Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Road Rage: New York drivers suck

For my first post in a while, I'm going to tackle what's become a BURNING ISSUE for me: New York drivers. They suck. They have to be the worst in the world. I've seen videos from Mumbai, India, which is notorious for bad driving (supposedly), and it really doesn't seem that bad there after what I've been going through for the last couple months of commutes.

I mean, just basic, basic mistakes. Repeatedly. By the same drivers. Complete ignorance of any sort of traffic laws. And it's pervasive. It's like not a single driver in this entire state has ever gone to driving school or passed any sort of driving test.

Let's take a look at the different types of drivers on New York highways:

The Road Hog. My least favorite type of driver. Whereas you see road hogs in other states, most drivers in New York are road hogs. These are the people that will be driving 50mph down the highway behind another car, cut in front of you just as you're changing lanes to pass them, and then continue going 50mph, thereby blocking you in. All just to enjoy looking at the miles of open and traffic-free road in front of them.

The Nervous Nellie. This is the guy who simply must get where he's going at any speed at any cost. They think they're cool, they think they're the only good drivers on the road, but they end up looking like somebody who's just had way too much caffeine and has so little control over their lives that they can't even explain away a 5 minute lateness to follow basic traffic etiquette. They tailgate, they sit behind you at stoplights repeatedly tapping their brakes, they dart in and out of traffic with inches to spare. Most of their cars are scratched and dented and look like they've been driven by somebody who got their license at K-Mart.

The Signal Alzheimers Sufferer. These people turn on their signals and then instantly forget them. I'm not even talking about the phenomenon that's common elsewhere of people signaling, changing lanes, then forgetting to turn off the signal. I'm talking about people who turn on their signal, then do nothing! It happens all the time here. How do you even drive like this? You don't notice the "click click click"? You don't notice the flashing light blinking in your face from straight ahead on the dashboard? And why the hell did you turn it on in the first place? I've never owned a car where it was that easy to do by mistake.

The Faux-Drunk. These are people who drive like they're drunk even when they're not. They go 20mph below the speed limit. They think lane lines are merely suggestions. They never signal. When they do change lanes, they drift over lazily so you're not even sure what they're doing. (Hey, isn't this the whole point of using a signal?) These people are even more likely than the Nervous Nellies to have dented and scratched up cars. They wander aimlessly through life never knowing or caring what happens to themselves or anybody else.

The Actual Drunk. Long Island specifically seems to have a huge problem with this. It's way worse than anywhere else I've lived. On a given Friday or Saturday night, I'd say one in ten drivers is obviously drunk just by watching them drive. How they manage to get home without killing anyone or getting caught week after week is beyond me. (The photo at the top is a drunk driving accident on one of New York State's highways, though I'm not sure which.)

The Serial High Beam Abuser. Oh, this one really pisses me off. These people have their brights on close to 100% of the time at night. You flash them yours and they do nothing. Half of them probably don't even know what that little blue icon on their dashboard means. A sub-genre of this type is the Serial Backdoor High Beam Abuser, who think it's ok to give it to you from behind. They'll dim their brights for oncoming traffic, but think there's no problem shining their brights in your face through a mirror. Hey, assholes, mirrors still reflect light. That's kind of their job.

The Gas Pedal Phobics. I'm not just talking about people who drive too slowly (they're covered above). I'm talking about people who can't figure out that you actually need to step further down on the gas pedal depending on the situation. For instance, going up a hill? Step on the gas pedal, dumbasses. I used to laugh when I'd pass signs in other states that say "Upgrade - Maintain Speed". I was like, who the hell needs a sign to tell them to step on the gas? Apparently, New Yorkers do. And we don't have those signs, so there you go. Every goddamn hill around this city, traffic slows to a goddamn crawl because people cannot figure out that they need to step on the gas so they don't slow down.

The Lane Purpose Confuser. Ok, New Yorkers, I'm only gonna say this once. The right lane is for entry/egress. The middle lane is for cruising. The left lane is for passing. This is in every driving textbook and course you'll ever read or take. It's Driving 101. Why the hell do you then get in the left lane and go 10mph slower than the guy in the middle lane, who himself is going 10mph slower than the guy in the right lane? This is not even unusual, this is the norm here. The worst is when you get stuck behind three people spanning three lanes, all going the same speed, all 10mph below the speed limit. LPC's can also be Road Hogs. An LPC/RH, if you will.

In most other states, people will actually get out of the way if somebody pulls up behind them in the left lane. It's just the nice thing to do, not to mention the legal thing to do. If you're not gonna pass, get the hell out of the left lane.

Probably my most hated trait of New York drivers, though, is that they are universally dead fucking slow. I know, the speed limit on most NYC highways is 50. That doesn't mean 40 is an acceptable highway speed. In most other states, drivers drive at least the speed limit, and cops will look the other way as long as you're less than 10mph over. But drive 60mph on a New York area highway (if you can) and you'll pass other traffic like it's not even moving. I don't get it; it's like nobody wants to get where they're going. There's nothing wrong with New York highways that would cause this. I take the Van Wyck home every night, and it's just a long, flat straightaway, and people still drive 40mph on it. And it's not out of an abundance of caution either, as discussed above. These people clearly don't care about traffic laws or safety. I still pass at least one accident every day.

I remember when I was a teenager and probably more reckless than I am now, but I remember driving around Chicago in fog so dense you could barely see 20 feet in front of you, going 90mph in traffic. I wasn't weaving in and out, I was following and being followed by other traffic. And people there did it every day, it was just normal. And there were fewer accidents than I see driving around NYC.

I will say this: driving to my store every day is still better than taking the train. But these other idiots on the road are gonna give me a conniption one of these days.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Happy birthday, Carl Sagan

By way of my "old" company's blog SUNFiltered, and specifically Matt Rodriguez who found this, which I hadn't seen before:

There's one more video like this at Symphony of Science.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the lack of curiosity among people today; the tunnel vision we've all gotten, the feeling that we're all stuck wherever we are, and that's all there is. When I was younger, I remember there was more of a sense that man's destiny was inextricably linked to the universe, and that all of the answers to the important questions lay out there. I felt like there was hope for us in that, a perpetual future of quest and discovery, whereas we're all dead-enders if we think our lot in life ends here. I've been wondering where that feeling has gone, and why we aren't even asking those same questions anymore.

I think a big part of it is that we don't have guys like Carl Sagan around to teach us about why these things matter. (I like Bill Nye, but he doesn't invoke the same kind of wonder as Sagan did.) And I miss having people like that in our popular culture, people who are not just really smart, but who can connect these huge concepts to our everyday lives. Carl Sagan had a populist poetry about him, as you can hear in the video above - a way of putting things that put complex and intricate mathematical theories and laws into words we could not just understand, but feel.

He captured in words the way I always feel when I see this:

Credit: Larry Landolfi

That's a view you don't get in a city, or anywhere near one. I still remember the first time I saw our galaxy, sitting on Holden Beach in North Carolina, a private beach that's quiet during the day, and so still at night during summer that, with the waves gently breaking and a clear sky showing the Milky Way's majesty above you, there's nothing to do but sit and ponder your place in the universe. And the first time I saw that view, I sat in awe, staring at it for about four hours. It's impossible not to.

These days, as we all increasingly move to cities where we can't even see the stars, we no longer seem to have the time or desire to think about these things. And I miss that.

Today would have been Carl Sagan's 75th birthday.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Synecdoche, New York

I've been neglecting this blog again - really just been too busy. I'll post an update soon, and then hopefully get back on a more regular schedule now that things are settling down a little bit.

But what brings me back right now is this special little movie that I just can't turn away from whenever it's on - and that I just finished again for about the tenth time. It didn't get a lot of press when it was released (I didn't even know about it), but it deserves an audience.

I'm sure there's something about Caden, the main character, that I see in myself. That's often true of movies like this, about conflicted male characters who seem trapped in a world beyond their understanding, and which doesn't understand them. The Kafka-esque health issues hit pretty close to home too, and the theme that "the end is built into the beginning" is something I'd begun to think about even before seeing this film, as I start to come close to middle age. We all make choices every day, and every choice we make affects our lives not just today, but forever - and the end result of those choices is inevitable.

I'm not sure this film's for everyone, but it spoke to me. Please give it a try and rent it.

Friday, September 25, 2009

This album smokes

ok, they've officially graduated from "guilty pleasure" to seriously one of the best rock bands around. I just got my copy of Brand New Eyes in the mail and holy jesus h. frickin' christ, it's amazing. Not a bad song on it, and Hayley's voice is just getting more and more insane with every album. Massive range, both in dynamic and pitch. She's got a new Joni Mitchell-esque thing going on in some of the songs on this album, which is then balanced off by some of the most amazing cathartic wailing you'll ever hear, stuff that gives you chills, where she hits a high note and you go "wow, that's pretty impressive"... and then she pulls it up even higher. And her lyrics are all growed up now.

They're streaming the entire album off their web site right now. Go check it out if you're still a non-believer.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Without a Net

Today, I am officially independent. No longer beholden to corporate interests. Also no longer under the (generally illusory) umbrella of security that being on full-time staff somewhere supposedly provides. And no more benefits. As my wife and I work like slaves building the Giza pyramids to get our store open, I'm now operating without a net.

(I do have health insurance.)

That doesn't mean I've given up my income. I will be telecommuting, as an independent contractor. Much as I like to complain, I'm actually pretty grateful to my company for letting me do this. But both they and I know where my priorities lie now. I'll be doing most of my same work from home and the store when I can, but I'm no longer a full-fledged member of "the team."

People I tell about this usually look at me with a mix of incredulity and jealousy. Most people think I'm crazy at first, especially in this economy, but the desire to escape from corporate life seems pretty universal. People weren't mean to work in bureaucracies. Most of us aren't wired for it. But in my experience, it seems most people feel trapped, unable to find their way out of the morass.

I was the same. And I don't think I could have done this when I was younger. Starting your own business (and for realz, yo) requires a lot of things I didn't have ten years ago. Money, for one. Confidence. Experience.

And something else. I don't know what you call it. But there is this feeling I have now where I am fully aware that I don't really know what I'm doing, but I don't care. Young people get paralyzed when they feel like they're lost. As I've gotten older, I've learned to just pick a direction and plow forward. That's the only way you get anywhere. Nobody ever knows what they're doing the first time they do something. You learn as you go along, and you trust yourself to do the right thing. Maybe that's what it is: trust and belief in yourself.

It also helps that I'm at a point where possessions don't really matter anymore. I could sell my house, my cars, almost everything I own and I don't care. Because I know that nothing is forever; easy come, easy go, easy come again. Sell a car, buy a new one someday. That works for everything. When you're in your twenties, all your stuff means so much to you because it's all new and it's all you've ever had. But at 37, that no longer applies. And I care a lot more about enjoying my life now than I do about things.

I'm really lucky that I'm married to someone who feels the same way.

So the adventure really begins in earnest now. Not to be overly dramatic, but this is the next phase of my life starting. Important questions will be asked and answered! Questions such as "can a straight man survive the world of women's fashion?" Forget going broke; this is my biggest fear. Already I feel a strong desire to consume burritos and beer while watching kickboxing with several overweight male friends wearing football jerseys numbered as famous players from the 1986 Giants. I suspect this feeling will only intensify as I get deeper into this.

But I can't wait to be doing our own thing, helping run our store and hopefully making a decent enough living to be comfortable. I'm finally looking forward to getting up in the morning again.

Friday, August 21, 2009

What the hell is this?

So I was walking through the East Village and I came across this monstrosity. I don't remember it being there last time I walked around there. Anyone know wtf it is? It's completely out of character for the neighborhood, or even the city.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Broadway's new furniture

As I broasted in the dog day afternoon August sun today, I snapped a photo of the new furniture on NYC's Broadway pedestrian mall. This furniture is replacing the original iconic (and always temporary) lawn chairs along the entire pedestrian route, at a cost of several million dollars. Money well spent?

Ironically, you don't see a lot of photos of Herald Square's lawn chairs around the net, because it always had somewhat more upscale furniture than the Times Square pedestrian mall a few blocks up. I did find one photo of the older furniture here. Spot the differences!

Barney Frank finally answers the Hitler Health Care wingnuts

The Democratic party needs more Barney Franks! Jesus, where is this level of backbone in the rest of the party?

Failing to both stand up to and marginalize these nutjobs only legitimizes their view. Barney Frank did both.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Blogging with an HTC Fuze

This is a test. Blogging with my phone. We'll see how it comes out.

UPDATE: Came out pretty good! Had to add a "mobile-photo" style to my stylesheet to get the image centered and the text positioned under it, but nice that Blogger adds that style to the HTML automatically. Otherwise it came off without a hitch. Technology rules.

btw, I've been pleasantly surprised by the camera in this phone. It ain't great, but actually the sensor is surprisingly not very noisy, it's got the built-in flash and auto-focus, and performance is about par with a regular point and shoot. The lens is the limiting factor - none of my shots are really sharp at full size (I think 2048x1536 res). And dynamic range is kind of atrocious. Still, it's not bad for a phone.

Friday, August 07, 2009

New cell phone GET!

I've complained bitterly about the state of the American cellphone industry here. I've held onto my now-ancient Samsung SGH-A707 like grim death for the past 2 1/2 years, despite being eligible for an upgrade for the last 12 months. I just couldn't find a phone that was the right form factor and had the features I wanted.

Well, the fact that my SGH-A707 does not ring in my new office forced my hand. (It works fine otherwise, just doesn't ring!) I got this:

It's a refurbished HTC Fuze, aka Touch Pro. Currently on offer at Amazon for $0.01 for new accounts, or $74.99 for upgrades. AT&T still sells them new for $299 on their own site. (Amazon also has new ones discounted a bit.)

I know, the new Touch Pro 2 should be out soon, but AT&T's holding them back so they can sell more iPhones. Who knows when it'll really be out? Not to mention that the specs are basically identical, except that the Fuze has a built-in camera flash. Oh yeah, and the Touch Pro 2 ships with Windows Mobile 6.5 instead of 6.1, but there are ways to equalize that (evil laugh: muahahaha). Ok, the TP2 has a bigger screen, which would be nice. But not worth the premium they're gonna charge.

So far I love my Fuze. It's my first smartphone - I've taken the leap into the 21st century - and I'm already having loads of fun installing apps, tweaking stuff and using the internet. Love the built-in wi-fi. But what I really bought it for was this:

The full keyboard. This is one trend in American cell phones that I'll give a standing ovation. About freakin' time! When the iPhone first came out, everybody suddenly wanted to go touchscreen-only to copy it. Junk! Not all of us like touchscreens, but for a while it seems like if you wanted a decent phone, you either went touchscreen-only or you went ugly Blackberry with its tiny itty bitty little unpressable keys.

When I first found the Fuze (almost a year ago now), I was smitten by its form factor. It's not the first phone with this design, but it was the smallest I'd seen at the time. And those clean, straight lines - it was beautiful! Nowadays, there are a lot of phones like this. And that's fine, because this is a design worth copying. The keyboard is perfect for big-handed people like me - not too big, not too small. I can fly on it. I'm not doing it now, but I have no doubt that I could have written this entire blog post on it without too much trouble. I have no doubt that I will write future blog posts with my Fuze. This is a pocket computer. Real computers have keyboards.

Also, one huge, huge thing for me that almost no other American phone can do: the Fuze works in Japan.

I'm still not a big fan of the unprotected screen - I'll be buying a cheap screen protector soon. I don't understand why nobody can figure out how to build a simple flap into their phones like Sony did probably 10 years ago with their Clies. And the back is that horrible mirror finish glossy garbage too, that does nothing but accentuate fingerprints. Why do electronics manufacturers think people want this glossy crap?

Minor complaints, though. So far, I'm in love.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Orwell's six rules of writing

There's a graphic that's going around now, and which I first found here, that shows a somewhat modified list of George Orwell's six rules of writing. I learned these in grammar school, and they've subconsciously guided my writing ever since (along with my judgment of others'), but it's worth repeating them. I don't know where the graphical version originally came from or why the rules were re-phrased in such clumsy ways, so I wanted to post the rules as Orwell originally wrote them:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

He wrote these for a 1946 essay called "Politics and the English Language", the point of which was to discuss the decline of language in political writing into imprecision and incoherence. His essay would be just as applicable to political writing today, but his rules can really cover any kind of writing, including blogs.

I'd actually add one rule of my own, which is, "read each sentence and paragraph aloud. Reorganize and punctuate accordingly." Too many people write in a disorganized stream of consciousness, which is an easily solvable problem if you just read your own writing back and self-edit.

By the way, when I was in school, kids would often look at rule #6 and take it to mean "break the rules if you think you're smart enough", and of course everybody then did in an attempt to show that they were. When the teacher would call them out on it, they would pretend to be little geniuses who knew more about writing than the teacher and would stand behind rule #6 as a defense.

But the point of the 6th rule is to act as a hedge against the inherent imprecision of the English language, which even Orwell acknowledged. Rules 1-5 are intended to increase that precision, which is the opposite of what flowery language riddled with cliches and jargon does.

His rules boil down to being simple and direct, the foundation for great writing. (My little addition is for the same purpose.)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Japan Trip 2009: The flight

I've talked before about my fear of flying, and also specifically about flying to Japan. I've taken extreme measures to control my phobia, up to and including the use of controlled substances (by prescription!). I will say that living near a major airport, I'm getting a little better - it does kind of sink in after a while that all these planes are taking off and landing all around you, and why should my flight be so special and crash?

The flight to Japan this time was actually pretty pleasant, at least as flying goes these days. We always try to fly either ANA or JAL and preferably ANA, mostly because of the service and food.

This was my first time flying a 777 to Japan, and we got the Star Alliance plane. ANA actually switched to 777's a couple years ago now, but we flew JAL last time and they were still running 747's on the route. I have to say that despite having two fewer engines, I might actually like the 777 a little better for long flights. They're a little quieter, and maybe this was just my perception but it seemed that they're pressurized to a lower "cabin altitude". (Airline cabins aren't pressurized to sea level pressure - more like 8,000 feet, so you can still suffer from altitude effects, especially on long flights. But the exact pressure can vary from airplane to airplane.) I felt less fatigue by the end of the flight, and less of that light-headedness that I've come to associate with flying in general.

ANA feeds you two big meals and a snack, same as JAL, but I think the quality of ANA's food is a little better. Or at least I did, until the breakfast just before landing on the way to Japan, which had the whole plane talking. It was some sort of Korean thing, for reasons nobody could figure out, and it was basically ground beef and cabbage. I heard some Americans talking about how "interesting" it was, but even the Japanese passengers just thought it was strange. My wife and the woman sitting next to her actually spent about 20 minutes talking and laughing about it before landing. No, Japanese people do not regularly eat Korean breakfasts. (The breakfast in the other direction was western - pancakes and sausage.)

The offending breakfast.

The lunch was a little more reasonable in both directions, and included choices that were clearly western and Japanese (JAL offers a similar choice, but their options are not very distinct). I don't actually remember what I had on the way out, but I do remember the choice on the way back was beef gyudon or chicken with a cream tomato sauce. They also give you a pretty ludicrous number of side dishes, both hot and cold - potato salad, fruit salad, cold cuts, a roll, cold soba noodles (so glad they brought these back!), Japanese pickles, and they finish it all off by walking around with a cooler full of Haagen Dazs ice cream that's obviously been sitting in liquid nitrogen, because you'd mistake it for concrete.

Oh, and how about this for service: several times throughout the flight, the flight attendants walk around with a basket of wine. In economy class! It is, of course, free. (Or at least, included in your ticket price.)

ANA's in-flight entertainment has always been pretty good, but it's a lot better now than it was even 3 years ago when I last flew them. I believe the system we had this time was called "Magic-2" and it's an all on-demand system with games, movies, audio, TV shows and more. There were more than 40 movies available, some of them good, others not, and both Hollywood and Japanese in origin. (Including big Japanese films like "Departures".) I watched "The International", which was terrible, and the first two Matrix movies (the trilogy is available), which I've seen before but just felt like watching again. My wife watched "Revolutionary Road" and "Hula Girls", which we've watched together before. Funnily enough, they also have the entire first season of "24", which comes with a warning that it may contain disturbing images of planes crashing. This was actually my first experience with on-demand IFE - when we flew JAL last time, they had 13 channels of movies but they were continuously running. That's similar to what ANA had 3 years ago.

ANA is one of the few airlines that generally has nosewheel and external cameras on their aircraft. Some people like this - I usually hate it, because they show the takeoffs and landings on the big screens in the front of the cabin and it always looks like we're headed for the trees. Still, I found myself kind of missing it on the return trip - a newer 777 (built last year) that didn't have either camera. I wonder if they're phasing them out.

We did have them on the flight to Japan, and the landing was crazy. In typically understated fashion, they told us the weather in Narita was "cloudy" before we landed. Of course what they really meant was it was "fogged in solid". (Always add an extra level to whatever they tell you the weather is... "cloudy" either means "foggy" or "heavy thunderstorms". For it to really just be "cloudy", they will say it's "partly sunny".) They turned on the nosewheel cam and all I could see was white. I heard and felt the landing gear drop and the flaps go to full, so I knew we were close to the ground. The runway appeared out of the mist literally a moment before we touched down. I actually said "whoa" out loud when I saw it. Probably an auto-land. The funny thing was I always look to the flight attendants to see if they're scared - well, we were sitting right next to one this time, and after landing, she was actually patting her chest!

Anyway, we lived to fly another day.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Random Japan: $90 Mangos

I swear, I've got a bunch of longer posts I will get to. For now, just satiate yourselves with these $90 mangos, found in some upscale supermarket in Shinjuku that I can't recall the name or location of:

They also had $250 cantaloupes, which I thought we got pictures of but apparently didn't. Picture-taking was not encouraged in there.

Though I will say they came in a two-pack, so, you know, that's double the value.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Stranger on a train

I saw a totally mainstream, non-goth, non-geek Long Island girl reading this on the train today:

Sandman Season of Mists
10 years ago I probably would have been horrified, like seeing a "Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac." Nowadays it just makes me curious.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Japan Trip 2009: Hula Girls!

(I wrote this more than a month ago!)

I'm sitting in the parking lot of Spa Resort Hawaiians in Iwaki City, Japan. Why sit in the parking lot writing a blog post while the rest of my wife's family enjoys themselves inside? Well, let's just say the place is climate controlled. For tropical weather. It's the kind of place where street clothes are actively discouraged, and unfortunately, I wasn't ready to get my bathing suit on. I'll spare you the photos of the sweat stains and the goofy American guy walking around in Doc Martens while the rest of the place goes barefoot. (Honestly, though, I wasn't the only guy there who was overdressed.)

So why the hell did I come here in the first place?

For the Hula Girls!

One of the goofy Japanese chick flicks my wife coerced me into watching was about this place. As usual, I think I ended up liking it better than her, even though it's totally manipulative and sappy. Still, it really was a true story - pretty much all of it, apparently - and that makes it a little easier to take at face value.

This used to be an isolated coal mining town, until the coal ran out and the mining company moved away. The government's bright idea to save the town was to build an indoor theme park modeled on Hawaii. The showpiece would be a hula dance troupe made up of girls from around the towns of Joban and Yumoto. Given that nobody in this conservative little area had any experience doing anything except mining coal, a lot of people obviously thought this was a crazy idea. But, well, it wouldn't be a very good movie if it ended there, right?

So a cosmopolitan but otherwise washed-up dance teacher arrives from Tokyo, at first much too diva-ish for this little town full of men and women who still think showing a little ankle is taboo. But eventually her group of spunky wannabe dancers wins her over, and with her help they convert the rest of the town into believers. And waddaya know, it works. The Joban Hawaiian Center (as it was called back then, and is still colloquially called now) saves the town, with the Hula Girls drawing massive crowds.

More than 40 years later, they still do.

Here's the kinda lame trailer to the movie:

I'm not sure if the girls are all still from around town. They don't really look it - they look Polynesian, although some of that's obviously just makeup and hair style. But they're clearly professionals now - I mean, this has been a famous dance troupe for decades at this point.

There are two big dance shows per day, plus a few smaller ones sprinkled throughout (there's one just for kids). We went to the early show, which probably isn't quite as elaborate as the later one, but it was just too hot to even consider staying. I mean I know I talked about it already, but walking in there from outside is like a slap in the face every time. It's like hitting a wall of humidity. Honestly, I've been to Hawaii, and Hawaii is not like this. I wasn't sure I'd even make it through the show. I had to prepare - we bought a Chinese-style fan ($16), a towel ($5), and a bottle of water ($1.50) before I could sit in any semblance of comfort. My wife wasn't quite so bad - I did fan her a bit too, but it's like this in late summer everywhere in Japan, so she's kind of used to it.

It was worth it, though. Hula is one of those dances that's hard to really get until you see it live (though the movie version's pretty good too). It is amazing how those girls move. It is a sexy dance. And actually really graceful too; it's not all booty-shaking like you usually see on TV, though there was plenty of that in the finale. It's kind of like a combination of ballet and pole dancing.

I have to mention the fire guys too, who may well have been in the movie for all I know, but I don't remember. But they were amazing, doing the whole fire baton twirling thing, really really fast, without making any mistakes whatsoever. Totally perfect, all three of them, and each also doing crazy stuff like licking the fire, or grabbing the fire on one end of the baton and setting fire to the other end with their bare hands.

If you do actually come better prepared than we did, there's a lot of other stuff to do at this place - water slides, wave pools, etc. There's also a real spa, as the name suggests, an arcade, various restaurants, and a hula museum, most of which is more specific to the Hawaiian Center than hula in general. They've got a big exhibit on the movie too - these are some of the real costumes the characters wore:

Oh, one thing - the movie apparently wasn't filmed here, but it looks really similar. They've changed the configuration since the 1960's anyway, and the photos in the museum from that era look almost exactly like the movie. It's uncanny. Watching the show really felt like being in the movie, even with the stage facing the opposite way. I highly recommend the movie, and I even more highly recommend seeing the show live if you can.

If you do go, you really need to stop at Papa bakery on the way out. Japanese bread is a whole post unto itself (hmmmmm...) and this is some of the best I've ever had.

That's a melon pan, a curry pan, a cream puff, and some other stuff for the family. Really, really yummy.

Monday, July 06, 2009

My guilty pleasure... again

I'm currently obsessed with this song, which is, as near as I can tell, brand new:

This is so cute that you will make a funny face unintentionally.

Do I even need to tell you that the Japanese make the cutest robots?

Sarah Palin's true state of mind?

Found on Gawker, apparently by way of artist Zina Saunders, this soon-to-be iconic image of Sarah Palin:

I have been derelict in my duties.

Sheesh, I've been back from Japan for like a month already (hard to believe!) and I still have about five posts to write. A few of them are actually sitting in draft here - one of them I actually wrote in a parking lot in Japan and I still haven't put it up!

I'll get to everything. This store thing has got us all tied up in knots right now; there's just a lot of stuff to do, it's never-ending. I actually can't see when I'm going to have a real break from it, but I do make tiny bits of progress on other parts of my life here and there. I just need to actually finish some of these blog posts at some point.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Japan Trip 2009: Ushiku Daibutsu

This is one of those things I've been meaning to do on every trip I've ever taken to Japan and have never gotten around to before.

The Ushiku Daibutsu is the tallest bronze statue in the world. It used to be the tallest statue of any kind in the world, but that title now belongs to another Buddha statue in China (made of copper). Ushiku Daibutsu is in my wife's prefecture, and we've driven by it a whole bunch of times but never actually gone up there. It's kind of like how I'm within sight of the Statue of Liberty pretty much every other day so I never think to actually visit it; my in-laws are the same with this. But we finally went this time, at least for 10 minutes or so. (We didn't have time to go inside, though you can go up to the top and look out through slits in the Buddha's chest.)

This thing is huge. It's difficult to capture its scale in pictures. That concrete base alone is three stories high. The statue itself is three times taller than the Statue of Liberty and 30 times larger by volume. I heard some other westerners saying "what's the point?" as they were looking at it, but that's like asking "what's the point of a temple?" or "what's the point of a cathedral?" It is a religious thing, not just a tourist destination.

I didn't just go there because it's a big statue, though. No, I went there because of course, this was the setting for the final battle scene of one of my favorite movies!

That's the ending of "Kamikaze Girls", which is about a Lolita and a Yanqui girl who react very differently to the boringness of Ibaraki prefecture (and let's face it, it is boring), but who end up best friends. At the end of the movie, they need to fight their way through an all-girl biker gang, meeting up at Ushiku Daibutsu.

We actually looked for the exact spot where they filmed this but we couldn't find it, mostly because we forgot what the actual view of the statue was in the movie. We were looking everywhere but this side. I don't think you can actually get to that location from inside the statue grounds anyway; you can see that even in the movie, it's fenced off. It's probably not empty anymore either; I think they cleared this area just for filming. I definitely didn't see any clearings like this anywhere around the statue. (If you look at the Google map aerial view of this area, you can see where the filming must have taken place, and that land seems to have some sort of use.)

Ah well. Still was fun, though, and an impressive sight. Nothing like this exists in the United States, not on this scale.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Japan Trip 2009: MOSDO!

I wrote about the MOSDO donut burger before our trip - of course, it was one of the first things on our itinerary. I'm actually at that weird stage right now where I'm looking at all my photos that I took for blog posts and thinking "did I really do that? Was I actually in Japan two weeks ago?" It already no longer seems quite real as I settle back into my normal routine. But anyway...

I thought you had to pick one version, but no - they give you both. They're tiny, so it works out.

Here's a "potedo", the fries that are available with it, complete with ketchup:

I admit I didn't realize that yes, that's real ketchup. That was kind of an odd taste sensation - I was expecting it to be some kind of cherry or strawberry thing (it's a freakin' donut!) but no, as it hit my tongue I got that tang and salty taste and I was momentarily confused.

The MOSDO itself is actually pretty good, and not too sweet like I was worried it would be. The "bun" is not really sweetened at all, so it really is just like a piece of soft bread, then the chocolate "patty" is really just a chocolate bar, then there's some foam and sauce where most of the sweetness comes from.

I also didn't realize that MOS Burger also has their own MOSDO - this is not a one-way thing.

In a way it's actually kind of a ripoff, because they're just cutting a hole in the middle of the meat. But they do also give it a new flavor, which seems totally unrelated to it supposedly being a "donut", but whatever. It's "wasabi" flavored, which I actually thought was really good.

See, they stick it right in the hole. (Also underneath the rest of the meat.)

I put "wasabi" in quotes because I don't think that's really what it is - you can see it's white, and it tasted to me like regular horseradish. I don't know if the Japanese really know what western horseradish is, though, so they just call it "wasabi" (which is a kind of horseradish anyway). Or maybe they do know, and they just thought calling it wasabi would sell better.

In any case, like other spicy stuff in Japan, they're not messing around. This burger will burn your eyebrows off and make steam come out of your ears. Yeah, it was good. Though not good enough to supercede my default spicy MOS burger, which I went back to on subsequent visits.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Japan Trip 2009: Quarantine!

I'm falling behind on my Japan trip report, so I figured I'd better post this now given that it's already getting pretty obsolete:

I'd heard that Japan was being a little paranoid about the H1N1 swine flu virus (ironic, given that regular old non-swine flu seems to be their biggest problem), and sure enough, when we landed at Narita our airplane was quarantined before we were allowed off.

What this meant was that we all had to sit down and wait as a group of doctors in full protective bio-suits roamed up and down the plane looking for people who they thought might be sick. It was like something out of a Spielberg movie, and I really wanted to take photos of these people but I was afraid that'd be an excuse for them to pull me off the plane. I did at least get the souvenir "You were quarantined!!" notice pictured above.

The funny thing was there seemed to be no scientific methodology to whatever these doctors were doing. I suppose they were looking for anyone sweating, or coughing, or pale, or whatever. But surely this disease has an incubation period, or symptoms that can be hidden in the early stages - I mean, can you really control a virus by just looking at people to see if you think they're sick? It all seemed pointless.

Anyway, it didn't take long, and it gave me a little story to tell.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


So I came home from Japan with a fever, an awful cough and probably the most clogged sinuses anyone's ever had ever. I swear, they make a big deal out of wearing surgical masks whenever they're sick over there, but I have never seen so many obviously sick people in my life and they seem to see the mask-wearing as an excuse to cough all over the place without covering their mouths. I got coughed on more often on this Japan trip than I can remember. And I got really sick because of it.

Anyway, I've got a lot of stuff to write and some other stuff that's already written and that I just need to organize images and whatnot into. So I'll start posting more on my Japan trip soon, probably tomorrow...

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Sigma 18-50 2.8-4.5 DC OS lens hands-on

7/28 UPDATE: For those who haven't been following, the original lens I did this test with was replaced as defective (it clearly wasn't working right some of the time). I took a few new test shots over the past weekend with the new lens and while it may just be wishful thinking on my part, I do think it's slightly better optically. The overall conclusions below still hold, as do the general design conclusions I reached, but I think my new lens is just a slightly better example than the old one even beyond simply working correctly :)

I'll post the new shots in a few days - sorry, you'll have to check back one more time.

Anyway, the original post continues below.


I just wanted to post something quick about this, because I know a lot of people (including myself) have been waiting for this lens, and I just happened to find it here in Japan, at one particular Yodobashi Camera, available only in a Canon mount. It was right at $300 (29,800 yen).

I haven't had a chance to do any exhaustive tests so far but generally I'm really happy with it as an upgrade to my old Rebel XT kit lens.


* Built like a tank, at least for a consumer-level lens (looks almost exactly like their 18-50 f/2.8 EX lens, minus the gold stripe)
* Image stabilization works really well
* Non-rotating front element
* No lens extension during zoom - all movement is internal
* Hypersonic motor is very quiet (though not silent, nor all that fast)
* Includes a hood


* Actually slightly less sharp in the corners than my kit lens (though I've been told I had an exceptional copy of the old Canon 18-55 non-IS)
* Corner sharpness is noticeably lower than center sharpness
* Heavy

These were taken in my backyard and have not been retouched at all. So some of the exposures are not exactly right, white balance might be a bit off, etc. I did not want to damage the purity of the images as the lens saw them. The shots were all taken on a tripod, using a delayed exposure (completely hands-off), using AF. I also took shots using MF but didn't do any better on a consistent basis - I will say the comparisons themselves were the same (the "winner" at any given aperture did not change based on whether I used AF or MF). The Canon lens used as a comparison is the 18-55 non-IS kit lens, which might have some slight differences to the IS version beyond the obvious, but they perform similarly in the tests I've seen. But you can keep that in mind, at least.

My thoughts on what the shots show are below.

Clicking the thumbnails will take you to that image on Photobucket, where you can view them at 100% full size (just click anywhere on the image once it opens in Photobucket). I know, kind of clunky to compare shots, but that's why God invented tabbed browsing :)

Sigma @ 18mm f/5.6:

Canon @ 18mm f/5.6

Sigma @ 50mm f/5.6

Canon @ 55mm f/5.6

Sigma @ 18mm f/8

Canon @ 18mm f/8

Sigma @ 50mm f/8

Canon @ 55mm f/8

Sigma @ 18mm f/11

Canon @ 18mm f/11

Sigma @ 50mm f/11

Canon @ 55mm f/11

Sigma @ 50mm f/8

Canon @ 55mm f/8

Now, the stuff I know a lot of you guys are waiting for - a couple of wide open aperture shots. Clearly the Sigma lens is not as sharp there, but my thoughts on that after the photos.

Sigma @ 18mm f/2.8

Sigma @ 18mm f/2.8

Sigma @ 18mm f/3.5

The interesting thing is how much sharper the Sigma lens is at f/3.5 than f/2.8. It's almost like they designed the lens for 3.5 and then just widened it to give it better specs, even though the lens is obviously not happy about it. (I'm not sure if that's really possible.)

One thing I will say is that you would obviously only be using f/2.8 in low light handheld situations, which this really was not. In low light when shooting handheld, you're going to be a lot more satisfied with "acceptable sharpness", especially from a consumer level lens. With a lens that has no OS and can only open up to f/3.5, you will have a hard time shooting handheld even acceptably in low light. With this lens, the f/2.8 coupled with the OS gives you the ability to shoot in very low light without unnecessary blur from camera shake, although you will not get "tack sharp" images out of it no matter what you do at that aperture.

Sigma @ 50mm f/4.5

Compare to the similar shot above. Again, it is noticeably softer at 4.5 at this end of the zoom than at f/8 or f/11, which is really its sweet spot.

Generally I am really happy with this lens, and if you look at the overall lens market, I think Sigma did what they needed to do here. This is not an EX lens designed to compete with Sigma's own 18-50 f/2.8. It is designed more to fill a hole just above Canon's cheap 18-55mm kit lens, and it costs about $100 more. The optical quality of the two lenses is about equivalent - the Sigma may be slightly sharper in the center at certain apertures, the Canon better in the corners.

For that extra $100, though, you are getting much better build quality, an included lens hood, a non-telescoping zoom, a non-rotating front element, and (from what I've read, at least), more capable image stabilization. You're also getting a wider aperture, though whether or not that's really useful given the performance is up to you (though I know I will be happy to have it when I need it). I personally think all of that is easily worth the extra cost over the Canon lens.

The other major difference between the Canon and Sigma lenses are that the Canon seems to be at its best at f/5.6, whereas the Sigma is at its best at f/8 or f/11. A lot of people will find the Canon sweet spot to be more useful in more situations, and I don't disagree with that. It's kind of odd - and my one real criticism of the Sigma lens - that its specs suggest it is designed for low light, but it's really happiest in bright light. Still, that isn't unusual for Sigma, who often seem to design their lenses this way.

Summing up, I can highly recommend this lens given the price, but you shouldn't be expecting EX (and certainly not Canon L class!) performance. It is what it is - a better quality alternative to Canon's 18-55 IS.

Don't look down...

Taken with my brand new Sigma 18-50mm F2.8-4.5 DC OS lens (not yet available outside of Japan)...

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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