Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas 2011

So, Christmas! In past years it seems I've written more about it. The truth is I think we're starting to really feel the economy now; our house is worth a lot less than we paid for it, our store is struggling, my wife's union almost just went on strike (and still might), and my freelance hours have been cut. So we're working as hard as we can to make as much money as we can, which means we don't have a lot of time left for anything like holiday decorations, or much money for presents. It's harder to get in the spirit of things...

We bought a tiny little 2 foot treetop a week before Christmas. And put a few little presents under it. That was the extent of our Christmas decorating.

We've gotten into this (bad) habit of buying our own presents and then putting the other person's name on it in the "from" field on the wrapping. I used to like it because it meant we always got what we wanted, and anyway, the money comes from the same place. Every couple has their own way of doing things. But now I miss the anticipation and mystery of not knowing exactly what's under that tree.

Anyway this is starting to sound depressing. Onto the presents! (One is late; I'll update this post when it gets here.)

You're gonna hear my voice on this one, some of you for the first time ever. I did a video review! My wife gave me a watch (I actually bought it, which is why I say that in the video review), to replace the ridiculous Casio digital watch that I bought because it was "retro" but really because it was cheap (you may remember that watch from such posts as this one). I now have a watch that's slightly less cheap but makes me look a little bit less like a hobo, even if it does have a "VII" where the "XII" should be:

"I" also "gave" my wife a watch, though her tastes are a little more mainstream than mine (and she wouldn't mind me saying that) - she chose a Victorinox Swiss Army watch. I believe it was this one. (And no, we don't always have to have the same gift! Just worked out that way this year.)

We do still pick out smaller gifts for each other. It's become tradition, apparently, that every year my wife has to give me a gag gift making fun of what she thinks are my nerdier interests.  This year, it was this:

I swear, she'd better be careful, because she's going to turn me into an actual fan one of these days. The more I'm exposed to AKB48, the less I dislike them. It's a dangerous game she's playing!

Or maybe the gag gift was actually this one:

Which is nerdier for an American guy, a Japanese all girl theatrical pop music act, or trains?

I do love old Amtrak stuff, though, and I had this book on my Amazon wish list (it's long out of print, which is why it's in this condition - I don't care). I started riding Amtrak when I was a kid in the 1970's, and despite the fact that it was a mess of a system, I really liked how riding the trains was like riding on a working museum of all the railroads that Amtrak had absorbed just previous to that point. Books like this one remind me of that time.

One of the things I love about my wife is the fact that she puts up with my nerddom, and actually indulges me in it.

I will say my last gift from my wife is both cool and nerdy at the same time - it's a new tremolo unit for my Jazzmaster. So, guitar: cool. Guitar part: kinda nerdy.

My brother's family and ours didn't really exchange gifts this year (because we're both poor-ish). My mother gave us $40 in cash, which is actually helpful. My stepmother gave us a $50 gift card and some Egyptian champagne flutes from Neiman Marcus.

That was pretty much my Christmas this year. Hopefully next year we can put a little more effort into it; we'll have more money to both buy things for each other and others around us, and more time to get in the spirit of things a little bit earlier.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Moulin Rouge

Not everybody appreciates kitsch. And not every film director does it well, even when they're trying for it intentionally. (Some actually do it better unintentionally). Successful kitsch depends on participation by both the director and the viewer; the director has to get it right, and the viewer just has to get it.

Baz Luhrmann knows how to do kitsch. And Moulin Rouge is probably the best example of it there is.

I first saw Moulin Rouge in the theater, with my wife. We are not the kind of people who typically talk through movies, so she thought my constant snickering at the film meant I was not enjoying it, and was in fact making fun of it. She was wrong! Moulin Rouge is such a great film in part because it's so much fun, and I just felt like I was in on the joke. (I could tell not everybody in the theater was.) Every new and creative use of some pop song I'd grown up with in such a melodramatic context made me laugh out loud.  By the time Ewan MacGregor busted out KISS's forgotten 1980 disco hit "I Was Made For Lovin' You" while standing inside a giant elephant, I knew Baz Luhrmann had created something amazing.

But the genius of this movie is that it's campy and kitschy and earnest and beautiful. This film was a prototype for things like Glee, a combination of irony and seriousness that's almost impossible to pull off without the deftest of hands (as Glee has repeatedly proven). Baz Luhrmann's confidence in this style shows through in just how quickly he changes gears, as in this early scene:

And not to digress, but this scene features some of my favorite closeup shots of all time:

Nicole Kidman is more beautiful in this movie than she ever has been before or since. And Baz Luhrmann and his director of photography Donald McAlpine know how to film her. The closeup is a true art form in itself, as it's really the way that characters convey non-verbal emotion in film, and this one should be used to teach that art in film schools. You may not consciously appreciate a good closeup as I do, but their quality and use (or lack thereof) can make or break an entire film.

Luhrmann's known for his lavish sets and costumes, but he's really an actor's director, and he knows that's where the drama is. Without emotion and chemistry between the actors, there is no drama.

Since this film's release, my wife and I have watched it both together and separately probably 50 times through. I guess you could say it's "our movie". (Hey, every couple needs one.) Despite its sad ending, there are moments in it that always remind me of why we got together in the first place, and I feel like we're Christian and Satine. (I don't think I'm spoiling anything - this is a film that telegraphs its ending right at the beginning, and the fun and drama are in the journey getting there.) Especially whenever we're fighting, watching this scene will always start me blubbing uncontrollably:

I swear to God, every time I watch her sing "come back to me and FORGIVE EVERYTHING", I just freakin' lose it right there, and I'm gone for the rest of the scene. (I often have a second breakdown when she says "I love you" - I'm such a sap!) Sometimes, if I'm a little drunk as I am now, just thinking about it will get me misty-eyed.

I suppose posting the "finale" scene might be considered something of a spoiler, but first of all, this film is almost ten years old - hey, also? DARTH VADER IS LUKE'S FATHER. Anyway, this is not even really the end, although often I do stop the movie here because I can't watch the real ending.

The film has actually inspired me to take an interest in the real Moulin Rouge and in fact my wife and I are planning a trip there... soon. (The current show features topless dancers, btw... along with plenty of cheesy 80's-style Solid Gold-esque music and dance.) I actually didn't think the film was in any way close to reality but apparently it actually is - many of the photos from that era do look very similar to the film, and the main hall really was that big! (It seems smaller now.)

Why the hell am I writing about this film now? Well, because my wife and I just watched it through again, and I just picked up the Blu-Ray version. In all honesty, I've had a post on both Moulin Rouge and Rent sitting here in draft mode, unpublished, since 2007. So it's not like I'm just thinking of it now. (I'll get to talking about Rent eventually.)

This film is destined to be a cult classic, and if you can't appreciate it, I really don't think I want to be your friend. If you like it, though, it was practically made for high definition and Blu-Ray - pick it up. But the definitive version in terms of extras is still the Collector's Edition DVD, which also happens to have some of the nicest packaging of any DVD release I own - and it's cheap! Get them both if you're a fan.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Japan is really good at plastic surgery

I like a lot of Japanese pop music, and my wife, being from there, likes even more of it than I do. And as anyone who's married knows, there's a lot of cross-pollination of tastes - you can't avoid it. After you've been exposed to enough J-pop, you start to realize something: almost every even semi-famous artist there has had work done. Most Americans who are into Japanese music, and even some Japanese themselves, don't realize this. It's far more prevalent than in America.

Please note that I'm not making a moral judgment on plastic surgery itself. What I am saying is that the Japanese are really good at it. They know how to make people look the same, but better. Whereas it seems like most westerners who go through major plastic surgery come out the other side looking like gargoyles (or at best like they've obviously had work done), in Japan it's usually very hard to tell unless you knew what the person looked like before. Even then, it's often not obvious what procedures they've actually gone through. I've been following certain artists long enough to notice this. In some cases, the artist will eventually confirm the surgery; in other cases, they'll keep it a secret.

First, two really obvious and famous cases, both confirmed by the artists themselves:

Both Ayumi Hamasaki and Kumi Koda had obvious eye jobs at the very least (Kumi Koda also had an obvious nose job). The "roll" below the eye is removed, a more obvious crease is given to the upper eyelid and in general the appearance of the eye is enlarged and tightened up. It's kind of a myth among people who have heard about Asian "eye jobs" that the goal is to try to look more "western"; if anything, it's the opposite. You can see here that it made these two artists have noticeably bigger and less tired-looking but definitely still Asian eyes. They almost look like anime characters. Regular people in Japan don't have eyes like Ayumi Hamasaki's - almost anyone you see with eyes like that had an eye job. That includes almost every "idol" and famous pop star. This is now an extremely common procedure; it's like getting Lasik.

This is Nozomi Tsuji, who I believe falls in the unconfirmed category, but it's a pretty obvious (and almost extreme) case if you ask me. She basically went right for the maximum eye size up to - but IMO, not beyond - the line that separates "cute" and "freak". If you get it right, you get maximum cuteness, but oh, how easy it is to step over that line. She looked like the "after" photo in the first photos after her maternity - so she had a bit of a break when nobody was taking pictures of her. In her case, she was actually popular before the eye job, so a lot of people did notice and talk about it when she came back.

Now a couple of "did she or didn't she?" cases:

That's Maki Goto both when she was in Morning Musume and now. She had a confirmed eye job before that first photo. But compare it with the next couple. Is it just age? Makeup? Lighting? You could make the case either way. The thing is, it's actually only been a few years, whereas to me the first and second photos, at least, look 20 years apart. When I saw these recent photos of her after not following her for several years, I didn't even recognize her.

When I see them side by side with her old self, her facial features look basically the same, but I still feel like there's something different. I can't put my finger on what. People don't change that much in just a few years, once they're an adult (she was already 18 in the "before" photo). She seems to have done something to tone up the sexiness and tone down the cuteness. Given her previous history, it wouldn't surprise me if she had more work done, even another eye job. (Though it's true that eyeliner can do amazing things.)

This is actually what inspired me to write this post. That's Haruna Ono of Scandal. I never realized how different she looked in their early stuff until I bought their "Video Action" BD, which has a couple of videos from their indie days that I hadn't seen before. The difference in the videos is actually a lot more pronounced than in these photos (this is just all I could find on the net). Check it out yourself - here's one of their very early videos, and here's a later one to compare it to. In the "before" photo above, that's her second from left. Something is different, isn't it? Her face used to be rounder and flatter. She's much more attractive now.

If she did have work done, it was very early - the suspicious thing is that she looked suddenly very different in their first "official" video for Doll, and has looked basically the same ever since. "Doll" was shot literally only a few months after that first one I linked above. It could just be styling or aging, but it could be something else. She was already 20 in that "before" photo, and she's just 23 now - so her aging shouldn't make a big difference. I didn't find anything online that told me for sure one way or another.

It's not just girls that go under the knife:

That's Gackt, formerly of Malice Mizer and now of... himself, I guess. This is another case where it's hard to see exactly what was done but most Japanese generally agree that he's had some work. His eyes definitely look different, and his entire face is thinner and more defined (and no, he doesn't appear to have otherwise lost weight - he was always this thin). Maybe some cheekbone and jaw work? I'm not sure if Gackt himself has ever confirmed it, but the guy is such a prankster and con artist that nobody takes anything he says seriously... meaning even if he said he'd done it outright, it'd probably convince more people of the opposite.

In all of these cases, most people I've talked to agree that the artists in question look better than they did before, although the differences are so subtle that a lot of people don't seem to notice it until they look back at some old pictures or footage.  Then they have that "wait... what?" moment.

I'm sure you could find cases where the opposite is true and the work done was not an improvement, but certain procedures are so common in Japan now that they're almost pre-requisites for having a singing career. If you suddenly notice a famous person from there becoming a lot more attractive when you never noticed them before, you can almost be assured that it's not just makeup.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Eero Saarinen's TWA Flight Center Open House - 10/16/2011

I've previously written about my fear of flying, but I love airports as long as I'm not going anywhere. I'll go to an airport just to hang out. One of the best buildings ever constructed at an airport is Eero Saarinen's iconic TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport in New York, built in 1962 and closed in 2001. The jet age equivalent to Grand Central Terminal, the TWA Flight Center is a modern, ethereal and delicate structure the likes of which we will never see built again. The interior looks like something from 1960's sci-fi.

The Flight Center was opened to the public for one day last weekend as part of Open House New York, and my wife and I went.  Here are my photos:

As a historic landmark, the TWA Flight Center still sits on the same spot it always did, only now the view of the tarmac and runways that you used to have out the back is instead a view of jetBlue's new Terminal 5. JetBlue had originally planned to use the TWA Flight Center as a gateway to the new T5 and maybe they still do - there is definite restoration work still going on.

I flew out of there once in 2000, and even at the time - as a terminal still in regular use, though by then known as (the original) Terminal 5 - I knew how special it was. It's kind of an odd feeling revisiting a building that you've used in a functional capacity that's now serving as what amounts to a museum to itself. Talk about feeling old!

But it was great to be able to visit such an amazing building, something not many have had the chance to do in the last decade. Hopefully that will change soon.

Monday, October 17, 2011

New York Ramen: Misoya

Returning to a theme!

When I first started writing about Japanese ramen in New York, there wasn't a lot of choice. Real Japanese ramen was one of the final frontiers in authentic ethnic cuisine in New York, and Minca was basically it (and I feel a little bad about my harsh review of them now).

Today, ramen's everywhere in New York.  For a while I was actually keeping up and basically reviewing all the major ramen shops - nowadays, that's pretty much impossible.  Sorry about that, but you're on your own if you find something I haven't reviewed here.  (I never did review Setagaya, but here's a quick one: it's all right; nothing special, but not bad).  It's like playing whack-a-mole trying to visit all these new ramen restaurants popping up all over the place.

The good news is that this has caused everyone to really up their game - you just can't get away with mediocre ramen anymore and expect people to like it.  People are hopefully becoming a little more sophisticated and there is definitely more competition.  And the quality has gotten steadily better over the years as a result.

This week my wife and I happened on Misoya, a new ramen shop that apparently also has a shop in California (or so their t-shirts say).  They've been open for one month.  They do not have their own web site or I would link to them.

Misoya Ramen
129 Second Ave
Manhattan, NY 10003

The verdict: good!

As its name implies, Misoya specializes in (as in only serves) miso ramen.  This is a common thing in Japan; many ramen shops serve specific types of ramen.  If you want something other than miso ramen, go somewhere else.  I see this as the maturing of the New York ramen scene (is there a "ramen scene"??) - there are now enough ramen shops that we're starting to see specialization.  This is a good thing, because these specialty restaurants do their one thing really well, and there are plenty of ramen shops, so why do they all need to do the same thing?

I'm personally not a huge fan of miso in general so I was a little nervous, but first of all, just look at that bowl above!  It's a beautiful bowl of ramen.  The ingredients in the ramen I picked are a little different than what I'm used to, but they were very good, and you can always get more "traditional" ingredients.  I picked the one the waiter said was the most popular, sort of their house ramen.  They serve three different broths and then have several mixes of ingredients; I chose the standard broth, though you can get it heavier or lighter as well.

In the standard broth, the miso is not overpowering and you can still clearly taste pork marrow.  It's a rich and flavorful broth - very nice.  The noodles themselves were fabulous, just the right thickness and texture, and the pork!  The pork was some of the best I've had in New York, almost rivaling Yo! Tekoya in Tokyo. Melt in your mouth kind of stuff.  There is a lot of food in that bowl - I could not finish it, whereas I can finish the ramen at Rai Rai Ken and other ramen shops.  And it was not for lack of trying.

Misoya is a sit-down table restaurant, unlike Rai Rai Ken and pretty much any real ramen shop in Japan.  This actually drives me crazy about Rai Rai Ken these days - despite having some of the best ramen in the city, it's impossible to get a seat there because New Yorkers generally don't understand how to eat ramen at a place like that.  You eat fast and go.  You don't talk.  You slurp, you eat, you pay, you leave.  It's Japanese fast food.  Rai Rai Ken has become so popular that there are always people waiting outside because it's just a small counter shop and people sit there talking for 30 minutes after eating.  Well, Misoya's nod to American culture is that it's set up like a regular restaurant, and there is no rush.  So, take that for better or worse, though I imagine most New Yorkers will take it for better.

Sorry for not posting a pic of the storefront - we forgot to take one.  Maybe I'll update this post someday.  But it's easy to find with the address.

Even if you're not big on miso, give Misoya a chance.  They really make a tasty bowl of ramen.

Monday, October 10, 2011


How can you not like this? This is SCANDAL's newest single. I just got their latest album Baby Action, and can't stop listening to it.  Pop music in Japan!  This would just never happen here, somehow.

Incidentally, I linked to iTunes up there, but this is also available on Amazon. Both iTunes and Amazon are really working to bring Japanese music to their respective download sections. Support that! Buy this.

But this is not even my favorite. My favorite is still their first song from three years ago, DOLL.

They had kind of a Runaways type thing going on in those days. In a land of manufactured musical artists, they are a real band that formed organically and make their own music. I do like their look better now, though, from LOVE SURVIVE at the top. The Doc Martens and short skirts (actually skorts). This is their signature look now. 

SHOUJO S has everything - from their first album, I still love this. I'm a sucker for a girl band that does choreography - and apparently they do all of theirs themselves (they actually met in dance school; they're dancers).

They're playing on March 28 at Budokhan in Tokyo. (Yes, they are apparently that big now.)  I am actually planning to go.

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Starbucks green tea frappuccino - and how to get one that actually tastes Japanese

Japanese matcha frappuccinos and a matcha and chocolate danish.
One of my favorite American/Japanese mashups is the Starbucks green tea Frappuccino. The funny thing is there are still regular Starbucks visitors in the US who don't know this exists! It's not on the menu at most Starbucks, and the other day at my local store, a girl saw the barista handing one to me and exclaimed in shocked disbelief, "a green tea... FRAPPUCCINO?!?" But yes, they make them, and they've made them for probably a decade now. I swear for a while it was on the actual menu, but it hasn't been for some time now anywhere I go - but that doesn't mean you can't still get one.

(According to the Starbucks web site, some locations do apparently list a Tazo Green Tea Frap on the menu, but none of the locations I frequent do, and anyway I'm not talking about the Tazo version, which is apparently "infused with tropical fruit flavors".)

The green tea Frappuccino did actually originate in Japan - it is not an American interpretation, I mean ignoring the fact that Starbucks is an American company and "Frappuccino" sounds like a perverted interpretation of a faux-Italian drink. But the green tea Frap was invented by Starbucks Japan, in Japan.

When they brought it over to the US, they originally put it on the menu as a "raspberry green tea Frappuccino", apparently thinking that plain old green tea was just too sophisticated for Americans, who have to slather everything in some kind of sugary syrup to kill with sweetness the actual taste of whatever they're actually drinking. But they found that so many people were ordering it without the raspberry syrup that they eventually relented and gave us the pure green tea Frap. (Hint: if you are in a location that offers the Tazo version, you can probably ask for it without the tropical fruit flavors!)

The Japanese version is still a little different, though. I like their version even better (what did you expect?) - it tastes more like real green tea. I'm not convinced it's possible to really get an American one to taste exactly the same because I think the Frap base itself is probably different, but if you want to approximate the taste of the Japanese version, you can come pretty close now that Starbucks lets you make Fraps any way you like. Here's how to order:

American green tea frappuccino made to approximate the taste of the Japanese version

If you can't read that, the important parts are "1/2 CL" and "X Macha". I confess I'm not up on the advanced Starbucks terminology, but I basically order half sweetness and extra matcha. Japanese green tea Fraps are stronger and less sweet than American ones. 1/2 sweetness is still plenty sweet! I'm thinking of trying unsweetened next time, which they actually offered me a while back, before I realized I could go halfway. I gave the barista a pretty incredulous look myself at being offered an unsweetened Frappuccino, but apparently there are people who order them that way.

UPDATE! Unsweetened is definitely even closer to the original. The frap base is sweetened already, so there's no need for extra sweetness. Also, 6 scoops of matcha (in a grande) will get you almost 100% to a Japanese green tea frap, although I will admit that this will be a little strong for Americans who aren't used to the taste of real green tea.

Incidentally, if you're in Japan, you're actually looking for a "Matcha Frappuccino". Matcha is a particular type of powdered green tea (it is not a term interchangeable with green tea). I'm guessing they use the same powder here, which is why the barista wrote "X macha" on mine - but they actually put it on the menu that way in Japan. It's got a little more cachet than just calling it "green tea" there; "green tea" being a more generic catch-all term, like if Starbucks here were to just put "black coffee" on the menu, instead of listing the different roasts and bean varieties that they have.

Also!  Here's one more little thing I wish they'd bring over to the US:

Those are black sesame and matcha macarons.  (Not macarOOns... macarons).  Black sesame is kind of an acquired taste, but once you've acquired it, there is no better base for any sort of sweet food.  (I say "food" on purpose, not drink; I did have a black sesame bubble tea once and it was... how to put this... challenging.)  And it's the perfect little complement to a green tea Frap... unlike that matcha and chocolate danish I tried to make it through up in the pic at the top.  Green tea and chocolate... ugggghhhh!

Friday, July 08, 2011

Is Tokyo radioactive?

So I brought my geiger counter with me to Japan last month, half serious about wanting to make sure nothing I ate or nowhere I went was going to kill me with radiation. By this time, though, I think most people's fears have justifiably waned a bit, but I do still see paranoid people in various Japan-themed forums I read that are stuck under their tinfoil hats and insisting that the government is lying and Tokyo is really just a glowing post-apocalyptic hellhole of nuclear fallout and radioactivity, and everyone there is facing a slow and painful burning, flesh-eating death.

So here's my informal little test. I think it pretty much speaks for itself.

By the way, background radiation normally induces one or two clicks per minute even in the United States, so the one click you saw at the end is totally, 100% normal. (Probably should have noted that tidbit in the video itself.)

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Riding in a Joban Line Green Car

I previously blogged about my experience in a shinkansen green car - basically the closest thing the Japanese have to "first class" on most trains.  But did you know they also have green cars on some commuter trains?  My wife's family lives on the Joban line, and luckily it's one such line.

She had never taken one before and every time we visit, we lug all of our luggage into a standard car and either leave it sitting in the middle of the car or have to stand with it for 45 minutes because the trains are so crowded.  I unfortunately have never taken a photo of a regular Joban line car but usually they look something like this:

(That photo's from, but I'm sure it's a stock photo.)

You can imagine riding a train like that with three or four large suitcases in tow, for up to an hour.

This time I pretty much insisted that we take a green car both to and from Tokyo.  Well, the inbound leg didn't quite work out as planned - we ended up barely making a Hitachi Limited Express train instead, and we stood in the vestibule halfway to Ueno.  We did manage to make it to the "green car" at the first (and only intermediate) stop, but it was just like any other car on that train.  On the plus side, it was pretty empty, and the train was fast - about 20 minutes to Ueno instead of the usual 45.

Our "green car" on the way in to Tokyo - not bad for a Japanese commuter train, but we had to pay extra both for the express fare and the green car, and there was just nothing special about this alleged green car.

We finally made it into a proper green car on the way back out.

Just compare that with the photo at the top.  It's a completely different world.  The seats face forward (and recline!), there's plenty of legroom, and for some reason, almost nobody else uses these cars!  Forget about people standing in the aisles - through most of our trip, we had the entire end of the car to ourselves.  This was the real reason I wanted to ride in one - just to get out of the crowd.  I knew from previous experience that whenever I've seen a Joban line train pull into a station, the green cars are basically empty.  I can't believe they make any money off these cars.

The green cars on the Joban line are bi-level cars, but they do have single-level seats at the ends.  Since we had four heavy suitcases plus a bunch of paper bags full of stuff with us, we went for the single-level seats.  I don't know if I could even stand up in the bi-level section of the car - the cars aren't any taller than the regular single level cars.  Unlike in American bi-level commuter trains, the single-level section has a door, so you feel like you're in your own little room when you're in this area.

Here's where we sat from the outside:

The unexpected bonus: like on the shinkansen, car attendants come through the Joban line green cars with snacks and drinks!  Remember now, this is on a commuter train.  This is like getting at-seat snack service on the LIRR - imagine such a thing.  My wife didn't even expect this, and she lived in Japan for 28 years.  It was brutally hot outside and we were loaded up with stuff so I quenched my thirst with an iced green tea bought from the car attendant.

The cost for our green car seats?  Only 550 yen - about $6 extra over a standard ticket.

Totally worth it.  I would ride this way every day if I lived on this line, or at least a couple times a week.  It's a much more civilized way to travel.

You can get a green car ticket at any ticket machine - and you can buy it separately from the main ticket.  (In other words, if you aren't sure and decide to buy it later, you can do it even after buying your original ticket.)  On some platforms, there are machines just for buying green car tickets for those making last-minute decisions.

Look for this option on any JR train you happen to take in Japan.  Not all trains have it, but most commuter trains with a lengthy run do, as do the vast majority of shinkansen trains and most "express" trains.  As our experience on the Hitachi Express demonstrated, it's not always worth it, but two out of the three green cars I've ridden in so far have been 100%, totally worth the extra money.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Japan 2011 The Food: Breakfast

This was our western-style breakfast at our hotel.  I'm always amused by "western-style" breakfasts in Japan, because there's always some weird element that we would never, ever have in the morning.  In this case, it's a salad with raw onions.  I had to brush my teeth again after eating this!  (Yeah I ate it... I was feeling vegetable-deprived at that point, since almost all of our meals this trip were meat, meat and more meat.)

The first time I ever went to Japan, in 1999 or 2000, I had my first western-style breakfast, and the pattern was set.  Included in my breakfast that day were... (drum roll)... french fries!  Not hash browns, not some other, more commonly accepted breakfast form of potato, but full-on french fries, like you'd expect to get with your Whopper with Cheese at Burger King.

I think this all stems from the fact that Japanese breakfasts are more or less just another meal with the same ingredients as lunch and dinner.  Traditionally they're based on things like fish and rice, like any other meal.  So they don't quite get that western breakfast is a whole separate thing from the later meals in the day.  If they feel like some element's missing, they'll just grab it from some other meal.

Anyway, a lot of people go to places like Japan and get western stuff there because they don't really want to feel like they ever left home.  Me, I get western stuff specifically because I enjoy their interpretations of it.  Not everybody understands this, and my parents used to yell at me for not immersing myself in the local culture whenever I went somewhere new.  But to me these somewhat off interpretations of western culture are a part of Japanese culture, in the same way that "Engrish" is Japanese culture and not really English.  I have fun with the little manglements.

Tokyo Sky Tree

I'd forgotten they were even building this thing until our second to last day in Japan, but I had seen it from a distance and wondered what the hell it was. I looked it up and suddenly remembered reading about a "new Tokyo Tower" a while back - well, it's now the Tokyo Sky Tree.  And it's the tallest free-standing tower in the world.

That's a stitched panorama, so I know there's a little weirdness at the seams.  (Autostitch seems to want to match the wires rather than the tower.)

It's not really in such a dumpy neighborhood, I just liked this juxtaposition as we walked around it.  It's actually in Asakusa, which is both an area with a famous temple and from where we took the Himiko boat to Odaiba a few years ago.  And they're building a whole new tourist destination around this tower, but it's not done yet.

It's kind of impossible to convey how tall this thing looks in person.  Here's a side view:

It is the tallest structure in Tokyo by far.  At 634 meters (2,080 feet), it is currently the second tallest free-standing structure of any kind on Earth, next to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.  (It doesn't get included on lists of "world's tallest buildings" because it is a "tower", not a "building", though that's kind of a meaningless distinction when you're talking about a tower like this.)  It probably won't hold that distinction for long, but in any case, it's freakin' tall.  It's kind of weird that hardly anybody outside of Japan seems to even know about it.

One reason may be that it's not finished, but then everybody knew about the Burj Khalifa or CN Tower before they were finished.  But you can't go up in it yet; all you can do is walk around it and take pictures like I did.  When they do open the observation deck, they're apparently going to be charging around $30 to get up there - kind of a ripoff, but I'll bet people will pay it.  It's not like views like that are so easy to get in Tokyo.

If you're wondering what's wrong with Tokyo Tower (other than the fact that it's bent) and why they need a new huge tower like this in Tokyo, apparently you can blame it all on HDTV and other digital broadcasts; Tokyo Tower is too short and in too congested an area to carry those kinds of signals.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Japan 2011 The Food: Teas' Tea New York

I have a lot of little food-related posts to make about my recent trip - my wife and I are the kind of people that take pictures of everything we eat.  So I'll just sprinkle a few of these in with the rest.  I'll start with...

This tea does not exist in New York.  I repeat: it does not exist in New York.  We were pretty annoyed by this, actually, because the ads for this tea run on TV about once every five minutes, and they feature a woman slowly sipping this tea in what's supposed to be a penthouse apartment in New York City.  We have never heard of this tea in New York City.

It's honestly pretty good tea, though.  Uses stevia as a sweetener.  Also has 90% less caffeine.  Just call it something else!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Tokyo area earthquake damage

I wrote earlier that while the Great Tohoku Earthquake of 3/11 wasn't really the knockout blow in Tokyo that some westerners still seem to think it was, there was still some damage that's visible even today. Here are a few more photos of that - I actually can't be 100% sure that this is all earthquake damage, but in some cases I know it is.

First, here's a reprise of the damaged houses I posted earlier:

A little different photo, but you see all the blue tarps covering the damaged roofs. This was in Ibaraki prefecture. I also passed by a building that had collapsed completely and where one person had died, but I didn't take a photo of it. Mostly the area is intact, but you do see a few things like this here and there.

This is one of the gates to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. We asked the security guard and he said yes, this is earthquake damage. There was actually a lot of this around the palace, which isn't really too surprising given that many of the buildings on the grounds were built around 400 years ago. (Well, I guess that makes it surprising in one way, if they've survived that long.)

This may or may not be earthquake damage - we didn't ask - but it's weird if it isn't. I'm not sure what else they could be doing here other than fixing a giant hole that opened up in the stone palace garden walls.

This is a random patch in the walls of the subway. Not a common sight in the Tokyo subway, and it looks fresh. I'm assuming there was a minor collapse here that's been fixed.

And of course, the most oddly disturbing and symbolic visual - the tip of Tokyo Tower is bent. This was easily visible from our hotel. (I shot this photo from our hotel window.) Last I heard, there are no immediate plans to fix this. I don't know - it seems a little dangerous to me to leave a big piece of metal that high up bent like this - but apparently they don't really know what to do about it.

Well, that's all I saw. That's all I saw. I know from experience that it's easy to look at photos like this and get an idea that the whole city is a shambles, but only a tiny percentage even has so much as a crack. Up north is a different story, but Tokyo was mostly spared.

I also mentioned before that I hadn't experienced an aftershock yet by my second day - well, now I can say I didn't feel a single one the entire time I was there.  There was one, but it was up north and you couldn't feel it in Tokyo.  My stay for the week I was there was peaceful.  Things seem to be calming down a lot.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

AKB48: they finally got me. Also, home.

As I mentioned before, Japan is currently being overrun by AKB48. You can't get away from them. Flip around on the TV and you will find them. Walk on any commercial street and you'll hear their music blaring from somewhere, and probably see a poster or two (sometimes a hundred feet tall). They are, by far, the biggest musical act in Japan right now. And there's nothing equivalent in the US - I've never seen anything like this. Lady Gaga does not come close to this level of popularity, or maybe just promotion. And I'm embarrassed to admit that their marketing finally worked on me.

On our last day in Japan - literally at the Narita Airport Tsutaya store - I bought their Blu-Ray disc that was released this week, "AKB ga Ippai" ("Lots of AKB"). There was no way not to. My defenses are only so strong, and I can only hold out so long against this kind of assault.

That's a pretty big box for a Blu-Ray disc.

I don't think I'm going to become a fan - this is obviously not music to take seriously. But every trip to Japan I take ends up having a soundtrack. I always buy some CD or DVD that puts a backing track to my memories. Once it was Kimura Kaela's "Scratch". Another time it was Utada Hikaru's "Kiss and Cry" CD single. This year I figured it may as well be AKB48, considering they were pretty much in the background of every single photo I took anyway. This is the soundtrack to Japan right now, for better or worse.

Their marketing is pretty impressive, though. In addition to just saturating all the traditional media, they do things like putting one of three different sets of postcards in each DVD, so that if you want to collect them all, you need to buy at least three DVD's. They just had an "election" for the first leader of the group, and to vote you had to buy a CD to get a ticket. You could vote as many times as you wanted, but there was only one vote per ticket. Obviously, this meant that a lot of their fans bought multiple CD's just to vote more times. My wife heard about one guy who bought ten of the same CD just to get ten tickets, then he gave the CD's away to kids.

My Blu-Ray disc set came with three postcards plus one big plastic thing that's like a little laminated mini-poster (complete with fake signature). I had to pick this at random - you could get one of any of the girls on the front cover (I don't know how they picked who is on the front, they have 58 members!). That also means that if someone wants a specific girl, he/she would have to buy multiples. And people do it! Not me, though.

btw, this is not my first brush with AKB48 - despite not really being a fan, I seem to cross paths with them pretty often. They were at the Tokyo Game Show when I was there in 2007, and here they are walking by my store's booth at the New York Anime Festival a couple of years ago (they're the blurry mess wearing school uniform-ish jackets in the middle of the photo):

Oh, also? I'm back home. I've got a lot of other little posts I want to write about the trip, so watch for that this week!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

It's HOT in Japan

I took this video from our hotel this morning. Keep in mind this was about 8:30AM, and half the kids here are already fanning themselves!

I am burned to a crisp right now. Yesterday was 95 degrees and the humidity... the humidity in Japan is like being in the tropics. NO ONE in New York can understand this feeling unless they've been out of the region - there just is no equivalent in the northeast, I don't care what the thermometer says even on the hottest day of the year. The soup you walk through in Tokyo makes it feel like it's about 140 when it's this hot out. I was drenched with sweat when we made it back to our hotel - my pants were literally soaking wet. I had to pay $15 to have the hotel wash them. And today wasn't much better. I'm going through at least two changes of clothes per day.

It's supposed to be like this until we leave. Ugh.

I've been taking lots of pictures - I actually do have some more things to post soon.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

I'm in Japan!

Well, my pre-trip post appears to have bitten the dust (probably a victim of an errant auto-save from an outdated tab), but my wife and I are in Japan!

This is the view from our hotel window.  (That's a stitched panorama with about a 170 degree field of view; the original's huge.)  We're staying at the Grand Arc Hanzomon, which is a really nice hotel for a pretty cheap price.  I gotta say, I know how to pick hotels, and I always pick based on the view.

I know that the first question people are going to ask me when they find out I'm here is "but what about the earthquake??" or some variation thereof.  Is there any electricity?  Are there aftershocks all the time?  Are there rubble and bodies in the streets?  Is Tokyo a ghost town as everyone flees nuclear disaster?  Is anything open??

The answer is pretty much what I expected before I got here: a few things are different, most things are the same as always.  Obviously that's not completely true further north, but down here in Tokyo not a whole lot has changed.  Japanese TV is as insipid as always, for example.

There are a few reminders of what happened/is happening, however.  Enough so that a western news outlet hellbent on telling a dramatic story could find enough material if they looked.  To whit:

This is a roof covered in blue tarp.  (You can see a second one in the left side background.)  Traditional houses like this dot the landscape; the blue tarps are covering roof damage.  There's not enough roofing material to fix them all, so they sit like this.

This, however, is not earthquake damage.  This is just an interesting building.  It is important to note the difference.

This ticket machine in the Tokyo subway is out of service to conserve electricity, given that the Fukushima nuclear plant #1, which supplies power to Tokyo, is out of commission permanently.  You do see signs like this in various places either talking about things that are out of service or asking people to conserve.

But I was kind of expecting to see lights out everywhere, no air conditioning and maybe even rolling blackouts, and there is just none of that.  Tokyo's never had very good air conditioning so it's hard to know whether they're conserving or it's just generally crappy climate control, but I don't really detect much difference in a/c use versus any normal year.  As I look out my hotel window right now at 8:40PM, I see lights on all over the city (including Tokyo Tower being lit up like a Christmas tree).  And there hasn't been a rolling blackout since I've been here.

I also haven't experienced an aftershock yet, although my wife says there was a 4.0 before I got here.  Still, the ground doesn't seem to be shaking much anymore.

Mostly, everything is normal, including Tokyo's questionable taste in music:

That's just one of the many thousands of displays for the all-girl pop group AKB48 dotting the landscape right now - they apparently have a new album out and everyone needs to know this.

A little hard to see (sorry), but that's Don Quixote, a sort of mecca for geeks in Akihabara, where AKB48 is ostensibly "from" - they've got a wrap all around the building, and signs all over it.

Also intact is Japan's vending machine research and development.  They are decades ahead of us in vending machine technology.  This is a full touch-screen LCD vending machine - first time I've seen one of these here. I personally like the machines where you can see the actual can or bottle of the thing you're ordering, but I know that touch-screens are all the rage with the kids these days.

And let's not forget Japan's often unfortunate incorporation of English slang, which is intact as always.  (Obviously this has nothing to do with surviving an earthquake; I'm just looking for an excuse to post this picture.)  Oddly enough, this is not the only questionable use of the term "titty" that I have seen on this trip.

This is Omotesando, one of the main streets in Harajuku - looks like a pretty normal, functioning city, doesn't it?

One thing we did notice, and this is kind of a sad self-fulfilling prophecy, is that there are almost no other westerners around right now.  Usually about half the people milling around Harajuku are western; today we saw maybe three or four.  Hopefully as reports from regular people like me trickle out, more westerners will realize that Japan is open for business and is not a big panic-filled mess of debris and nuclear fallout.

As for any potential radiation issues, I actually brought my goddamn Geiger counter (that is its official name, according to me), and it's not registering anything out of the ordinary.

One sign of normalcy, and this will bring me back to my earlier post that got nuked (for anyone who read it): we simply could not get a reservation on either of the overnight trains we wanted.  They were booked solid.  Oh well, we'll try again next year.  Seems like the kind of thing where you have to know someone who works for JR.  But we'll be staying in Tokyo for the entire trip.

Well, I'll post more tomorrow!  I think I'm probably past the point where I can or even want to post every little thing about Japan anymore, but I will definitely have some more updates while I'm here!  Right now, though, jet lag has caught up with me again and I'm about to let my head fall into the keyboard here and sleep.

Saturday, May 21, 2011


I have an admittedly weird history of getting really into Japanese pop groups fronted by multiple female vocalists. Oddly specific tastes, I guess. Kalafina is my latest... er.. I don't want to say "obsession", but I can't think of another word.

If you're one of my semi-regular, mostly English-speaking readers, you're probably thinking, "Who the hell are these people?" An understandable question! Apparently they formed in 2007 (as usual I'm a little late) as a vehicle for composer Yuki Kajiura to sing anime soundtracks. I can hear the groans, but wait! Don't leave yet! The term "anime soundtracks" is not as derisive in Japan as it would be considered here - there is a lot of good, original music from famous musicians on anime soundtracks in Japan. The biggest selling pop singer in Japanese history, Utada Hikaru, has composed and sung songs on anime soundtracks. So this is nothing to worry about.

Kalafina can best be described as a neo-classical gothic pop trio. And they're hugely popular! Can you imagine? Think of "neo-classical gothic pop" as a thing in the United States. Can't, can you? Because such a thing couldn't exist here, in the land of auto-tune and cheesy electro beats and sequins and meat dresses. But Japan will mix and match any musical genres in the name of making something new.

And these girls can sing. Take a listen:

I love the polite applause at the end of that clip. Jesus, that's a tough crowd!

That's one of their older songs, from when they were a foursome (one girl left to go to college), but it sounds awesome with just the three of them.

The amazing thing to me, as an American, is that I'm so used to hearing pop "singers" who clearly aren't really even singing; they're auto-tuned to hell and back, they're lip-syncing or using backing tracks, they have no talent or ability at all. Either that, or we have American Idol-style over-singers who add unnecessary flourishes to every single note without even being able to stay on key. And here are these Japanese girls, and they're really doing it, all this amazing stuff that American pop singers wouldn't even dare try (including holding a goddamn note), and they sound incredible. They're even more impressive live than on their albums, because there are no tricks here. This is all them. Even if you don't care for the music, and even if you don't speak the language, you have to appreciate talent like this.

Here's Sprinter, one of their poppier songs, but it's one of my favorites (another old one... I do like the new ones too, but I can't pick 'em all to show):

And here they are full-on pop - but their true nature still comes out at about the 4:10 mark (too bad about the sync in this video, but I couldn't find a better version):

A few months ago I hadn't heard of them and neither had any of the people I know that follow Japanese culture. But all of a sudden, they're everywhere. Just yesterday, I happened to turn on one of Tokyo's biggest radio stations Bay FM (using the great Android app Tunein Radio), and by total chance Kalafina had basically taken it over as I was listening. They have a seemingly regular feature called "Kalafina Cafe". I personally first heard of them through one of my store's clothing brands, who did a collaboration with them. In the videos above, Hikaru (the girl on the audience's left) is wearing an Atelier-Pierrot skirt - my store sells those.

Hurry up and check them out before Japan decides gothic neo-classical pop is passe and moves on to the next equally strange and possibly even more interesting style mashup.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I bought a goddamn Geiger counter

I feel like I've fallen into some alternate reality Cold War worst case scenario, or been inserted into the plot of Fallout 4.  I bought a Geiger counter on Ebay today.

This is the DRSB-88, a "modern" Russian-made handheld Geiger counter.  It doesn't look much like the old civil defense Geiger counters that you may be familiar with from old movies (and that every fallout shelter and school in the United States used to be stocked with), but it works pretty much the same way.  It counts radiation particles per minute, and it clicks and lights up whenever it detects one (so yes, it makes the familiar Geiger counter sound - here's a video demonstration, and no, that is not me).  It doesn't have a visual meter, but I couldn't afford one that does right now. This is probably the cheapest true Geiger counter you can buy at the moment.

These things used to sell for like $15, even a few weeks ago.  I paid $125 for this one, and it's used.  This is about the going rate right now.  A month ago, these things were curiosities, leftovers from the Cold War that nobody knew what to do with.  Now, there is not enough supply to keep up with demand.

I didn't buy it because I'm worried about fallout raining down upon me in New York City and giving me cancer.  I am not a nut.  I am not one of those survivalists with a huge stash of guns and decade-old canned chili and green beans in my basement who believes the government LIES.  I know there's no dangerous radiation anywhere in the United States.  I bought it for two reasons:

1) To prove to the concerned customers of my store that our clothes from Japan are safe (a single video posted to our web site should take care of that)

2) To reassure myself on our trip to Japan in a couple months - yes, we're going!  I really hope the TSA doesn't confiscate my Geiger counter for some dumb reason.  I'm trying to protect myself and my wife from radiation, so I must be a terrorist!

That I even feel this is necessary, though, tells me there is something very wrong in the world.  I am old enough to remember Three Mile Island and of course Chernobyl, and now we have Fukushima Dai-ichi. You know, when a person can be 38 years old and have lived through three major nuclear accidents, at least one of which affects me personally from thousands of miles away, it makes you think it's about time for us collectively to re-evaluate some things.  I generally don't really have strong feelings about nuclear power one way or the other, but you know what they say... fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.  What do they say about getting fooled a third time?  It's pretty clear that despite our best efforts, we are going to have occasional nuclear accidents.  Is it really worth it?  How much of the world do we need to make uninhabitable?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A roundup of resources for following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster

If you've seen my last few posts, you know I'm following this story pretty closely. I'm basically completely obsessed with it.  My wife's family lives one prefecture over from Fukushima, and we have a business that relies almost exclusively on products shipped from Tokyo. So I've got good reasons for keeping my eyes glued to this nuclear plant.

Over the past day or so, I've gotten a real feeling that the technicians working to try to prevent disaster are starting to turn a corner. You would never know this by reading the American press, which continues to call it a "widening disaster" and an "unfolding catastrophe" and says that technicians are growing "increasingly desperate". But looking at a variety of sources, many of which are a lot more knowledgeable on nuclear matters than the American press, I've gotten a different picture over the past 24 hours. No, they're definitely not out of the woods, and things could still go very wrong. But I just get the sense that Japan is starting to figure this thing out.

I've decided to post a roundup of some of the sites I've been checking out that have given me that impression - you won't find most of these linked from the mainstream US press (ok, maybe one or two), but they've really given me a lot of info:

Reuters live blog - this is where I've gotten a lot of my other links. And they post every little bit of info, without too much commentary. The other users often make informative comments with good links too.

Fukushima Daiichi webcam - not the best angle, but this public webcam has been useful in knowing whether the plant is spewing smoke or steam at any given hour. (It's updated at the top of each hour during the day.) It's been fairly quiet lately. It's safe to assume at this point that any smoke or steam you do see is radioactive.

Tokyo live Geiger counter - I posted this earlier. It's been in the normal range for two days straight now.

Chiba prefecture live Geiger counter - this one's streaming video of an actual meter someone has in front of a camera. It has also been in the normal range for 2 days, after spiking several times before that.

Target map of radiation readings by prefecture - also posted earlier, seems to be updated hourly. Prefectures around the plant are elevated but not dangerous. Fukushima itself is "under survey", which probably means it's censored (and most likely pretty radiated).

Japan Atomic Industrial Forum - they're providing timely and detailed updates on the status of the plant. Be sure to check their "Reactor Status Update" reports, which clearly lay out exactly what's going on. (I get so sick of hearing our news reports say TEPCO is going to "douse the reactors with water in a last ditch effort to prevent a meltdown" - the reactors are more or less stable at this point. It's the spent fuel pools that they're worried about now.)

TEPCO's English press site - the operator of the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company. Their updates are not always timely, but they do sometimes post info that the mainstream sites somehow seem to miss. For example, the reports that 2 employees were missing after one of the blasts at the plant was first posted on this site.

Kyodo News English web site - normally this is behind a paywall but they've opened up their coverage of the earthquake and nuclear crisis. And like Reuters' liveblog, they post every little detail without a lot of commentary. If you just want to know something like how many fire engines are being used to pump water into the spent fuel pools or who supplied them, chances are you will find that info in a Kyodo story. (You'll also find the broader and more general topics too.)

NHK World Live stream - I watched the tsunami live as it happened on this stream, and they've been pretty good since then on the nuclear crisis too. An example of what public television should be all about! They have actually mostly returned now to a "Headline News" style format where they just re-run a collection of stories over and over, but it's still usually more informative than CNN or MSNBC, and occasionally they will break in and show a TEPCO news conference or other event live. They also often show segments from their Japanese broadcast (translated to English) where they have experts explain what's going on at the plant - sometimes these aren't any better than the equivalent "expert" segments you'd see on TV here, but the reporters at least know the difference between a reactor and a spent fuel pool.

Radiation units - kind of tangential, but this is a very straightforward explanation of the various terms used in measuring radiation and what they mean, with some real-world examples. I've found myself referring to this writeup so many times over the past few days that I just leave the tab open all the time in my browser now. I feel like I've had a crash course in nuclear technology over the past week, but I still get confused when people talk about rems vs. rads vs. sieverts vs. grays.

Looking at all of those sources, I know that the reactors themselves at the plant have been mostly stabilized, the injection of water into the spent fuel pools seems to have actually worked (though there doesn't seem to be verification of this), and electricity is going to be restored to at least part of the plant either today or tomorrow.  Hopefully that will get some of the primary cooling back online.  There is reason to hope, though we won't really know that things are fully under control for several weeks even in a best case scenario.

Raw aerial closeup video of Fukushima Daiichi

This video was taken yesterday during the helicopter dousing of the nuclear plant with seawater:

Live Streaming by Ustream.TV

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Live Geiger counter in Tokyo

Here's a web-enabled, real-time radiation sensor in Tokyo:

The graph is showing Geiger counts per minute. Around 100CPM = 1 microsievert/hr, the common measurement you're hearing in the news around the Fukushima Daiichi plant accident. Around 1 millisievert (1,000 microsieverts) per year is normal radiation exposure. (Tokyo's normal range of 15-20CPM, equivalent to .15-.20 microsieverts per hour, works out to around 1.5 millisieverts per year, which is pretty common for a congested urban area.) 100 millisieverts (100,000 microsieverts) in a short period of time can cause a severe risk of injury or cancer, but levels below that can also cause increased risks over time.

As you can see, at the moment the radiation level is pretty normal (this is equal to the reference graph below it on the site). But there have been times over the past few days when it has spiked a bit, though nowhere near a dangerous level. I personally probably wouldn't really start to worry until I saw this meter inching up past 5,000CPM. Even that is still low level radiation, but if it goes that high so far from the plant, it's definitely worth watching, at least. That would still be just 50 microsieverts/hr. For reference, a typical CT scan is about 15 millisieverts (15,000 microsieverts), but it's worth remembering in any example like that that you don't typically have a CT scan for more than a few minutes at a time, and doctors won't let you have more than a couple per year. So whenever you see people cite such examples, they're not really examples of radiation you can live with on a continuous basis - but they are examples of what the human body can absorb in a short period of time without any ill effects.

If you're in Tokyo or know anyone who is, it may be worth checking the site linked above every once in a while until the situation in Fukushima is resolved, especially given the useless government and TEPCO announcements that aren't telling anyone what's actually going on there.

Real-time Radiation Map of Japan

Friday, March 11, 2011

This used to be a town

Not much I can say about this earthquake and tsunami except that thankfully, my wife and I don't think we know anyone who was personally caught up in it. I know that a lot of other people do, though, and my heart goes out to them. I watched the tsunami come in live as it happened, and it was one of the most surreal and horrifying sights I've ever seen.

Please donate to either the Red Cross or Global Giving to help the victims.

Incidentally, a high quality live stream of BS TV's ongoing coverage can be found here.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Rock Paper Scissors

I need to start writing more here again. I'm starting to feel limited by 120 character text boxes.

The NY Times has an interesting AI experiment on its web site today - a basic rock/paper/scissors game in which the computer opponent learns based on the outcome of previous games. You can start either with a rookie computer opponent that has to learn from scratch, or a veteran opponent that can use all of its experience gained so far with other players. Here are my results (so far) against the veteran version:

The interesting thing about this, to me, is that I fared this poorly while intentionally trying to be unpredictable. In other words, humans are predictable in their unpredictability - we try to be unpredictable in predictable patterns that even a basic AI like this can identify. Imagine what a smarter AI could do. (Note that you might do better in the first 100 games or so, but I'm pretty confident that over time, anyone's results would look similar in percentage terms.)

Watson, IBM's Jeopardy-playing AI computer that we've all been talking about lately, was a major achievement in natural speech recognition. But it was not particularly adept at gaming; Jeopardy is not the kind of game where you need to search for patterns in gameplay and factor in the unpredictability of your human opponents. Most modern chess-playing computers aren't either; rather, they take a brute force approach, analyzing all possible moves to their natural conclusion and making the one that produced a positive result in the most scenarios. This has been made possible with increases in computing speed and power over the past couple decades.

The Times' rock paper scissors game is a true "AI" in that it's learning from patterns it gleans from its human opponents. It's a harbinger of the future; for AI to be truly useful, it will need to learn what we want and adapt, without us needing to continuously program new sets of instructions into our Butler-bot 3000's every time our routine changes slightly. AI will need to learn human patterns on its own (in addition to natural language) to accomplish basic tasks without help, and without screwing things up.

I tried to beat the Times' computer by being human; that is, by doing things I thought the computer would find unpredictable. The problem is, other humans apparently thought the same way I did, and every "unpredictable" move I made (like choosing paper five times in a row) was easily thwarted by the computer's AI. If it ever comes down to it and we end up with a self-aware Skynet-like network that's out to get us, it's not going to be our "human-ness" that wins the war. We think like a collective even when we're trying not to, and we play right into the AI's hands when we try to be unpredictable. That "randomness" isn't really random, and the AI has already factored it in.

Ironically, when machines lose in movies and TV shows like the Terminator series, Battlestar Galactica and The Matrix, it's not because we've shown our human thinking to be superior. It's because the machines have started thinking like humans, failing to anticipate or even guard against the possibility of an "unpredictable" pattern that should have been thoroughly predictable to a machine designed to look for it. (Remember that Skynet in the Terminator films was created to identify and respond to enemy attacks. The Matrix franchise at least explicitly acknowledges the same plot hole in its films with both the Oracle and Architect characters, but then moves forth with it anyway because it wouldn't be very exciting to a human audience if we lost.) This will not happen in real life. Real computers don't suddenly have lapses in pattern recognition, or conveniently ignore or even forget logic trees. These are human foibles.

In fact, the one mini-winning streak I went on in my rock, paper, scissors game was when I intentionally tried to think like a computer, analyzing both my own previous patterns and the patterns of the computer. I then tried to predict the computer's move based on what it probably thought my next move would be. Doing this, I was able to win about 50% of the time, for a little while. But I eventually regressed into my human ways, because I am a human (regardless what you may have heard).

If we ever need to beat an advanced and malevolent computer AI, we are going to need to learn how to think like computers. Our humanity won't save us.

P.S. Of course, a computer could never come up with a scene like this. Rock flies right through paper! Nothing beats rock!

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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