Monday, April 28, 2008

"Kubuntu v8.04"

Another weekend working for the computer. Typical deal - you figure you're going to spend a couple of hours upgrading an OS, and that couple of hours turns into a couple of days. There's always something. In this case I stupidly thought I'd do the lazy and quick [sarcastic and hysterical laughter] thing, and do an upgrade install from v7.10 to v8.04. I knew better than to do such a thing (I'd tweaked the system too much for that to work, and it's not a good idea in general to do upgrade installs that (attempt to) take the OS across a major generational line anyway).

The result? It could have been worse. When the upgrade install failed (as I should have known it would), the system was a bit mucked up, but still functioning. I (belatedly) thought "Okay - no prob! I'll plug in an external USB hard drive, drop the files into that, and then do a clean install" - reformatting the hard drive and putting in v8.04 on a squeaky clean slate.

One problem though... the system no longer detected USB devices! "Uuuu......." I think, while looking at my computer - knowing the files are sitting in the steel box, but not knowing how to get them out. I fleetingly considered abandoning everything and just going ahead and wiping the hard drive, but irrational/impatient passion subsided and I decided to put the stuff I really wanted (needed?) to keep onto dual-layer DVD's in 8GB chunks and dump about 90GB of the 100GB of data (stuff that was already backed up - .tif images from Hubble, etc.).

If I hadn't put that DVD drive into the box after bringing it home from the used computer shop, I'm not sure what I would have done (learned command line stuff no doubt), but all's mostly happy that ends mostly happy I guess.

Next multi-hour batch of fun involved a glitch with the Adept Package Manager, which wasn't pulling in the list of available application software like it's supposed to. It just unhelpfully showed the things already installed. To make a too-long story a little bit longer, I finally figured out that was due to it's trying to pull in the file list from a bad source (or maybe not trying at all due to garbled text?).

After that was sorted out (it took me much longer than it should have to figure that one out), I had some setup problems with some applications I use, etc. etc. Now I'm up and running, but there are still a number of things that I want to get set up and so the machine will continue to burn up time over the next week or so I imagine.

So how is Kubuntu v8.04? Seems good so far. I need to spend more time with it to know exactly what's what though.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Friday, April 25, 2008

"Lining-up Progress"

Continuing to look around in 2008 Japan and compare it to 1984-1992 Japan, another issue that comes to mind is standing in lines. When I arrived, I was shocked and dismayed to discover that at banks and fast-food places, there were several parallel lines, rather than one central line that fed to the next open teller or order taker. So you'd go to the bank in a hurry and pick a short line, and if you were lucky, you'd get out before people who had been waiting longer. If you were unlucky, you'd get in a line and - noticing that it wasn't moving - you'd take a closer look up the line and there would be a time-machine visitor from the deep dark ages who didn't know how to interact with machines, or someone who brought in a stack of bank books to update (for colleagues?), or some such thing, and you'd be standing there in frustration watching people who had come in after you, smoothly gliding up to another machine, completing their banking, and leaving while you stood there.

What to do... getting out of line at that stage would mean getting in the back of a line twice as long, which might contain its own glacially slow biped... etc. etc. So I imagine that you can imagine my happiness spike when they finally got around to setting it up so there was only one line, and people at the front of the line just went to whichever machine was open first.

Same thing with escalators - they would immediately jam up and they were good only for the effort saved in not walking. If you were in any kind of a hurry, the only way to zoom ahead was to use the stairs. Don't believe me that people jammed them up? Have a look at this video from 1991:

And um... yeah, that's it. I need to get some sleep now!

Sore dewa, mata,

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"Spontaneous Dual Lines"

For about twenty years I lined up on one platform after another and another-n'-another-n'-another, and the lines were always three people across. I remember hearing recorded announcements early on at some stations asking people to line up three across, and it occurred to me that it hadn't always been that way, hence the announcement. After that, though, I don't remember hearing that announcement. Either it was one of those things that is always in the background, so you just automatically tune it out, or they stopped making the announcements since everyone was dutifully lining up three across?

The only problem with standing three across, is that when the train comes, and the three-across line has to split to let people off the train, that middle row of people have to get in one or the other new line on the right or left of the opening doors, so the process ends up interfering with equal access to the train (on some lines, at some stations, the first people in can actually - gasp!- sit down!!) - this doesn't, on the other hand, interfere whatsoever when people are getting onto an empty train at the first station.

Jump through the years from 1984 to around 2005 or so, and one day I saw two people standing at one of the door marks (where the doors will be is usually marked on the platform, and the train operators pride themselves on stopping at precisely the same spot at the station every time), so I walked up and parked my standing bipedal form next to them, forming the third person. They looked over at me and I felt disapproval/irritation radio waves... "What?...." I thought, as I assessed the situation.... Reconfirming that I was the third person; not the fourth or fifth, I looked off into the distance and broadcast anti-disapproval waves and thought "Hey! I'm not being pushy! I'm just doing the regular thing! What's with you?" (Naturally no words were exchanged.)

Since then, I've seen people standing in pairs more and more until it's gotten to the point lately, that it almost seems official to stand two across. Equal access to the inside, etc. is great, but what's not great is when it's overcrowded (like every bloody day on a couple of the trains I line up for), and then you have a handful of people leisurely standing at the front edge of the platform, and - by the time the train is about to arrive - a huge mob of people unable to be in any kind of line at all at the back, and in danger of dropping off the edge of the other side of the platform, which becomes a real mess when a second train arrives on that side. Adding to the fun, there are actually people trying to walk along the platform (which they must - lest there be disaster at the junction of the stairs and the platform), and they have to physically force themselves through the mob.

Then - earlier in the evening, as I'm waiting for a train in Shinjuku, I notice the recorded announcement is asking people to line up three across.... Either it's new or I've been missing it all these years... I think it's new. What I'm wondering now is whether the urge to line up in pairs instead of triangles is a natural phenomenon?

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Sunday, April 20, 2008

"Old Style Y500 Coffee Shop"

On the way home over the past couple of years, I've periodically looked out the train window (when I'm standing at a door that is - the seats face the inside of the train) and noticed an old style (previously ubiquitous) coffee shop, and idly thought I'd like to go in for an over-priced cup of coffee for old-time's sake.

And here I am sitting in said shop writing this by hand (enjoying the experience of writing by hand, but also realizing that each word will have to be reproduced on the keyboard before I can get this through the wires to the screen).

Okay, this is getting in the way - I'll just make short notes from here out and fill in the text later directly on the machine:

These old style coffee shops are fast disappearing, to the point where the only remaining ones will exist on nostalgia alone, rather than their original reason for existing. For quite a while, Japan's coffee shops were famous for their overpriced (compared to prices for coffee in other countries anyway) coffee, but I'm not sure people understand what was being bought with Y500 for a cup of coffee.

The deal is, not only are free places to sit down in Tokyo few and far between, but most of the year, the weather tends not to be ideal for sitting outside. The winter is cold, the spring is wet, the summer is hot & humid, and although autumn tends to be nice, it's also often visited with typhoons. Then you're back to cold winter. So, if you want to meet someone and sit and talk, where do you go? Coffee shops used to be the best option, since you could sit in one talking with a friend for a few hours, after which the Y500 didn't seem so expensive, since it amounted to seat & table rental time out of the weather and in a cozy atmosphere (assuming smoke didn't cause you grief).

Then cheap coffee shop chains caught on, and the expensive places lost customers to them and began to disappear. The cheap places are convenient and cheap, but - like fast-food restaurants - generally soulless.

Observations of the Y500 place in which I now sit - which fit for most of the similar-style coffee shops I've been in over the past 24 years:

You sit down, and either exchange a few words with the person you've come with, or else look around the coffee shop or out the window. (Before cell phones, they were also good places to wait for someone when you had to prearrange a place to meet.) Often the menu is already at the table, but sometimes it's brought, and water and hot wet towels are brought. You ponder the menu for awhile, and order, and then talk (or look out the window, or read, etc.) while waiting for the coffee to arrive.

Coffee is brought in style. Like in a classy restaurant, the delivery of the coffee is considered an important element. The person who brings you the coffee sets it carefully in front of you in a nice cup (never a paper cup), with the handle facing to your left at 90-degrees. I never bothered to find out the exact proper procedure for turning it 180 degrees before beginning to drink, but (sort-of) enjoyed the ritual of turning it anyway (shades of the tea ceremony here), and then pouring in a little cream & sugar and stirring it with the small spoon.

One time, I went with an acquaintance who was really into the correct rituals, etc., and was told that you're not supposed to stir it right away, but rather watch in fascination (said mostly in seriousness, with a little bit of sarcasm in the background) the patterns formed with the cream in the coffee. Immediately stirring it into a uniform mud color is considered very uncultured. (I've forgotten, but I think the ideal thing is to stir the black coffee, and carefully drop the cream into the still swirling coffee after the spoon is out of the way - in any case it looks pretty interesting & artistic when you do it that way.)

There are always two kinds of sugar on the table - in glass containers with wooden lids, and metal spoons with small wooden knobs on the end (the spoons rest in the sugar, with the handle passing through a cutout in the lid). One is regular white sugar, and the other is a brown sugar in large crystals. I don't remember what the deal is with the large brown-crystal sugar. Either it's a taste thing, or one or the other is more suited to ice-coffee? (They would bring a liquid syrup for the ice-coffee, come to think of it.) I have no idea. Personally, I always used the large brown crystal sugar in hot coffee.

There was (is) an ashtray on each table, as leaf-fire burning and inhalation for nicotine drug addicts is/was allowed. StarBucks was the first place that didn't allow smoking anywhere in the entire store, and it was instantly popular with non-smokers who weren't happy about being forced to smoke with the smokers in smoke/coffee shops. (Probably not a great time or place to visit this issue, but for those who bring up alcohol and people who drink as an argument against banning leaf-fire smoke - the comparison only holds if you physically grab someone and force alcohol down their throats - otherwise the comparison is just sophistic inanity. The air is common to all in the same space - what people drink is not.)

Back to the specific coffee shop I'm in:

- Between myself and the window are cake... ads? (they're not menus exactly, but perform that function) sitting on a wooden rail. One for "Milk Crepe", one for "Chocolate Cake Cake Set" and one for "Cheesecake".

- Old style wooden chairs.

- Wood-pattern linoleum floor.

- Two small square wooden tables pushed together to form the rectangle of each four-seat table. (Easily adjusted for an extra person here or there.)

- Small tables mostly, one larger table (with eight chairs) in the middle of the room. A sort of bar-style counter, although at the same height as the tables, where people can sit in regular-height chairs.

- Daily (coffee) special on A4 card tacked to wall.

- Unobtrusive background music.

- Incandescent lights (no florescent tubes anywhere that I can see - unusual in most spaces in Japan, although classy restaurants have been trending towards warmer, more subdued lighting).

- Exhaust fan in the wall (for leaf-fire smoke).

- Magazines and comic books in smallish bookcase.

- People talking in Y500 coffee shop style. Is that sound due to the acoustics; the background music; or do people actually speak in a different way in these places? From past experience, I would say it's a way of speaking. It's not a library, but the concept is similar. (Note: That last sentence began as Japanese and is basically a translated sentence - does it fly smoothly in English, or does it feel like an oddly translated string of words that doesn't quite come together in a cohesive meaning? It's common in Japanese to say that something "isn't something, but...".

I look out the window and ponder the people coming and going from the station. There is the muffled sound of trains coming into and leaving the station, and the "kong-kong-kong" of crossing bell sounds generated by speakers.

Time to leave - I pick up the bill on the table and note that its height is A6, with a narrower width.

As I leave, I think I would like to return before long, but the first thing I think of when contemplating doing so, is the time it costs. Perhaps this is what has really killed off most of these types of shops - the fact that people can communicate with anyone via e-mail now (with cell phones), and don't need to arrange a physical meeting to talk.

So saying, a scene comes to mind. Later in the say, as I walked past a StarBucks in Shinjuku, I looked in the window and saw a woman sitting alone at a table for two (not four, as would be the case in the old-style shops), talking on her cell phone while she was doing something with her laptop at the same time. Multitasking - why waste time meeting someone in a settled atmosphere and having a leisurely talk when you can do three or four things at once? Quantity is more important than quality? For everything gained, something is lost?

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"Cherry Blossoms Mostly Gone"

I might just as well have titled this "Finally it's Getting Warm". The cherry blossoms always come out when there is no trace of new leaves on other trees (or the cherry blossom trees - the leaves come out after the flowers), which is their attraction, but it's always really cold when everyone goes out for the hanami drinking parties under the trees. By the time the weather is feeling a little comfortable, the petals are all gone. It's a good scam those trees have going! Just a week or so of flowers and they're given pride of place all over the country. Not so lucky fruit trees, which are considered bad outside of commercial farms, since they include the possibility of attracting (gasp!) insects!

Watching one of my video tapes from August 1990, I was surprised to see myself pointing out a security camera that had been installed over the train station platform. Trying to think of something in the news that prompted a stepped up security diligence, I looked up the gas attack on the subway (I was here, but had forgotten when it happened exactly), which turns out to have been in 1995, so it was either something else, or just the flow of time towards the odd age we live in now.

And in the video department - a view of the famous (or maybe infamous) Shibuya crossing near the Hachiko Plaza. Wait a minute.... Hmm? In the upload, the aspect ratio was destroyed and it looks extraordinarily horrible now! I should delete it, but I'll leave it up as an example of what happens when the aspect ratio is ruined:

Also (aspect ratio okay):
"In the Shibuya Hachiko Crowd" (2008):

"Shibuya - Waiting in Hachiko Square" (2008)

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Sunday, April 13, 2008

"Manga on the Way Down?"

There was a special on a weekly news program last night about how sales of manga magazines (typically weekly publications with ongoing bits of several different manga) have been falling. Apparently books sales of specific manga - like the long-running "Conan the Detective" - are still selling well, but people seem to be losing interest in the formerly hugely successful weekly magazines (printed on very cheap paper and looking almost like small phone books).

Maybe this ties in with dismal book sales in general - people are getting used to getting reading material off the Internet, and many don't buy any books at all. Whatever - I just felt sort of vindicated when I saw the report though, as I've been thinking that newer manga have gotten worse, so maybe others agree....

Somewhat related in how time relentlessly flows on, for both good and otherwise - here is a video showing both the modern face of Gotanda and a narrow backstreet from the past:

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

"The Curse of Audio Recordings"

As someone who is kept from going stark raving mad on the sardine run commute to-and-from work by audio recordings (usually there's no space for a book, so listening to something is all I can do), I look at my title sitting up there on the screen and feel as though I probably shouldn't say that about something I use and appreciate on a daily basis, but the flip side of listening to a favorite song or book, is listening to something that sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard, and hearing the exact same irritating sound again-and-again-and-again-and-again.... and again-and-again-and-again-and-again-and-again-and... Aggggghhhhh!! Stop already!!!

What do you do when you've got a vast and complex train system with an incredible number of stations, and you want to have a recording telling people what the next station is? A coupe of options might be:

a) Have someone read through a list of stations, reading "The next stop is Tokyo Station"; "The next stop is "Yurakucho Station"; "The next stop is Shinbashi Station". The resulting recordings would differ slightly from one station to another - a shocking concept - almost like real speech!

b) Have someone make a single recording saying "The next station is....." and then give them a list of stations to read "Tokyo"; "Yurakucho"; "Shinbashi". Use the single recording for all stations; just dropping in the relevant station name at the end. A "benefit" of this is that all the recordings will be uniform. The disadvantage is that it sounds unreal, because... well... it *is* unreal! And then this Frankenstein creation gets worse; 'Frankenstein monster, meet Dr. Clone!'

The "B" route seems to be what JR has done with its English announcements, although that single template sentence may be different for different lines... (the recordings that torment me on a regular basis are the ones on the Yamanote Line and the Chuo Line).

What prompts this rant? I took a video clip of the station display screen (there's also one displaying ads, news & weather) over one of the doors (there are a pair of displays over every door), including the audio file that was playing at the time I made the clip. After ranting up a storm about the recordings, I played back the video clip, thinking "I wonder how this will sound to someone who hasn't yet been tortured with this recording..." as the clip began.

How did it sound with that mindset? Not so bad! But - and this a very large "but" - keep in mind that the announcement is likely played quite a bit more loudly on the train than you're hearing it on your computer, and also that (except for the station name part), as you ride the train and it stops at one station after another, you're forced to listen to that same recording over and over and over....

Anyway - here's a video clip (and recording) from the Yamanote Line:

And by way of contrast, here's a video clip of a Toyoko Line train, which very sensibly skips an English announcement and lets the clear bi-lingual display over the doors do the job:

It would have been nice if JR had done the same!

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Sunday, April 06, 2008

"English Train Announcements (In Japan) - Why?"

In newer trains in Tokyo, they have bilingual (Japanese & English) displays over the doors on the inside of the train, as well as bilingual displays on the outside of the train (on the front, rear, and sides), not to mention bilingual signs on the station platforms. Great stuff - the long-term citizens of the country get to see their own language, and hapless tourists and businesspeople get an International language more widely recognized than Japanese.

What's not so great is the horrible audio; recorded announcements relentlessly assaulting everyone's ears before and after every station. What's wrong with English language announcements on Tokyo trains?

- First off, they are unneeded. "Shinjuku" in Japanese is also "Shinjuku" in English, "Nakano" in Japanese is "Nakano" in English... except when you get some mono-linguist who can't speak the local language to say it - like they have done for the JR announcements - and they pronounce it "NaKAno". Grrrrrr..!

- Bad education! When people ride a train every day, week-after-week, month-after-month, and year-after-year, and every time, their ears and minds are assaulted with the very same badly pronounced station names - I wouldn't be surprised if children here start calling Yotsuya "YoTSUya" like the bloody announcement on JR trains! And even if it's not bad education, it's disgusting to listen to! It's sound pollution! Yamete kudasai yo!

- The English parts of the announcements, although said with an irritatingly hard and twangy voice, are at least pronounced correctly (with an American accent). BUT - they are said at one-third speed, as though an over-eager kindergarten teacher is trying too hard to super-pronounce every single word, and to leave miles of space between each word for easy comprehension. I think even if English was my seventh and most poorly understood language, that way of "speaking" the language would still be highly irritating to listen to! Kanben shite kure yo!

- The audio assault English announcements (unneeded & unwanted) are played louder than the Japanese announcements!! Why??? Is it some kind of mental torture cleverly devised to ease crowding a little by getting people to walk or cycle to work, rather than face the horrible sound waves broadcast on the trains?

- In one of the announcements (about smoking, or babies or something), it sounds as though the woman badly needs to clear her throat... and you stand there on the train - involuntarily clearing your throat - and you think "Over time, millions - millions of people are going to hear the announcement and they couldn't be bothered to rerecord a bad spot?!? Incredible!! Astounding!! Outrageous!! Unforgivable!! And - oh so amazingly irritating!!! Grrrrrrrrrr!!!!!"

And... that's basically it. I realize the announcements are intended to be helpful, but they're really not needed (or wanted), and if they must be there, it sure would be nice if they could turn the volume down on them and rerecord them in a more natural sounding way. But really - they're not needed! They really aren't! Even tourists would rather take in the ambiance of a foreign country - enhanced by listening to cool Japanese announcements. Who is happy with those profoundly irritating English announcements? Maybe one person out of 333,333 - or less! Arigata-meiwaku desu!

Rant over....

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon