July 21, 2006

Hokkaido Trip: Day One

I'm doing a week-long bike tour of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. Today I flew into Memanbetsu, a small city in the north of Hokkaido, assembled my clown bike, attached my trailer and set off with an assorted crew of 9 other foreigners.

The difference between Hokkaido and Tokyo couldn't be more stark. Hokkaido seems to consist solely of rolling farmland, mountains and calderas (lakes in former volcanic craters). It was not unusual, during today's ride, to get a whiff of cow manure while heading down a hill.

No pictures yet, but you can see a map of today's ride, along with a display of the elevation change as I climbed a ridiculous hill here.

Posted by pmk at 8:19 AM | Comments (3)

July 18, 2006

Manatee Squash

I won't ruin the beauty of this moment with too many words. Thanks Lindsay:

Posted by pmk at 12:30 AM | Comments (3)

July 16, 2006

Barnacle: It's What's For Dinner

We were at a sushi restaurant in Hatchobori (which is right next to Tsukiji and its famed fish market) last week. We had a bunch of great sashimi and sushi, but the highlight of the dinner, without question, was the corn barnacle.

You had to pull the actual barnacle out of the stony shell that it had created for itself. The barnacle was about the size of a marble and at least a couple of them were still (briefly) alive. It didn't taste like much, but eating something that had been scraped off the bottom of a boat (or maybe a dying whale?) was pretty cool.

I forgot to take a picture, but here's one that I snagged from Google Images. Mmm mmm good!

Posted by pmk at 11:28 PM | Comments (0)

July 13, 2006

Space Porn

NASA has posted an awesome video. They strapped a camera to the right solid rocket booster on the shuttle and let it run for the whole launch, separation and splashdown sequence. It's pretty cool stuff, especially when the booster separates and the shuttle just zooms right past it. Click below to check it out:

Posted by pmk at 9:10 PM | Comments (3)

July 11, 2006

A Cat's Forehead

Today's Japanese phrase is "neko no hitai". It means "a cat's forehead" and is used to describe small or narrow spaces. The example in my Japanese lesson today was "uchi no niwa wa neko no hitai desu": "My house's garden is a cat's forehead".

My Japanese teacher asked me if we had a similar expression in English. The best I could come up with was "the size of a postage stamp". Of course, this idiom, translated into Japanese, was as humourous to her as "a cat's forehead" is to me.

Posted by pmk at 3:42 AM | Comments (2)

July 10, 2006

Four Seasons Debacle

Yukari has already documented our recent lackluster meal at the Four Seaons Maranouichi over at Fugu Diaries, but I thought I'd add my two cents.

We don't normally eat in hotel resataurants (there are, of course, exceptions), but on this night, we wanted great service and familiar, though not spectacular, food in a beautiful setting. So, we hopped in a cab and set off to the Four Seasons Maranouchi.

We were graciously reseated after originally being put at a table right next to the entrance to the kitchen. But after that, the service took a bunch of weird turns. We both received menus and I was given the winelist. When I opened my menu, though, it had no prices on it. At first, I thought the restaurant had borrowed a page from high-end sushi joints: no prices anywhere. But, no, Yukari's menu had prices on it. So they had given my menu to Yukari and vice versa. Personally, I think that having a copy of the menu without prices is a silly affectation in today's world, but if you're going to do it, at least get it right.

When the sommelier brought the first wine, there was another odd moment. He poured both of us wine to taste. When he did the same thing the second time, I asked him, jokingly, what he was going to do when my wife insisted it was corked and I claimed it was superb. The blank stare proved that irony is usually lost on a Japanese audience.

These snafus, along with the other screwups that Yukari writes about, made for a disappointing meal. A double disappointment, since Four Seasons is my hotel of choice when I travel and we've had some wonderful vacations at Four Seaons resorts. If the service in the restaurant is emblamatic of the service in general, the hotel's overnight guests are probably disappointed as well.

Posted by pmk at 6:32 PM | Comments (0)

July 6, 2006

Hamachi: Ad Hoc VPNs

I got turned on to Hamachi recently. It's a free (as in beer, not speech) piece of software that creates a secure connection between multiple computers (Windows, MacOS or Linux). The connected systems appear, to each other, to be stitting on the same local network, so all of the services that you can use when your laptop and desktop are in the same place (like Windows file sharing, iTunes music sharing, games) can now be used wherever you happen to be.

This sort of virtual private network (VPN) software is nothing new. But the ease of setup and use that Hamachi provides is. You just install the software, choose a nickname for yourself and you're up. It takes about 60 seconds to do and once you've done it, you can join and create networks at will. It even works if both systems are behind firewalls (more on this later).

One thing I've been using Hamachi for is to tunnel my traffic safely out of public WiFi hotspots. I fire up Hamachi, then funnel all my traffic back through a proxy server running on my PC at home. It's encrypted end-to-end, so anyone who is sniffing wifi packets won't see anything. And I don't need to pay for an extra service--it just piggybacks over my existing fiber connection at home.

Hamachi's business model is interesting. The software and basic service is free, but they have a "premium" service that costs $4.95/month per license. Many of the features that the premium service enables aren't interesting to me (increased number of members in your network, ability to make other members "network administrators"), but the one big win is that you get access to the "high bandwidth" mediation servers.

Since Hamachi networks are created peer-to-peer, most connections don't generate significant amounts of traffic that the Hamachi servers need to mediate. But if both endpoints are behind firewalls, a mediation server is required. Non-paying customers get use the "low bandwidth" relays, while paying customers get access to the "high bandwidth" relays. When I've needed to use the low bandwidth relays, they have been a bit swampy at times. I may sign up for a license at some point to get access to the better relays and to support the service.

Posted by pmk at 2:43 AM | Comments (2)

July 5, 2006

Berliner Morgenpost Collectible Cards

I spent the bulk of May in Berlin, one of my favorite cities in the world. One Saturday, we trekked out to a flea market on the Western edge of Berlin. One couple was looking for stuff to furnish a new apartment with, another was hunting family photo albums, but I had my heart set on finding something German, paper and cool. So, while Yukari dug around looking for glassware, I hit the stacks.

Tucked in between a children's book and a random German novel, I hit paydirt. I found three colored envelopes, made of thin, folded cardboard, each with a different motif. Inside were cards, about the size of a 3×5 index card, printed on thin, yellowing paper, with a cool picture on the front and an explanatory paragraph on the back. Each set had a different theme: world history, cultural history of Europe and (wait for it) outer space! The very best part: they were printed in the early 30s and all of the text is written in fraktur.

I'm scanning them in as I get time, but here's one awesome example. The arrow, pointing to a totally random point in a make-believe galaxy, says "Here's where we live". Click on it to see others:

Posted by pmk at 5:30 AM | Comments (0)

July 3, 2006

All of America Wept

Dirk Schwieger, a German living in Tokyo, did an interesting comic blog over at LiveJournal. He took "assignments" from folks on the Internet (like eat some fugu) and then created a comic about the experience. He did 24 assignments, ranging from staying at a love hotel to commenting on the role of gender in Japanese society.

While going through his archives, I found one interesting linguistic tidbit. Young Japanese have started using the phrase "zenbei ga naita", which translates as "all of america cried", to mean something unimportant or uninteresting. I was hoping for some sort of schadenfreude-y explanation of the phrase's origins, but apparently Hollywood is to blame for this one.

According to a Mainichi story, now sadly gone from the web but paraphrased here:

The phrase 全米が泣いた (zenbei ga naita), literally "it brought the whole of America to tears", is an empty bit of salestalk used liberally in movie advertising in Japan; the kids, having been promised weepiness and then left the theatre dry-eyed too many times, are now using it to mean "something of no importance".

Posted by pmk at 8:05 PM | Comments (0)