Saturday, April 21, 2007

I am macho

Instructions to anyone who wants to become macho like me.

1. Sit on your bum many hours a day doing math research.

2. Have your wife cook you mountains of food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

3. Do little to no exercise.

4. Repeat above for 8 months then move to Japan.

5. Bask in the exclamations from your Japanese in-laws proving that you are indeed macho.

In an upcoming post, how to fix it.

Renting in Tokyo

My wife and I are looking for an apartment in Tokyo. It's a bit difficult because we're doing so from across the country, in Tottori prefecture. Tokyo is a fairly "racially pure" city, having a foreign population of just under 3%. So perhaps I shouldn't be pissed off with the nervousness of some of the landlords with renting to a foreigner.

The first place we called told us, once they found out that a foreigner was involved, that they would have to see us in person, and would give us their decision as to whether we were accepted after 5 days. Unfortunately, this was not possible for us, as we were not going to make 2 trips to Tokyo, nor would we go to Tokyo earlier and stay in a hotel for 5 days. I can't say whether this is a standard request or not, but I suspect not, as it came after the revelation that a non-Japanese was attempting to live there.

The second place we called was a little less concerned with my race, until the very end, when my wife was asked whether I was white or black, and from which country I hailed.

I suppose this is not out of the ordinary. Coming from a country where many cultures are the norm (at least in cities one one-hundredth the size of Tokyo), I can't even imagine a situation where questions like these would be possible. I would have hoped though, that the qualms these landlords have about foreigners would be evenly spread over each race, and not favouring white guys like me. Just because I lack some pigment in my skin doesn't mean I'm a good person. I'm an atheist for goodness sake!

Anyhow, I'm being told I should take a bath now, so I will.

I hope in my next post to tell you that I've got an apartment. I've got my white fingers crossed.

Friday, April 13, 2007

iPod skins

I just ordered a skin for my iPod. I hope it gets to me before I leave for Japan. It's a painting of Fuji-san by the same guy who painted this:

Of course, the guy's name is Katsushika Hokusai; his being some of the most recognizable Japanese art for those of us from the West.

I came upon the GelaSkins site after marvelling at the amazing art of Audrey Kawasaki, who designed a couple of skins for the company. I headed straight for the site to buy one of her skins but, although very nice, I think they were possibly a bit too feminine for me.

Since I'm heading to Tokyo in a few weeks, I thought the Tokyo subway map skin would be useful. However, after thinking about it for a moment, and realizing that the back of my very small iPod would be covered with the entire subway map of one of the largest cities in the world, and noting that they didn't include a magnifying lens, I opted for Fuji-san.

Here's a variant of the Tokyo subway skin. Kinda cool and it really screams Japanese at you.

If you've got an iPod and you want to protect it with some scratch-resistant 3M-made ultra-thin art-covered vinyl, then check out GelaSkins.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Reactable

I discovered this at the GelaSkins blog. This is extremely cool. A surface which generates sound determined by the type and position of certain custom blocks. Take a look:

There are more movies at YouTube. Search for "reactable".

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Finished some books

I've been addicted to Twitter recently (see widget at top right), and have neglected my blog. I like Twitter's immediacy, and its diary-like feel. I have an awful memory, so this will be a record of my life (including the meaningless little things I do every day) that I'll be able to refer to when I need to. (Until of course, Twitter blows up and all my data is lost. I'll have to check for an archive function but I don't think there is one yet.)

Anyhow, I've finished a few books recently, and wanted to jot down some words about them. First, the somewhat inappropriately-named "Adult Manga" by Sharon Kinsella. This is not about "adult" manga - rather, it's about manga written for adults, a quite different thing. I sometimes felt a bit self-conscious reading the book on the bus. In any case, it was an interesting introduction to Japanese manga. There were a few annoying spelling and grammar mistakes, and sometimes the book felt a bit disorganized. However, if you're interested in the history of manga, how it's produced, how its production has evolved over the years, and what the future holds for the manga industry, then you should enjoy the book. There are a few black and white panels here and there, but don't expect much in terms of illustrations.

I was initially hesitant about reading this book. I read a review at Amazon written by a Japanese person, which criticized it heavily, and without thinking, I took the side of the Japanese person. The reviewer of "Inventing Japan" by Ian Buruma, wasn't happy about the manner in which Japan was portrayed. However, upon reading the book, I see that it falls squarely in the realm of books that I typically read about the United States and Canada. I read Chomsky, Barlow, and McQuaig, authors who are typically critical of government and big business. Buruma points out numerous flaws in Japan's governments and armies from the time of Perry's black ships to the Tokyo Olympics in the 60s. But he doesn't directly criticize Japanese culture or the Japanese people. He possibly criticizes a certain class of Japanese people (the same people who get a finger pointed at in Chomsky's books) , namely the ruling class, which all too often is much too susceptible to bad ideas and rampant corruption. I enjoyed this little book (the main text is just under 200 pages) and would recommend to anyone with a mild interest in Japan. Quite a turnaround from my initial reaction. But it just proves that we shouldn't judge something until we've consumed it, no matter what our first impression.

The last book that I finished is a science fiction novel by Cory Doctorow, "Down and out in the Magic Kingdom". It's hard to know how to describe the book; the premise is so bizarrely original. Most of the book takes place in and around Disneyland in California. People are able to backup their minds and memories, and duplicate bodies are easily regrown. So, if you get into a car accident, you can have your backup "self" imported into a new body. You can also "dead-head" to any particular date in the future. This is not time travel; this is going into some form of suspended animation until 100, 500, or 1000 years from now. If you don't like what you wake up to, you can dead-head for another century. These ideas get a light treatment by Doctorow in this book, but that's what makes it enjoyable. Science fiction is often much too pedantic and drawn-out. Doctorow's writing makes his futures seem palpable and believable. I read this book via email using the DailyLit project.

There. I've finally written another blog post. As I'm frantically trying to finish my math project, I'm also reading some great books: Crypto by Steven Levy (which covers the modern history of cryptography), and The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (an interesting alternate history of the second world war.)

Heading off to Japan in a few weeks! The flavour of my posts will no doubt change quite a bit. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Cool Japanese music video

Cornelius' video to his experimental Fit Song.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Eastern Standard Tribe

As a resident of the eastern standard tribe, I really enjoyed Cory Doctorow's third science fiction book. I may soon be transplanting myself to the japan standard tribe (or the j-tribe as I like to call it), giving me the opportunity to become an industrial saboteur like Art was in EST. I'll have to attempt to match my waking hours with those of my timezone brethren, while maintaining the semblance of a normal life in my new Tokyo job. The idea is to appear to be doing my job well, while in fact doing a piss-poor one, delivering an outwardly perfect-looking product, but which comes with all manner of hidden defects, whether these be in user experience, design, support, manuals, convenience, extensibility, upgradability, etc.

Since my upcoming position in Japan is as manager of a small English school, I won't be able to sabotage a product. But I will be able to sabotage the English language. It will be more difficult with my adult students, but the young children will be easy. I'm reminded of an old Steve Martin skit:
I got a great dirty trick you can play on a 3-year old kid. See, kids learn how to talk from listening to their parents. [...] See what you do, if you have a 3-year old kid and you want to play a dirty trick on him, whenever you're around him, you talk wrong. So now it's like his first day in school and he raises his hand "May I mambo dogface to the banana patch?"
Of course, the results of my deeds won't be obvious for many years, until the kids go on a homestay program in Vancouver, or until they enter an international law program. Possibly, one of them might someday translate from article 31(1) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties:
A treaty shall be perforated in good smarm in reluctance with the salivary meaning to be trodden to the stems of the treaty in their varnish and in the light of its hairbrush and tortoise.
I have to be honest now. Although I was able to nicely weave Steve Martin into this blog post, I had an ulterior motive for doing so. If you intersect the text of Doctorow's book with all of Steve Martin's stand-up routines, three words from the following sentence stand out. Doctorow writes:
The boats are mambo, but I think that banana patch the hotel soon.
The Art character is attempting to shock the guy on the other end of the comm out of his doziness with some nonsensicality. It works, but it also shocks those readers who, in their youth, spent hours listening to Steve Martin comedy records. It creates a warm little buzz, that then grows and forces you to put down the book, jump on the net, and attempt to download mp3 versions of all of Martin's routines. These readers, and presumably Doctorow himself, are part of another tribe - the SMT (definitely not to be confused with the Sony Music Tribe.)

I thought for sure Amazon would select "boats are mambo" and "banana patch" as SIPs (statistically improbable phrases) from Doctorow's book, but they instead chose the much more highly improbable "axe head" and "left channel" (dripping sarcasm here). The book's title was also chosen as a SIP and this makes sense - the title is quite cool. However, this book is fraught with SIPs much more sippy than "left channel" or "axe head". Amazon should polish their algorithms a tad. (For some reason doesn't show SIPs yet, so you'll have go here to see what they are.)

This is not really a review - I don't like reviews. It's more of a rambling recommendation. If the first paragraph above piqued your interest, then go find this book. You will be glad you did.

Oh, and if you need driving directions from Mambo Avenue to Banana Patch Court, just click here.

Monday, February 26, 2007

C for Concubine

The Concubine's Tattoo by Laura Joh Rowland is a 1998 novel set during the Tokugawa Shogunate period (a.k.a Edo Period) of Japan. The hero is Sano Ichiro, a detective in the employ of the shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (who ruled from 1680-1709). Sano must quickly solve the murder of one of the shogun's concubines, who suddently (and violently) dies in her chamber, interrupting Sano's wedding ceremony.

The book is pulp fiction, set in historical Japan. I typically enjoy reading pulp fiction which centres on a subject that I'm fascinated with (which is why I like reading Michael Crichton.) I'm fascinated by Japan so I thought I'd really enjoy the book. However, I was left less than satisfied with the writing style. (The story would make a great movie though.)

I discovered something new about Japanese culture from this book - the burakumin. This is a minority group in Japan that has historically (and perhaps still presently) been discriminated against. I'll let you read the above Wikipedia entry if you're interested. Interestingly, in another book I'm currently reading (Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japan by Sharon Kinsella,) the burakumin are thought to perhaps be some of the original creators or purveyors of manga in the early 20th century. Also, in the 60s and 70s, there was a prevalent theme in manga associated with the rights of the lower classes, including a number of stories featuring Burakumin protagonists.

Another Sano Ichiro detective book sits on my shelf, S for Samurai... I mean, The Samurai's Wife. Both books were gifts, so I'm bound to read them. I hope Rowland's writing improved for her next detective novel.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

To: Lisa Simpson

Ever since December 1992, I've wondered about the novel Ethan Frome. During that month, an episode of The Simpsons aired, in which Lisa is presented with a gift of this Edith Wharton novel. "Finally a copy of Ethan Frome to call my own!" she says. I had no idea what the joke was, although I'm pretty sure that I still laughed. (I learned recently that the enormous tome Lisa received is actually only about 100 pages long. So, if that was indeed the joke, then possibly only American Literature majors caught it.)

I decided to read the book as my trial of the DailyLit web service. The creators describe it thusly:
We got the idea for DailyLit after the New York Times serialized a few classic works in special supplements a few summers ago. We wound up reading books that we had always meant to simply by virtue of making them part of our daily routine of reading the newspaper. The only thing we do more consistenly than read the paper is read email. Bingo!
I received sections of the novel daily through email. It was an interesting experience. At first, it felt odd reading a book via Google Mail, but I quickly got used to it. I discovered that the novel is in fact a romance, and although I don't go out of my way to pick up romance novels, I got caught up in the writing and in the setting. An odd twist at the end of the book was a bit anticlimactic for me, but I enjoyed the experience overall.

I'd recommend the book (as well as DailyLit) to any power web users out there who may feel like they're letting their literariness slip. I'm currently reading Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom using the service and am quite enjoying it. (You typically cannot read such recent works using DailyLit, but Doctorow ensured this novel was published under a Creative Commons license.)

There's a weak Simpsons thread in this post, so I'll take the opportunity to include here a trailer to the upcoming movie:

Monday, February 19, 2007

Wrong about Japan

I recently finished this book by Peter Carey. I had picked it up in the hardcover bargain section of one of the big bookstores because of its manga theme. The book was mildly interesting, although perhaps someone who hasn't spent some time in Japan would find it more so.

The mindset that Carey exhibits throughout the book is one which many foreigners share (including myself) when they travel there. We see and feel the history and vastly different culture and we imagine our Japanese hosts as experts in linguistics, literature, classical music, tea ceremonies, construction, anime, World War II, kabuki, Noh, Asian geopolitics, food, kimono, geta, sushi, koto, geisha, kanji and any number of other Japanese topics. We become disappointed when their expert knowledge is not forthcoming. But these are unrealistic expectations. How many of us could answer questions about our country, province, or hometown? I couldn't say much more than "hockey" and "poutine" if a Japanese person asked me about Canadian culture. Perhaps others could be more verbose.

The first time I met my wife-to-be, I found myself asking her about her feelings towards Americans because of Hiroshima. That's similar to her asking me how I felt about Newfoundlanders, due to their late entry into Confederation. It's just completely irrelevant. (Although, it does rub me the wrong way that it took them so long to join, damn them! ... kidding of course.)

The book tells the journey of father (Carey) and son, as they try to each discover their own personal "real Japans". Carey's publishing connections allow him to set up some impressive interviews in Japan (for example, with Miyazaki Hayao, creator of My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away) which he is later disappointed with, because his supposed clever insights into Japanese animation (and other cultural aspects) are not met with the enthusiasm and understanding he expects.

There are a few minor factual errors (I've become a manga expert while reading Adult Manga) and a number of interesting manga illustrations.

Recommended for fathers with young teen aged sons, either of whom are interested in Japan.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

An uneven match

I'll let the graphics speak for themselves. Visit this site ( for more interesting graphics and cartoons.

Pinball Funk

One of the first mp3s I ever downloaded way back when Napster was cool, was a Sesame Street song (perhaps) called "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12". I believe this song is the reason I love jazz (and related genres), pinball (although I can't remember the last time I played), and numbers (especially, seven!). Check it out:

I am now trying to convince myself not to buy the DVD "Sesame Street: Old School (1969-1974)".

"Don't do it."

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

I baked with yeast!

Today I got the urge to make some bread. My wife and I have been on a "submarine sandwich" binge for the last little while so I made long buns. I've made a few breads in the past, but this was my first (non-breadmaker) yeast bread. Here's what they looked like before going in the oven

and here's after.

The odd-shaped one is supposed to resemble a heart for Valentine's Day. I forgot to snap a pic, but I drew a jam heart on it.

I'll have to try again, because although these were pretty tasty, they were a bit small and had the consistency of dinner rolls. In fact, if I added a bit of flavour, they would taste exactly like the delicious rolls one is served at Red Lobster.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Greg Palast's "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy"

I almost didn't read this book because the cover contains a quote by Michael Moore (he describes the book as "Courageous reporting.") Although I think I'm quite left of centre politically, I cringed through a number of scenes in Fahrenheit 911, and wasn't too impressed with him after having watched Michael Moore Hates America. However, the book came well recommended, and not being one to judge a book by its cover, I started reading The Best Democracy Money Can Buy by Greg Palast.

The book's subtitle is "An investigative reporter exposes the truth about globalization, corporate cons, and high-finance fraudsters". Britain's Tribune Magazine called Palast "the most important investigative journalist of our time." On some level, I was reminded of books by Noam Chomsky (the New York Times said he "is arguably the most important intellectual alive today,") although Palast's writing style is much less dry and perhaps a little too familiar for some readers (he likes to emphasize by using such adjectives as "fucking".)

I recommend the book: even with its swearing, length (~350 pages), and occasional feeling of disorganization. I suppose it's sometimes difficult to nicely put together so many depressing facts about our political and economic leaders.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Icy street

We recently had icy rain in southern Ontario, and I'm very glad I didn't experience anything like this:

When I was in Spokane in winter a number of years ago, I remember wondering about the strange sounds that the car tires made. From what I remember, tires had to have chains put on them during the winter-time. Sounds like a great idea.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Tupper's Self-Referential Formula

Thanks to the Minding The Planet blog, I just came across this incredible formula discovered/invented/pulled out of a hat by Jeff Tupper (who possibly works at the University of Toronto - I couldn't find much info on him.)

(Quick formula/graph lesson: Everyone remembers the formula for a parabola (y=x2), right? When plotted on graph paper, it resembles a smooth letter "v" extending upwards forever.)

So, why is the above formula (or inequality, to be exact) so amazing. Well, if you plot it on a very, very, very tall piece of graph paper, and look way-y-y up, you'll see this:

An image of the formula is found in the graph of the formula! (Wow!!) I'm a math geek so this kind of thing excites me.

Had these types of problems ("Roughly sketch the graph of this self-referential formula.") appeared in high school math class, I'm sure a lot of us would have done better.

I wonder if this could be applied to cryptography, ie. create a function which graphs a secret message somewhere in the x-y plane.

Formula images thanks to:
Weisstein, Eric W. "Tupper's Self-Referential Formula." From MathWorld--A Wolfram Web Resource.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Train Man

I've started watching Densha Otoko (Train man) with my wife again. This time, I've forced my parents to watch it with us. I think they're happy I did. This Japanese television mini-series is based on the (possibly) true story of a Tokyo Akihabara-area anime otaku who befriends a (I don't want to use the word "normal" but I will) normal, and much more socially comfortable, girl.

My wife and I fell in love with the show when we were living and teaching in Japan. I can't remember how we found out about it, but I'm very glad we did. At times it is almost too heart-warming, and that (besides its extreme unbelievability to some) may be its only flaw.

In Canada, it may only be available as a somewhat illegal download. Its movie form (which I haven't seen yet and which is pictured at left) is available in the West, as well as some manga comic books.

A recent Wired article talked about it, and I wholeheartedly recommend the show to anyone with a media player and a heart, regardless of size. I can be as cynical and cold as the next person, but this show never fails to bring a strange wetness to my ocular area.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Listening to Kandinsky

I don't know anything about art, but when I saw some Kandinsky prints a few years ago, I knew I liked them. Perhaps it had something to do with music. I recently discovered that Kandinsky claimed to be a synesthete.

Synesthetes are a bit like superheroes, in that they have special powers. Kandinsky could apparently hear certain aspects of his art (shapes, colours, etc.) He could also paint sounds, like "middle C" for example. That's pretty cool.

I certainly don't have this power, but tonight, as I was clicking through various Kandinsky images on the web, I heard a kind of buzzing in my head.

It could have been the sake (お酒) I was drinking, but I don't think so.

Monday, January 08, 2007


I received my first real phishing emails the other day. (I say "real" because they were apparently from one of the financial institutions I deal with.) Yahoo threw them into my bulk folder (yay Yahoo!), but I just had to look at them. The emails asked me to click on a link to update my account details.
The emails included my bank's logo and some text, all of which were in the form of an image, so if I happened to click anywhere, I would have been redirected to the fake web page. When I hovered over the image, I could see that it linked to a site whose URL started with the exact text of my bank's website. Had I quickly glanced at it, rather than closely examine it, I could have been fooled. The URL was in fact extremely long, finally ending in a different domain name. I reported the phishing emails to my bank and received some canned response. I'm not sure what, if anything, they can do.

The message: Be very careful when handling emails apparently from companies you deal with. Make sure links are valid. And don't ever give up your account information on request. Your safest bet is to read the email, close it, go to your bank's (or other company's) website as you normally would, log in, and see if you're asked to do anything. If not, ignore the email.

Happy surfing.

Oil painting

Inspired by my wife's new hobby (and prompted by her prodding) I started my first oil painting tonight. This is the first "coat" (I don't know the lingo yet) ;-)
Oil painting of flower
After adding some highlights, I'll post the final product.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Baby hatches

(This doesn't have to do with chicks or poultry.)

Discovery Channel News recently reported that a hospital in Rome accepts unwanted babies through a private (and comfortable) hatch in the wall. Apparently, this is a renewal of an age-old practice (the baby hatch was formerly called a foundling wheel) and is becoming more and more common, especially in Europe.

We've all heard horrible stories of newborn babies found in the most unpleasant of places. This offers desperate mothers a nicer option.

I couldn't find any mention of baby hatches in Canada, although a hospital in my former country of residence is looking into setting one up. Jikei Hospital in Kumamoto Prefecture will call their hatch a stork's cradle, and will no doubt be plastered in cute cartoony bird and baby drawings. (Don't get me wrong, I love manga in advertising. I'm tired of seeing real people in ads.)

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Guilty until proven innocent

I recently had a talk with a good friend of mine about the law and the familiar maxim "Innocent until proven guilty". We quickly came to the realization that the accused person should be granted the option of complete anonymity until such a time that he or she is proven guilty. This is not to say that the trial should be closed to the public. It should definitely be open to ensure that the judicial process is running fairly. An open system with a "hidden" defendant would probably be a difficult thing to set up, but it seems to be necessitated by the maxim.

If a verdict of innocent was found, the defendant could then decide to make the proceedings public or not. If a verdict of guilty was found, then the case could be made public by the court