knuckles in. Everytime she'd gasp or yelp, he'd just glance at the diagram sheet and say something like, "That means you drink too much," or "That means you have to poo."

The sannensei (you probably know this one, by now) put on a couple plays and did some talent shows with dancing or drumming. You could tell which groups were the ones where the girls had chosen the music and the moves by the pained look on the boys' faces and their lackluster dance moves.

For some reason, the teachers at this school don't do much socializing, but fortunately, the teachers at the other junior high school invited me to their post-event drinking party, where it was fun to hang out with the old guys and drink beer.

The downside was that Sunday was my only day off that weekend, which I spent with Sayaka doing some shopping for a Halloween costume. More on that later.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Look, ma! I'm popular!

Not much new to report here, just going through the same routine every day. Saturday was a rare weekend day Sayaka had off, so we bicycled to Enoshima island and took a walk around. It's getting cooler and windier, but still warm enough for a bike ride on the beach.

In other news, I've been writing for the website Futurismic since mid-September, and while it's been tough finding time to post something every day, I've more or less managed to do it. The reinvigorated blog there seems to have prompted PC Magazine to include us in their list of the top 100 blogs. We're right up there (in alphabetic order, of course) with Gizmodo and one of my favorites, Ars Technica. Color me happy.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Interesting Soviet trivia

Did you know that the latrine in the Kremlin was kept secret because someone might find out and attack the Soviet leaders when they were 'vulnerable?'

(so says Nikita Kruschev's son Sergei in a radio interview with the BBC)

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The bigger they are...

The easiest way to get to Japan and find a job is to go through an eikaiwa, or English conversation school. When I came, Ana and I got hired on with Nova, the largest of the eikaiwa, with roughly half of the private English-teaching market under its control. And while the books they used were quite outdated, and their managerial practices were absolute crap, the books and lessons got better. But because I couldn't learn or use Japanese there, I decided to leave and work in public schools.

Well, today I got clued in to this article in The Sydney Morning Herald about Nova's impending collapse. I'd known about their problems for a while, my roommate Mike works at the Nova here in Hiratsuka, and they were worried about not getting paid last month. Turns out the head teachers had their pay delayed for about a week, and the Japanese staff still haven't been paid. Now everyone's concerned if they'll be paid for September's work next week. And then there are the stories about people being evicted from their company-owned apartments for failure to pay rent (failure on Nova's part, they still deduct the rent from employees' paychecks). One story goes that a few new teachers arrived, only to be told by Nova a week later they had to move. Then after getting to the new apartment, they were evicted and Nova gave them a sheet with realtor info and told them to do it themselves. If you've ever heard my complaints about getting an apartment, you know it ain't easy

The article mentions the Fujisawa school being closed for not paying rent. That school is the largest in our area and I still know many teachers working there and at other branches. If Fujisawa went down, the others aren't far behind. Mike's looking for a job, but with so many teachers doing the same, finding one isn't going to be easy.

(image from autodafe0728)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

DisneySea trip

Sayaka convinced me to go to Tokyo DisneySea last weekend, so we trekked out to Chiba (the prefecture on the other side of Tokyo from where I live) early Saturday morning. My idea of a weekend isn't necessarily getting up at 6am to get on a train for an hour and a half, especially when it's drizzling. See, the thing about Japan is that the people get so little time off that they'll be damned if a little rain or even a typhoon is going to stop them from going to Disneyland. Or DisneySea, as the case may be.

DisneySea is meant to be a little more adult than Disneyland. There aren't characters with big heads running about, and you can get booze there (although I found out they don't like you walking around the park with a bottle of beer - gotta keep it in the restaurant). The moment we got inside, Sayaka was running around to collect our FastPass tickets. You can go to a special ticket booth and get a ticket that lets you bypass much of the line for a ride, cutting down the waiting time from a couple hours to twenty minutes or so. Everyone gets this option, but once you get one ticket, you can't get another for 90 min or 2 hours, and you can't get one for the same ride until you use the one you currently have. The ticket you get has a time range on it, so you can't go right then. Talk about introducing an element of strategy to a theme park. Sayaka had her map out, figuring out how to maximize our time in the park, cutting down the time needed to get to each area. I think she missed her calling, although the makeup counter may require some organization, she should be doing consulting or something.

We managed to hit quite a few rides, the somewhat new Tower of Terror, a twisty roller coaster with a loop (and I didn't get any debilitating headaches - yay!), as well as a couple of funny cart rides, "Journey to the Center of the Earth" and some Indiana Jones ride (or Indy-Jone-zu, as he's known here). In addition, we saw a couple music shows, which were surprisingly good. The first was a jungle-themed show called "Rhythm of the Jungle" or something like that, with people dressed as various animals dancing around on stage. It was really funny to see the few foreign dancers, as they really stood out. There were a couple guys onstage who were taller and more muscular than anyone else. Guess that's why they got the jungle voodoo doctor roles and not the flying water fairy part.

The one that impressed Sayaka and myself the most was called "Big Band Beats." It featured a 'big band' that was really just about 10 guys, but big enough, who played the swing music that was popular from the 20s to the 40s. There were quite a lot of foreigners in this one, and all of the talking as well as the music was done in English, which made me wonder what the Japanese thought of it. Sayaka didn't seem to care what they said, she just enjoyed the music. Unfortunately, the downside to this show was them having Disney characters come out and sing and dance, which really put a damper on things. Oh well.

A cool little aspect that I appreciated at the park was that most of the signs and billboards in the 'American Waterfront'-themed area were in English, and they were done with quite a bit of humor and wit. I also stuffed myself with food, the reuben sandwich I had was particularly good. It took a while to explain to Sayaka the difference between corned beef in the US and in Japan. The stuff in DisneySea was somewhere in between. It's nothing like what Mom makes.

So after our Saturday giving money to the Mouse, we went back to Tokyo and ended up staying in a love hotel in the Shibuya district. We'd had trouble getting a hotel in Tokyo - the one I wanted to go to that my friend Sam stayed at was booked for a weddding - and the closest one we could find was in Chiba city. So we paid the same price and stayed in a nice love hotel in downtown Tokyo. Sunday was rainy, which killed a lot of our interest in doing things, but we found a notice for an India-Japan friendship festival in Yoyogi park, so, rain or no, we headed out there for some Indian grub. And it was tasty. There were a bunch of booths set up, so I got some spices to make curry and pilafs, as well as a can of hemp beer I'm curious to try out. Strangely enough, there were some environmental booths set up. One was some type of composter that would take kitchen scraps and used bacteria to biodegrade them to basically nothing. I used some churning arms to aerate the soil and break up big pieces. They say it costs only about $2/month in electricity to run. Another small booth held a prototype for breaking down plastics into a type of kerosene for heaters and such (but not vehicles) at only a 20% cost. It's cool to see things like that around, but rather strange at an Indian festival.

After a long, exhausting weekend, I expected to go home and sleep, but Monday was Tracey's birthday, so I headed out for yakiniku with some people. So all this week I've been playing catch-up trying to get enough sleep not to fall over in class. Fortunately, I get today (Friday) off, although tomorrow is sports day at one of the elementary schools, so I'll be headed there to cheer the kids on. I heard them practicing a marching band routine, and those little kids can play rather well - for 10 year olds.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Friday Dinner Blogging

Chicken cutlet on rice with a bowl of soba, beer & green tea in the background. Oishikatta!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Phew! What a week!

Well, for a four-day week, this one has been rather busy. I'm supposed to write five posts a week (one per weekday) for Futurismic, which has turned out to be more challenging than I thought. I've gotta compete with the three other new guys, not to mention Paul Raven, the old hand. But it's been fun, and I guess this is what I gotta do to get better. Everyone I've ever heard talk about writing has said you have to set aside time to write, there's no other way to get better. And I guess they're right. Though I wish it weren't cutting into my sleep time. Teaching 5th graders tomorrow is gonna be fun.

Anyway, the author Tobias Buckell has also posted on the website, so writing at the same place as one of the author's whose next book I'm actively awaiting *swoon* is pretty cool.

In other news, you remember those two new bikes I got? Well, on Monday the little one got a flat tire, so I took it in an the guys fixed it for free. Gotta love the warranty. The Specialized bike, however, I managed to crash the second day I rode it. I'd just finished climbing and coasting down the big hill between me and the school when I decided my backpack was too hot and tried to find a new resting place for it. See, I hadn't gotten a basket or a carrier rack to bungee things onto, so I was stuck with it on my back, where I got all hot and sweaty and steamed everything I had in my pack. So I put it on the crossbar. A few seconds later, the belt strap got caught in the fork and I was scared something would get caught and bad things would happen. So I stopped. On brand-new V-brakes waayyy stronger than my old bike's. And proceeded to vault straight over the handlebars and faceplant on the pavement.

Fortunately, there weren't any cars behind me, so I came out in one piece, and the bike came out flawless - dunno how that happened. I managed quite a graceful roll, given the circumstances, slightly bruising my palms and my shoulder hurt a day later. But the worst damage was to my leg. I think the bike flipped with me, so when I rolled over, I think my leg landed on one of the tubes and gave me the mother of all charley horses, complete with a 6-inch scrape. At work that day I was lucky all my classes were on the first floor, because I couldn't climb stairs. Even a day after, it hurts to use the stairs and I can't kneel yet. Makes tomorrow's class with 10-year olds who like to vault onto my bike even more appetizing.

So anyways, last night I made it to the bike shop as they were closing and bought a basket. I should probably get a helmet too, so the next time they have something to scrape up what's left of me.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Money Comes In, Money Flows Out

We had a three-day weekend, and I decided to take that extra time to spend all my hard-earned money. Due to the sore back I've had for a few days, I went out and finally got the matress pad to go under my futon pad. I think I went a little overboard, most matresses you get are two or three centimeters thick. Mine's 7cm. I'm a lot higher up, but it's very comfortable.

Last week wasn't such a good week for me. On Monday I blew out the rear tire on my granny bike and the guy at the shop said the rear tire had to be entirely replaced. The cost of that, combined with the rusted chain, wobbly front tire and nearly complete lack of brakes prompted me to just get a new bike. Or two.

I blew quite a bit on a bike that will actually fit me, a nice Specialized bike. The only problem with it is that it doesn't have any fenders, so riding in the rain won't be fun, nor does it have a basket or rear rack to carry stuff on. So that's all gonna have to be paid for. Not to mention, I don't particularly like the thought of taking my nice, expensive bike down to the station where people can take off with it. So I bought a little folding bike as well. It looks cool, but evidently the quality leaves something to desire as last night I was riding back and realized that the rear tire was completely flat. So much for that. I'll take it back and make sure they fix it. The shop I got it from isn't known for selling quality bikes beyond the granny shoppers.

But this week is shaping up all right. It's a four-day week, as is next week. And after that I'm scheduled for a day at Tokyo DisneySea. At least there, unlike Tokyo DisneyLand, you can get booze.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Hey look everybody! I'm a blogger!

No, a real one, at someone else's website, albeit still unpaid. Oh well. I've just started blogging at Futurismic, a site devoted to science fiction and writing, as well as futurism and fun stuff like that. I think it'll get me better at writing, at least short bloggy posts. I still need to work on my magnum opus. It'll get out one of these days.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

BOINCing for Science

You all remember SETI@Home? The program that would look for extraterrestrial intelligence using your idle computer? Well, the hippies at UC Berkeley have come up with a program that lets you do more: you can manage what projects you are interested in. If you're worried about the environment, help make climate models more accurate; if you like sudoku, there's one for that. It's cool stuff, and puts your extra cycles to good use.

Vonnegut Lives!

Well, at least in our memories. And nothing livens him up like rereading his stories. Here are some (very) short stories about books Kilgore Trout have written.

(thanks, Futurismic)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

When It Rains, It Pours

Well, I'm finally getting caught back up. It's been crazy getting back into the swing of things, and though I haven't gotten quite all the way up to speed yet, I'm getting closer. This week has been rainy, the kind where it starts and stops without warning, so you can't go outside without an umbrella, though I usually do if it isn't raining when I leave home.

The other day with was sunny out and still raining. Last night, it poured down. This morning it rained, but then it kind of devolved into not really a rain, just more of a mist that defies and umbrella and still gets you in the face.

And Monday, of all days, my bicycle decided to blow out its back tire. I'll need a new tire, but the $40 or $50 for that would probably be better spent on a new bike, one whose chain isn't all rusty and whose frame can actually carry someone my height. This week I have to suffer the poorly scheduled (for me, at least) public transportation, until I can drag myself to the bike shop.

But dropping the cash for the kind of bike I want isn't something I do on a whim. Not until I've agonized over every little detail and mourned the loss of everything else that money could've gotten me. Hopefully I can get a decent one, though I'll have to take much better care of it when I ride in the rain.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Post-birthday Blogging

My birthday was Friday. Typhoon #9 hit Thursday night and Friday morning, with strong winds going into the afternoon. What a way to turn 28.

Sayaka took me out for a wonderful evening. We went to Yokohama for a dinner cruise aboard the Royal Wing. It didn't go very far, just a straight line out into Tokyo Bay and back, but it was a nice trip, aside from Sayaka getting a bit seasick. Now I see why she was worried about the typhoon and it being scheduled originally to last all Friday. Wouldn't have been easy to eat on a pitching ship.

Saturday I went bowling with my friends Todd and Nicole, then later met some other friends for drinks. I'd initially planned to have an easy night, but somewhere betwen bowling and karaoke it got out of hand and I staggered home at 4:30am. I have to stop doing that.

It's been rather busy since I got back, the second term has started at school and I've been trying to readjust my sleep cycle to getting up early, as well as deal with everything that's come up at work. So apologies on the Borneo blogging. I've posted several entries in August and have some more to write. But as time goes by, the prospective length of the writing just gets shorter and shorter. So if I don't get it done this week, it'll probably be nothing more than a short recap, if anything at all.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Sipidan Island and Its Environs

On the fifth, I caught an early flight from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau, on the southeast side of Sabah, then got picked up by the dive outfit and driven to Semporna. We took a boat to the Seaventures dive rig. It’s an old oil platform repositioned just off the island of Mabul. I met a group of experienced divers who were coming out on the same boat. They’ve been helpful with my gear and giving me tips on what to do.

The first dive was under the rig. I had trouble clearing my left ear, then my mask kept fogging up, making me anxious and I nearly hyperventilated. When I was functional, I was able to see some sea urchins, crocodile fish, and a couple others I’ve probably forgotton by now. After all that excitement, I’d used my air up pretty quickly, in about thirty minutes, so I had to head back up early while the others stayed below. We did a twilight dive after, and that went much better. We went to one of Mabul’s beaches and did some muck diving. My ears were better and we didn’t go more than 10m under, so it was rather easy. The highlights were a sea turtle jammed in a crevice asleep and a huge cuttlefish. In addition, we saw lots of feather urchins, a small moray eel, and a nudybranch (sea slug).

The 6th was a busy day, up at 6:30, breakfast then off by 7:30. We headed out to Sipidan Island, one of the greatest dive spots in the world. But the waves were crazy big and it took forever to get out there. On the way, one of the guys yelped and the people in the back started laughing. He’d been struck by a squid that had evidently had enough of its life underwater and wanted a vacation. The first dive of the day was at South Point. It was the first time for me to dive and not actually be able to see the bottom. The reef drops down 600m to the ocean floor here. The first people in saw three sea turtles right off the bat. As we drifted with the current along the reef, we could see several black tip reef sharks prowling around. Some sea turtles were visible wedged in the rocks asleep, and the usual suspects – parrotfish, triggers, travelay, and about the biggest lone batfish I’ve ever seen – all put in an appearance. This was my first wall dive, drift dive, and dive below 18 meters. A lot of firsts, especially after such a long hiatus, but I pulled it off alright, managing my air well enough, though I still was the first one to run out and go up.

The coolest thing on this first dive was one I missed. I was drifting along towards the front of our group when all of a sudden I heard everybody tap-tapping with their little noisemaker sticks. Somebody had spotted a solitary hammerhead shark and immediately half the guys started off after it. Because it had gone past us, and I was forward and above everyone, I didn’t bother trying to go catch a glimpse. Oh well. Not to mention, when sharks are all by themselves, it’s usually because they’re trying to find something to eat.

In addition to the guys I met on the boat out, I also wound up diving that day with a guy from Michigan who was there with his daughter. They live in Singapore, and so have the good fortune to live within a few hours of some great diving, managing a weekend every couple of months. I wish I could do that. Because of this, the girl, about twelve, was like a fish, immediately jumping back in once she’d shed her dive gear on the dive boat. I wish I was that capable. Not to mention that because she’s tiny, she uses a fraction of the air that I and her father consume. It’s really sad.

After an hour snack break on Sipidan (spending the night there is forbidden, but lunch is ok), we headed back out and did one more dive, which was fun but not more memorable than that first dive. After, we headed back to the rig for lunch and did an afternoon dive off nearby Mabul.

Another first for me on this trip was a night dive. The father and daughter team invited me along to try it out. Diving under the rig can be daunting due to the occasionally strong current, not to mention it was at night. This dive was a comedy of errors, but at least everyone was competent enough to deal with them. The biggest mistake we made was not using the guideline to take ourselves down. I didn’t know enough to say so, and the other two were so used to not having one available that they didn’t think of it. So we were going down when the daughter had trouble clearing her ears, equalizing the pressure in the Eustachian tubes, which can be quite painful and even damaging to the ear drums. So after she managed to fix it, we headed down. Underwater looks really different at night, you can’t see anything outside the narrow beam of your torch, and everything in the beam is blurred by the persistent detritus.

So we headed down and started swimming along the rocks. We saw a few fish, but they didn’t like us lighting them up and giving away their positions to predators, so they’d usually dash out of the beam as soon as it reached them. I did see something I thought was a pipefish, but I could’ve been mistaken. Soon, I began wondering where we were, because we hadn’t run into the rig’s support columns. Evidently the father was thinking the same, as he signaled me to surface and we tried to take our bearings. Turns out that when the daughter was clearing her ears, we’d gotten turned around and had swum away from the rig. So we dove again to head back, when I started having problems clearing my ears at about 10m. And just as I got better, the father’s torch dies. So he grabs his backup, which promptly starts to fade. At that point we had to head back up and start the long swim on the surface back to the rig. My first night dive turned out to be a bit of a bust, but it was still interesting.

On the 7th, we got up and headed out again for a couple early dives, one of which was really cool. Called Hanging Gardens, because of the soft corals that hang down from the wall that leans away from the island as it goes up, it had several sea turtles and a ton of various fish. We even saw a big school of barracuda, but they weren't tornadoing.

After two dives and lunch, it was time to head back. I met two Singaporean cousins on the boat back and, since we had to wait until the next day to fly, we decided to have dinner. Tawau is a port city with nothing going for it besides its renown for having good seafood. So we found the best recommended seafood restaurant, a conglomeration of stalls just off the waterfront, and tucked in. The food was OK, but not much better than what I've had elsewhere. Maybe it's just that I don't know Chinese food that well. After dinner we sat in a gazebo by the night market eating a durian, listening to the melody of the diesel generator chugging away nearby.

The next day, we caught a taxi together to the airport, some 30km from the city proper. They checked in and had coffee with my while I waited for the counter to open up for me. But when I went up to check-in, the guy gave me a surprised look and said, "didn't you get the email?" Evidently not, so I hadn't been informed that there would be a seven-hour delay, meaning I wouldn't board until after midnight. Since there was nothing to do (the internet cafe consisted of two computers, and the girl said they were virus-ridden), I headed back to Tawau, which didn't have anything either, but at least it was cheaper. I mucked about in the internet cafe, caught some dinner, and still ended up going all the way back to the airport to sit around for 2 more hours. The flight back was at least mercifully short. I got back to the Step-Inn Lodge and promptly crashed out.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

First Day on My Own

I did a refresher dive at Police Beach at Pulau Gaya. It went OK, though I had to reconquer my nerves while underwater. Better to do it here than where I’m headed. I saw a lionfish, which was cool, as well as gobies and their live-in shrimp helpers.

In the evening I joined an English couple and a New Zealand girl for Indian dinner, where we learned to eat with our hands.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Saying Goodbyes

Today saw us getting up early again, but only 7am this time. Not bad considering I’d fallen asleep by 10pm.

We took a taxi to Kota Kinabalu and got myself checked in to my hostel, Step-Inn Lodge. The place was nice and airy, with a super-friendly staff. Then we took off to one of the nearby islands, Manutik. It:s smaller than Sapi, and the snorkeling wasn’t as good – the bigger waves stirred up the bottom sand too much and made floating in one place nigh impossible. But the mango Sayaka bought at a fruit market was delicious (though the mangosteens had spiders hiding under the leaves, which scared the crap outta me).

After that, it was back to my hostel for a cleanup and then off for a final dinner together. We found a good local restaurant and sat in plastic chairs, enjoying our meal. Sayaka even discovered she likes Carlsburg beer. We headed out to the airport, said our goodbyes, then she was off. I returned to the hostel, chatted with the night guys a bit, then hit the hay.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

A Day at the Hot Springs of Poring

Today we took a taxi for 45 min to Poring Hot Springs. It was built by the Japanese during their occupation of Borneo during WWII. Besides the baths, there was a bit of hiking, as well as a canopy walk, a type of rope bridge supported high above the forest floor. It’s advertised as allowing you to see animals, but all we saw were variations on homo sapiens. At least the view between the trees was beautiful. The obnoxious Londoners behind us weren’t so pleasant. We also visited a butterfly farm, where I learned that Sayaka is afraid of caterpillars as well.

The hot springs were fun, although not really “Japanese-style” as advertised. Usually onsen are large, shallow baths with hot water running in from one end, and out a drain at the other. Poring’s were a series of clusters of four baths, about waist-deep and rather narrow, with a hot and cold tap. The hot water was gravity-fed, coming from two large pools located uphill. Hot water came out slowly, so to speed the process, there were hoses provided where you would run it from the neighboring bath to yours, so long as no one was using it. Even so, it took forever to get even a bit of water in, by which time we were suffocating from the steam. That’s when we went for a dip in the cool pool.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Once again, we were up at the crack of dawn and jouncing off to the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary. We missed the dawn cruise, which would've been nice to see, as that's when most animals are active. Instead, another driver drove Sayaka and I back along the same bouncy road for nearly two hours back. After a twenty minute video before the park opened, we ewnet to the feeding area and were lucky enough to see about eight come for the feeding. The young'uns came first, managing to spill the coconut milk all down the tree in the process. A few more mature ones showed up towards the end, more to bully the babies than anything else. Especially fun was watching one dangle from the rope and, as tourists clicked away in oohs and aahs, proceed to take a poo.

Then there was a long (six hours) bus ride back across Sabah to the village of Kundasang. After a night in a bug-infested cabin and sweltering heat, it was nice to get to our next place. Up in the highlands, with a great view of Mt. Kinabalu, highest in SE Asia, Kinabalu Pine Resorts had a huge room, hot shower, and included our meals (the first beer was free!). The village itself didn't have much, a few market stalls, a general store, and an old WWII memorial that Sayaka refused to even get close to.

We had a delicious dinner, after which I was feeling very relaxed. Then Sayaka wanted to get a foot massage, I guess to work all the kinks out after six hours on a bus, or something like that. So we phoned up the service and they sent two people out to service us. Previously, we'd gone to the parlor to have it done, where they have comfy chairs, low lighting and soft music to relax you. Well, this time it was four of us in a hotel room, with harsh lighting and no music, not to mention the two Malays couldn't speak a lick of English. It was a one-hour, deathly quiet massage. But it still managed to put me more to sleep, at least after the pain wore off. Foot massages are NOT gentle.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Kota Kinabalu to Kinabatangan

Today we woke up at 5:00 (early again!) to leave for the airport around 5:30. So we stretched, got up, finished packing things up and dragged our tired butts down to reception for check-out. The sleepy young guy at the desk seemed really surprised to see us. It wasn't until then that Sayaka looked at the clock. We'd set our cell-phone alarms, not even bothering to notice the one-hour time difference. So we were up and ready to go at 4:30am. No wonder the desk-clerk was shocked. We went back upstairs and reset our clocks (correctly, this time!) and started to doze off, only to have the alarm sound. You know how when you're just drifting off and you get woken up, how tired you feel? It was in that state that we were off to eastern Sabah.

We arrived in Sandakan for our tour, only to find absolutely nobody waiting for us. Despite desparate phone calls to the hotel that organized our tour, no one came for us for two hours. By that time, we'd missed the morning feeding at the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary. We rescheduled it for tomorrow and had the driver just take us to the nature lodge where we would stay.

The drive was two hours, over not-so-nice roads. The driver turned out to be pretty nice. I couldn't blame him for not getting us, as it was either the hotel who forgot to give the tour company our info, or the tour operator who forgot about us. He showed us his house and we got to see his family briefly, while he ran upstairs for something. He's a hard-working guy who drive the same route 2 or 3 times a day, every day. He's gotta support those six kids somehow.

The Nature Lodge was off the Kinabatangan River, across and downstream a bit from the car dropoff. We stayed in a little bungalow with a sort-of functioning toilet, electricity from six to 11:30pm only, and a bat that was sleeping in the corner. Guess who had to chase it out and who stood on the porch screaming like a little girl. Sayaka's so brave! At night we were left with a mosquito coil (Sayaka nicked two more from reception) and a little oil lamp for each of us (that I managed to knock over, in the WOOODEN HUT!)

The river cruise was fun, we got to see macaques and a few groups of proboscis monkeys, as well as the odd pied hornbill. I also got to see my first leech, a big sucker (get it? ha, ha) that attached itself to the inside of the boat when we pushed into some underbrush to get a better look at the monkeys. The guide wasn't afraid to pick it up and play with it a bit before tossing it back into the river. He said it wouldn't attach until it found a good vein to get blood from.

It got colder on the ride back, to the point I wished I'd brought a jacket. We had nice people on the boat, a German, two Dutch people and two Japanese, the first we saw on our trip, so Sayaka finally got to ahve a full conversation instead of baby talk with me.

We went back and had a decent dinner, then after it'd been dark awhile, we set out on a night safari. As we were leaving, there was a big commotion on one of the bungalow porch's, and staff came running with spray. Guess somebody'd seen a (poisonous) centipede, and the fire ants had taken a safari of their own, right for someone's building. We saw some cool insects, but not many large mammals. A whip scorpion, lizard (pictured), lantern bug, flying fox, tractor millipede, some sleeping kingfishers and last, a full-on scorpion. It wasn't until the guide had stopped playing with it and let the scorpion go that I realized we were only about 20m from our bungalow. Great. So we went back and drank lots of beer.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Kota Kinabalu and Sapi Island

Sayaka sleeps well on planes and buses. Not so for me. While she spent most of the flight dozing to music, I couldn't sleep so I watched a bunch of movies. So when we arrived in KK, all I wanted to do was sleep, which we didn't get to do until well after midnight. Imagine my surprise when, at 5:30am, flick! go the lights and she's up repacking her bags, with everything in plastic shopping bags. Not the ideal way to start a vacation, but at least I could sleep on the island.

Sundays there's a Chinese market that runs the length of one of the shopping streets, something Sayaka really wanted to see. We wandered along it scouting breakfast and some souvenirs. You can find anything at this market, from clothes to potted plants to puppies and bunnies in cages. I'm not sure if the people eat the animals, but they sure are cute. Sayaka found a couple magnets and we had a typical Malaysian breakfast of tom yum mee. You might recognize the tom yum, it's the same style as Thai tom yum kun, but the mee means 'noodles.' It certainly wakes you up in the morning, that's for sure.

After breakfast, we grabbed a kilo of manggis, this purple fruit with a really soft, white inside that's really sweet, along with a couple rolls and headed for the ferry terminal. As with any terminal in SE Asia, we were met by touts trying to get us to go to their counter at the terminal, I presume because they receive a commission. Since the price is always the same, it doesn't really make any difference unless you'd prefer a quiet stroll. We got our tickets to Pulau Sapi and headed off in a small boat, along with a couple of nice Dutch women.

At Sapi Island, we did a short hike around the perimeter of the island in our sandals (bad idea!). We even saw a monitor lizard at a small, deserted beach on the far side. Unfortunately, we were approached by a guy who kept asking us if we wanted a guide. Even though we said no, he went on ahead as though we'd said yes. He kept guiding us around, telling us to watch for something, asking if we want to swim at this beach or rest somewhere. Halfway through he asked us for money. It was rather annoying, but since he had showed us a trail down to the beach with the lizard, a place we wouldn't have gone otherwise, we relented and paid him, hoping he'd leave us alone.

No. He kept showing up, asking if we wanted to rent snorkelling gear, and trying to charge us a high price, even surprising us while we were swimming to see if we wanted a snorkelling guide. Yikes! Eventually, he left us in peace and we were able to enjoy ourselves. Sayaka had the foresight to bring a bag of chips along that she took into the ocean. She would pitch a handful in front and then duck down to watch all the fish clamor for food. It worked beautifully, everyone else was complaining about not being able to see any fish, probably because by this time we were floating in a sea of chips. The only downside was when they started mistaking her bikini for food and trying to nip at her.

We'd intended to take the last boat back at 5pm, but we were compelled to leave an hour early because the wind had picked up and dark clouds had gathered over KK. We made it back about 10 minutes before the rain, but it wasn't much beyond a light sprinkle. We found an ATM for me and then hit Centre Point Mall, a surprisingly modern mall filled with tiny stalls selling all manner of goods. After getting a (somewhat painful, yet relaxing) foot massage, we headed to the seafood place by our hotel for a lobster dinner. We had it fried in a garlic and lemon sauce, which turned out lovely. The cockroaches must've thought so too, as Sayaka spent a good portion of the meal standing on her chair or sitting with her legs tucked up under her. The only other downside was a street kid who thought we'd be good marks and sat down at our table and kept asking us for money. I've encountered it before in Vietnam quite often, I never give money but would usually order a plate of fried rice or something small for them. But this kid was being a bit impetuous and I just wanted to enjoy a quiet meal with my girlfriend. Eventually, when they saw I wasn't going to buy anything for him, the waiter chased him off.

Then it was off to bed early so we could make our flight the next day.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Arriving in Borneo

(Note: Posts during my trips will be dated the day they happen, not the date I post them. This will make it easier to follow my trip. So far, I've got one for every day. Check back often!)

Did you know that AirAsia flies out of a different airport in Kuala Lumpur than Malaysian Airlines? Because I sure didn't.

To make my trip cheaper, I booked a return ticket to Kuala Lumpur through the travel agent in Japan, then booked a separate ticket with AirAsia to get me to Borneo and back. Sayaka and I arrived in KL around 4:30 or so. I kept looking around trying to find my flight and what gate I should head to. Finally, I approached the information desk and the nice girl there kindly informed me that my plane would be leaving from another airport. Thirty minutes away by taxi. I told Sayaka I'd be waiting for her at her gate and, after a sprint through customs (fortunately, there wasn't a long wait at immigration and customs didn't decide I looked like a smuggler -- there's a death penalty for drugs) I burst out and rushed around looking for a taxi. I eventually found one for MR 20, actually I think it was just some guy who was looking to make some weekend cash, and we rushed off to the LCC Terminal. Malaysia has very nice roads, at least around the airport, a lot nicer than Vietnam and less crowded than Thailand. Despite my concerns, I made it there in plenty of time, enough to sit down and have a coffee at the local Starbucks lookalike chain.

The flight wasn't too bad, especially for a discount flight. But I was a bit surprised when they charged me for my snacks, I'm so used to the major airlines and their all-you-can-drink beer service. So we pulled in to Kota Kinabalu, the major transport hub of Sabah, the province of Malaysian Borneo we were visiting, around 10:30pm. I got through
immigration (again!) and went out to find Malaysian Airlines. The screen said her flight would be arriving at Terminal 1, I was at Terminal 2. I started looking for directions to where I could meet her, but none were to be found. So I asked the information desk girls. They took time out from gossiping and watching TV to tell me that Terminal 1 is the same airport, but on the other side of the runway. The only way to get there is by taxi. Again. I'd arranged for transport to our hotel, but they certainly weren't waiting for me in the arrival area. So I bought a taxi coupon, MR 20, and jumped aboard. It was closer, only twenty minutes this time. I arrived to find Sayaka wandering aimlessly outside the arrival doors, wondering where the hell I'd gone off to. She'd completely managed to miss the hotel pickup sign with my name on it, though to be fair it was written in tiny writing and the guy was holding it about level with his crotch.

We got to our hotel around 11:30 local time, an hour earlier than Japan. The Hamin Lodge wasn't bad, the room was a bit small, but the shower put out hot water and it was located next door to a really cool open-air seafood restaurant area with tanks full of various fish and shellfish waiting to be hacked up or dropped into a pot of boiling water. Yum!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Off to Borneo from Tomorrow

I've been on vacation this week, except one day where I had a little bit to do for work. But I've been busy nonetheless, trying to get things sorted out for my absence, like making sure my roommate can handle watering the plants. I'm also trying to get in touch with my landlord, there was a problem with the bank getting the direct-withdrawal of the rent going. The problem is, it's due on the 27th, which is today.

See, in Japan when you sign for something, you use a hanko, your official chop. It's a unique stamp with your family name on it and is very difficult to copy. I suppose it's better than a signature, because you can forge a signature. But if someone gets hold of your hanko, they can sign for anything, and legally it's as though you've signed it. Being a foreigner, though, I don't have an official hanko, although I can and at some point will get mine registered so I can use it with the bank. So I have to sign for official documents, but I'm also supposed to put down a super-double-secret number that I selected more than three years ago when I first came to Japan and set up my bank account. Unfortunately, I never can remember it, and the bank is loathe to give it out. I spent two and a half hours in the bank Monday trying to get my 4-digit number.

So the guarantor company sent me a form to fill out again, because the first one didn't have my super-secret code, but I had to go to the bank to get it filled out properly, which I wasn't able to to until this week. And I'm going to be gone from tomorrow until next month, when I'll arrive back the same day that my rent's due again. So I'll have no idea if they'll get the money or not until after I've gone. Bleh. I had similar problems with my last apartment that never got resolved, thanks to their unwillingness to try and either get the forms filled out properly, or
set up a new way of payment. So I just had to wait until after rent was due, the company called, complained that I wasn't paying, I tried to explain why, they refused to change anything because "it's in the contract" even though it's obviously not working. So now I'm in the same boat again.

So my landlord isn't answering the phone, which is a bit suspicious. I've got some complaints about the apartment, but I also need to know how to arrange for rent to be paid if the bank thingy doesn't work. Well, if he's not gonna fix things, I guess I don't need to pay rent.

As for packing, I've done precious little of it. The heat during the day has me so lethargic I can hardly move, let alone think about what I need to pack. I'll get something things put in, then maybe go spend the hottest part of the day wandering around a department store or sitting in a cafe reading with an iced tea. Mmm, iced tea.

So posts may be lighter, depending on internet access and how much I'm doing, and there will be no post for the next week, probably, until I see Sayaka off. Honestly, I'd like to have not much to do, just find a place on the beach and stay there. But knowing me, I'll get restless and want to run off and do things. I'm debating now the merits of trying to climb Mt. Kinabalu, the highest mountain on Borneo. It's awfully tempting, but I'm not much inclined to bring cold weather gear to a tropical country for three out of 30 days.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Little Brother Update

Heard from Ben. He's at Fort Lewis in Washington for his permanent assignment. He gets a nice view of Mt. Rainier, and since he's Mr. Buff now, he's looking at climbing it when he gets back. But first, he's going to be deployed to Iraq for more than a year.

He'll be in an Air Cavalry unit, which means lots of flying about in helicopters. I don't like the sound of that one bit, I think he'd probably be safer with both feet on the ground. Helicopters have a penchant for either getting shot down or crashing.

At least he gets to go home in August for a bit before shipping out. It's well past his B'day, but I've got some things to send him.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Meetin' the parents

So I'm heading to Borneo with the girlfriend. She's only coming for the first week, after which she has to go back to work and I'm left on a tropical island paradise all by my lonesome. *sniff* It's hard being me...

As a condition of her going, her parents had to meet me. Guess they didn't want their eldest daughter running off to a foreign country with some baka gaijin. And they don't speak a lick of English, so I was left to charm them with my eloquent Japanese. Riiiight.

Sayaka and I met before so we could go over our trip. She's especially excited about seeing orangutans, and this is the entire reason that I'm not headed to Mongolia to drink fermented mare's milk and wrestle fat, sweaty men. I'd found an online tour offered that would organize a night on Turtle Island, where we could watch sea turtles come onto the beach to lay eggs, then head to the orangutan reservation to see big, orange monkeys. Unfortunately, the tour company, which had been so enthusiastic about getting me on this tour, then emailed me to regretfully inform me that Turtle Island was fully booked that night and we couldn't go. So we're scheduled for a river cruise instead. Dunno how good that will be, but Sayaka thinks we might see wild orangutans, so she's psyched.

After talking about monkeys, we wandered over to the department store where she works so she could show me off to her co-workers. Foreigners in my area are rather common, or at least they are to me, and most Japanese folk seem to be accustomed to our presence. Well, I guess some people just aren't that used to us. I expect it with kids, because they don't get out much. But the moment I walked into the store (incidentally one of the biggest chains in Japan), her two co-workers could do nothing but stare at me like I'd grown another head. One mustered enough English to tell me her name was 'Kana.' The other just stared until her friend elbowed her and from that point she just babbled in Japanese about my eyelashes. I guess they're long or something.

Well, at least they liked me. I suppose. And then it was off to meet the parents. Her family's actually quite lovely. She and her younger sister don't look a thing alike, but they both have eyes that resemble their mother's. It's funny how two people can not look like each other, but readily resemble a third. I'd had nightmares about inadvertently blurting out something inappropriate, or perhaps mentioning that weekend in Izu that she supposedly went on with her friend (don't worry, they can't speak English).

As it turns out, her father and sister handle alcohol as well as Sayaka, ie, half a can of chu-hi and it's lights out. So they stayed sober and Mom and I got blitzed. We stuffed ourselves silly with sushi and tempura, really good stuff. I think I just can't always find the good restaurants. That place was spectacular. All in all, things went well and her parents approve of me. Which is good, because if they didn't, I don't know what we'd do about the grand she spent on tickets and the ton I've dropped on reservations.

Lovely holiday weekend

Nothing says 3-day weekend like a typhoon followed by an earthquake.

Yesterday was Umi no hi, or Sea Day. It's officially the first day for the beaches to be open, although people go once it gets warm, like in May. I'd thought to have another beach BBQ and maybe do some hiking or wandering about somewhere. Instead, Saturday I was treated to lots of rain, followed on Sunday by promises of much more rain and high winds in the form of Typhoon Man-yi, or Typhoon #4 as it's called in Japan. Sunday the rain for the most part after 3pm, though the sky was always threatening.

Sunday happened to be the day I went to meet the girlfriend's parents in Yokohama and I was rather wary, there's a bridge somewhere on the Tokaido line that floods if somebody upstream spits in it, as I found out my first year when I was stuck in a typhoon in Yokohama and it took 3 hours to make the normally 30-minute trip.

Monday was scheduled to be sunny and warm. I was looking forward to this one day, particularly because typhoons come through and sweep out all the pollution and clouds, making everything clear and beautiful. I thought I'd save that day for laundry, maybe take a bike ride to the top of Shonandaira, in general laze about and enjoy summer.

Well, it was sunny until about 10:30am, when I'd put all my laundry into the washer. Then it got cloudy, which I thought was odd, but didn't mind. I'd felt the earthquake and was watching the news on TV. I guess it was pretty big, a 6.8 on the Japanese scale, which is different from the Richter scale. Five people lost their lives, all of them in their 70s and 80s, crushed by debris when their houses collapsed, and more than 800 lost their homes. But that was up in Niigata, well away from Hiratsuka. But it was surprising still, to feel it on the 2nd floor this far away. It happened in what seems to be the same area as the 2004 earthquake, the one that derailed the Shinkansen.

So after watching all this and doing some reading and cleaning, I decided to take a little bike ride up to the discount store. It's a bit far, so it's a treat to go up there and find some things for the house. I ended up getting a new frying pan and a kitchen knife, things sorely needed. As I walked out, I felt the rain hit me. It wasn't raining hard, but for a 30-minute cycle back, it doesn't matter how much it rains, you still end up wet. So I got wet riding back and got home just in time to bring in my damp sheets and dry them by fan. Bleh. My pillowcases haven't dried out still. At least I'd brought my futon in -- I'd debated leaving it to air out.

So now it's Tuesday, and the rain hasn't let up. It stopped briefly in the morning, enough to make me regret that I chose this day to take the train. But as the train pulled up to my destination, I looked out and it had started pouring. Guess I made a good decision after all.

So after a 3-day miserable weekend, I'm ready for my vacation to begin Saturday. It'll be nearly 40 days of vacation, minus one little bit on the 26th I've gotta do. After that last piece of work's finished, it's off to Borneo for a month. I suppose I can't complain too much, then.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Halle -frickin-lujah!!

As some of you may know (I've bitched about it to anybody who'd listen, and a few who wouldn't), I've had some internet problems. That's putting it mildly. For me, it's been a crisis.

I rely on the internet for everything, and since the beginning of June I've not been able to use half of it. It may sound like nothing, but for me it's like waking up one day and you've lost a testicle. The part of the internet that got severed was the part that allowed me to download listening sections for my students, talk to my family, and get my credit card company to allow charges to go through so I could pay for hotel reservations in Malaysia. Basically for a month and a half my life was paused.

Turns out my fool of a roommate(the internet's in his name) told the phone company he was moving, but somehow neglected to tell the ISP that we were. Turns out that something got reset, and the network barrier (ISP's firewall?) was set to allow browsing, but packets were put on the strongest filter setting (ie, nothing gets through).

After half an hour of complaining to the wrong company (in Japan they aren't very clear as to who's handling what part of the operation), they gave me another number.

This time I got the right guy, but he spoke no English, only keigo Japanese. He directed me through their website and had me fix the address and filters, and less than 5 minutes later, we're up and running. Now I got 75 podcasts queued up on iTunes. Let's hear it for rikaichan, it saved me with the kanji. Otherwise I'd still be listening to him say, "now go down 5cm and click on the button with lots of kan-- wait! Not that one!"

Happy Mike (my roommate) told me that fixing the internet "isn't one of my top priorities." Now he either owes me a case of beer, or I might find that it's not one of my priorities to keep the gas, electricity, or water on in MY apartment when I go on vacation for a month.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Cucumber Soda

It's out there, but I haven't found it yet. Wonder if it's more of a Tokyo thing, I might have to head into the megalopolis and see, but $20 just to see if I can spot a bottle isn't really worth it yet. Incidentally, it's by Pepsi.

My friend was at school and some of her students came running up to her with a bottle of greenish liquid, begging her to try it. After trying to think of whether they'd just had science class and being generally wary, one of them took a sip. So my friend tried it and said it was "cucumber-ish."

When I find it, I'll have a ginormous photo posted.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

It's Tanabata baby!

Today marks the last day of the 4-day long Tanabata Star Festival here in Hiratsuka. My new apartment is about 2 blocks outside the main area of mayhem, which is better than can said for Tracey's apartment, where she's had the joy of listening to a generator chugging and awful karaoke from the stage set up outside her window.

Typically, I try to avoid Tanabata, and in the past Ana, Damien and Julian have been my accomplices in escaping to somewhere else, usually the Narita Gion Festival. But this time I decided to stick it out here. Mostly because I took a trip to Shimoda last weekend and with the Borneo trip coming up, money's a bit tight.

Thursday was the opening day, and since the crowds were smaller, the decorations newer and the stench of rotting garbage not yet overpowering, I hit the streets with various people and consumed large quantities of Japanese carnie food. And beer. Which led to Friday being a quiet day at work. But then the weekend came with a vengeance and we hit the beach for a BBQ. Edwina (in the cowboy hat) makes fantastic cookies and killer BBQ sauce. This was the alternative to the day swarm of people inside the festival area. The beach was really quiet. It probably had something to do with the intermittent rain that would sprinkle down suddenly and then quit just as we would make a move to cover things up.

The weather held, the food was good, and I have a major hangover from the festivities. All in all, a good way to celebrate a star.

In other news, I've commented most of the photos at my flickr site so you have some reference to what you're seeing. Enjoy.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Vertical farms? Buying local in Manhatten

How cool would this be?

As many of you know, I no longer have a car. My Bimmer died just before I left for Japan. In Japan, there's no need for a car (well, mostly. I have a pile of old futons that need to be driven to the recycling center, and it's easier to go camping when you have a car to carry the BBQ, etc.), so I would take the train to work and tool around town on my bike. As of last April, I changed jobs and am able to bike to work, so I get some good exercise. It's not so great now as it's 30 degrees C and the rainy season, but a towel and sink help, plus no aircon means I sweat all day anyway, I just get a head start. This means I don't use any petroleum-based fuel for my transportation. It's all environmental, isn't it?

I was listening to NPR Science Friday's podcast a while ago, and they had Lester R. Brown on, who brought up a good point. If you live in the US, he said, and decide to save gas and walk a mile instead of driving, you'll save a mile's worth of gas, right? Well, all that walking has probably made you thirsty. So you drink a pint of milk to replenish yourself. Now that milk had to come from somewhere. And our globalized economy means that milk probably isn't from the dairy down the road. Most likely it's been shipped by refrigerated truck from a couple thousand miles away. So now you've just consumed more energy than you would've if you'd just driven your car. Counterintuitively, by attempting to conserve gasoline, you've inadvertently consumed more of it.

Now there are probably some logical holes in this argument. You burn energy anyway, by just living, so you'd have had to consume something in that time anyway, which means that not all that milk is going to replenish your lost energy from walking, most of it is for your brain and normal body functions. But it makes a good point about globalization that for many people is difficult to grasp. We've become so accustomed to the excesses available to us that anything else is alien.

Buying locally produced food is a good way to reduce this. Every school system I've worked in gets milk for the students. Each student gets one carton at lunch. I don't know if it's 'free' (funded by education taxes) or if it's paid for in students fees, etc., but it's there. This milk all comes from the school's town. It's locally produced. In many cities, even getting closer to Tokyo, you can spot open areas from the train that are planted, either with rice or a variety of vegetables. I'm not sure who owns the land, but I know people who rent a small plot and grow veggies that they use to supplement their diets. It's a small thing, but possible. I've got my tomato plant, which has flourished and has now started growing tomatoes. Their tiny and green, but they'll ripen up.

Not that I'm an environmental angel. I don't drive, but I fly often, roughly twice a year. And not piddling distances, either. March saw a roundtrip flight from Tokyo to Indy, and at the end of the month I'm headed to Malaysia for a month. That's another 7-hour flight each way. Yikes!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Little brother update

Heard from Mom. Guess Ben's got his posting. He didn't get into the paratrooper program like he wanted, but he gets to drive around in a big, honkin' truck. He'll be based somewhere out of Washington state, around the Tacoma area. At least he can visit coffee house Mecca.

Happy Birthday, America

That's about it. No fireworks or cookouts for me. No day off from work or school. I colored a bad imitation of the flag on a piece of paper and made a paper hat to wear at school. That's about all I could get done in the few minutes between classes and marking a thousand papers.

Oh, and it rained the ENTIRE day. Heavily.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Ah, but is the food quality?

So one of the places I might head to on my trip is Brunei. It's a teeny, tiny sultanate on the northern tip of Borneo. This is what you can look forward to when visiting there (thanks, Brunei

"The tiny but thriving Islamic Sultanate of Brunei perches on the northwestern coast of Borneo, completely encircled by the East Malaysian state of Sarawak.

Brunei is a little slice of Islamic heaven. Alcohol is virtually unobtainable, there's no nightlife to speak of, and the political culture encourages quiet acquiescence to the edicts of the sultan. The folk of Brunei are amply rewarded for their conformist ways with free healthcare, free education, free sporting centres, cheap loans and high, tax-free wages."

I can't wait to go!

Drumroll please....

Borneo it is, for this summer's vacation. I'll be gone 30 days, from July 28 to August 27. Though not all of that will be spent on the island. I'll be there through August 14, at which point I'll jet back to Kuala Lumpur and decide what to do. I've a couple friends in Singapore who need visiting, and Thailand's a day's train-ride away. I can get back to Koh Tao, the island I was on last year, and do my Advanced SCUBA cert. Let's hope the cash holds out!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

My take on the new place

Not bad, but several things wrong with it that together might've put me off renting had I noticed them all. Most of them are minor, but a couple of them, like the fact that I don't know how to put on the screen doors, are rather major. We also have to move the aircon unit from Mike's bedroom to the living room. I went into his room the other day to mess around with the internet (another problem -- later) and found he'd left it on. I don't know if it's gonna be a regular occurrence or not, but I don't want to pay for the most expensive electric item and not get any cool benefit from it. My room's completely unairconditioned, but it stays fairly cool, as long as I keep the window open. The downside to that is I get to hear every door slam for all 11 floors.

But the location is just awesome, I tell myself every time I find a new problem. I think most of it is that I've got a bunch of extra stuff that I haven't been able to get rid of, and I haven't figured out the best way to organize my room. Right now, what hasn't been put into my drawers has been cast about the room. I'm weighing various organizing solutions and when I figure out which one I want and get it set up, things should be much smoother.

In other news, I not have a tomato plant and a habanero bush. Both are tiny and growing. I'm watering them often and I think I've noticed a bit of growth on both. Let's hope they don't keel over.

The weedwhacker analogy

If your "underlying beliefs or theories" made you stick your dick in the blender, even "reluctantly," and you haven't thoroughly reassessed these concepts, I frankly don't want to hear your advice about what to do with the weed whacker.

credit to thers

Friday, June 08, 2007


And hopefully for the last time for a couple years. I might not have internet, my roommate got his transferred, but can't get it working for some reason. Guess that means if I can get it to work, we're screwed for a while.

I got my friend Naomi to drive this time, and I'll pretty much be doing all the heavy lifting. Glad I haven't been going to the gym so I can save up my energy for tomorrow...or something like that. The sinus trouble I'm having is just icing on the cake -- nothing like physical exertion, bending over picking up things, when your face feels like it's being hammered with an ice pick. Tomorrow's gonna be fun!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The heat, the heat!

I think I've overdone it this weekend. I've been out in the blistering sun 3 of the past 4 days. The only reason I wasn't out Friday was because there was a torrential downpour the entire day. Actually, the sun wasn't out, I still rode my bike to work in the pouring rain. All the teachers laughed at me when I walked in looking like a soaked rat in swim trunks and flip flops. When rainy season hits, they'll get to see it every day.

Yesterday was field day at the junior high schools. I went to the party school's festival. It was a lot of fun watching the various events. They had different ones from the previous schools I've been to. One interesting even I didn't catch the name of involved various objects ranging from tires to soccer balls to bamboo poles to 4 balls as tall as the kids, all placed on the midfield line. Two teams stood at the goal line and when the gun sounded ran to try to get the objects behind their goal line. It was amusing to watch them tugging at tires and trying to bounce the giant balls over their opponents heads. As with all Japanese field day events, it wasn't without danger. The bamboo poles looked like they could impale somebody. At one point, two girls collided. One was bleeding from her forehead, the other from her mouth. The nurse sat the second girl down and, after washing out the blood, started poking around in her mouth and trying to wiggle the front tooth. At that point it got to be too much, so I took off to the water fountain.

On the way, I got jumped by a gang of elementary school kids that I teach. One little girl who I swear is an angel in class, took to trying to spank me when my back was turned, even resorting to a quick kancho stab when I leaned down to get a drink. I only had running shorts on instead of my denim armor, so she got me quite good. All of the parents watching thought it was so cute. "Aww, isn't that cute. Little Kanako is poking her teacher in the butt!"

Another highlight was the folk dance done after all the events had been run. I was expecting some traditional Japanese dance or something like that. One of the previous schools had done the soran bushi dance, which I think is particularly cool. Instead, we got some rendition of a square dance song, like what we used to do back in elementary school where boys and girls do a short dance with each other then move on to the next partner. Not to mention it was freakin' interminable! Every time the song ended and we all thought it was over, they reset the track. It must've been stuck on a loop or something because we went through it at least ten times. One of the teachers dragged me out there and got me in the circle to go dancing. The students thought it was funny to see me dancing, and most of the girls I had to dance with could hardly walk they were laughing so hard. Glad to know the students have so much respect for me.

The best thing about field day is the nomikai afterwards. We all met up for a couple hours of hard drinking after, because there's nothing better after 7 hours spent in 30-degree heat than consuming large amounts of booze. It was good to get to socialize with the teachers, and I was able to speak to several who hadn't spoken to me before. Also, last week was the first week for the jishūsei (student teachers). So naturally, they each had to stand up and give a speech. In fact, I think every single person there, myself included, gave a speech. I couldn't follow most of them, but they all had to do with field day and how their homeroom class fared.

After the nomikai, I jetted off to meet people to see Pirates of the Caribbean. Don't go see a movie while liquored up. I ended up with a hangover by the end.

Today I played soccer with some of the foreigners in Hiratsuka. I think I overdid the running around in the heat part, because I've got a throbbing headache. At least I had the wherewithal to put on sunscreen, so I'm not burned to a crisp. But my throbbing head and pulled leg muscle aren't happy with me.