27 December 2008

iPhone Japan Upgrade - Address Book problems

I just upgraded from a different Softbank phone to an iPhone here in Japan (and so far, I love it). One glitch I encountered that may bite other people, though, is the character encoding of the address information file.

Softbank, if you ask, will upload all of the address information from your old phone to the Softbank website, where you can download it as a CSV file. First off, you have to do that from the Japanese-language website, so it's not trivial for English readers: go to http://mb.softbank.jp/mb/iphone/sync_memory/ and click on the button near the bottom that says "今すぐ移動する".

This will take you to a login screen. Although I had a printout of the username and password from the Softbank store, that's not the username/password it wants. You should have received a message on your phone which contains the username/password you actually need. Once you enter that, you can download your information as a CSV file.

The basic idea here is a good one: now that you have a CSV file, you can import those contacts to your Address Book application on Mac OS X, and from there you can sync with the iPhone. The problem I encountered is that the file from Softbank is in Shift-JIS character encoding, but the Address Book app on Mac OS X wants UTF-8 encoding. If you try to directly import it, you'll get garbage (or at least, I did).

There are probably some utilities that can convert it (on Windows, I would have used SakuraEdit). But, since I know Python, I just used a tiny python script:

% python

import codecs
# SAB_20081228.csv should be changed to whatever name you downloaded
# from Softbank
f = codecs.open("SAB_20081228.csv",'r','sjis')
fo = codecs.open("SAB_20081228_utf8.csv",'w','utf8')

Now I could import the converted file to Address Book and I was off and running!

And the App Store is really cool.

21 December 2008

Only in Japan

So today I took a long bikeride up the Tama river, turned back at Noborito and followed the Odaku-sen back to Shimokitazawa. At Chitose-funabashi, I saw a form of entertainment that surely must be limited to Japan.

They were having an opening ceremony for the new "hiroba" (wide place), and there was a stage with a performer and a crowd of a couple hundred standing around (like a lot of suburban stations on weekends there were also an assortment of vendors selling various things from stalls). The performer's main gig was... he could imitate (very well) the announcements that you hear in trains and train stations when you travel in Japan.

"doa ga shimarimasu" -> The doors are closing
"densha ga mairimasu" -> The train is arriving
"kore wa nagano yuki joetsu shinkansen" -> This is the Joetsu Shinkansen bound for Nagano

Sometimes he just sort of riffed on these, other times he would simulate a complete journey (he took everyone on the Shinkansen to Osaka at one point). For the shinkansen especially, he threw in sound effects of the Shinkansen at various speeds. He could do both male and female voices, although he mostly did male; he could also copy the English announcements you get on the Shinkansen and other major lines.

The crowd applauded politely after each segment. Sorry to those of you dying to go see him yourselves, I didn't get his name ;-).

16 November 2008

Coolest Projector since 1990

In 1990, I picked up a tiny Sony video projector which was the hit of parties for years. TI has the new new, though:

TI Pico at Engadget

Sold through the iTunes store, natch.

09 November 2008

04 November 2008

Cheap Thrills

I feel guilty for enjoying these trailer recuts as much as I do.

TS2 + Dark Knight

01 November 2008

Beware of Peacock

I was in Singapore in early October and saw this awesome warning sign. I have to admit it's not something that would have occurred to me to watch out for!

From Singapore

Click to see larger version at Picasa.

Japan is a place where

you can stand in the same location *, look one way and see this ultramodern scene:

From Tokyo

then turn around and see this one:
From Tokyo

* Meguro Atre

28 September 2008

Ghibli Layout Exhibition

Today I went to the Studio Ghibli Layout Exhibition at the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art, curated by my friend Tomoe Moriyama. It was awesome! They had 1300 pieces of layout art from Studio Ghibli, representing all the movies.

Most of the exhibit was, not surprisingly, forbidden to photograph, but at the end they had several *huge* reproductions of Layouts:

From Tokyo

From Tokyo

(look at the floorboards to get an idea how big these were)

From Tokyo

This was the line to get into the the gift shop at the end. Talk about lost sales!

From Tokyo

They had a really cool activity at the end of the tour. They handed out little round paper stickers, and there was a table of black markers, so you could make your own "kurosuke" (from the dust bunny spirits in the movie My Neighbor Totoro).

From Tokyo

And then they had a lot of wallspace to put your korosuke up on:

From Tokyo

I mean, really a lot of wall space:

From Tokyo

This was a fantastic exhibition and a real opportunity for any Ghibli fans. Unfortunately, today was the last day, so you won't be able to go again! If you do get a chance to get one of the catalogs, though, go for it: it is fantastic. I'm not sure yet, but I think it actually has all 1300 layouts from the show.

20 September 2008

Hyperrealistic painting site


This site has painting of various qualities, and it looks like they were mostly done by copying photographs. But the cool thing is that you can watch the painting get made -- the software they use can do an auto-time-lapse of making the image. Click on the little button above each image that says ★動画 and, if you have Java installed, you can watch the painting get painted.

My favorite was DIR EN GREY, #2507.

Language Geeking - Equivalent of Japanese Counters in English

One of the hardest things for a native English speaker studying Japanese (or Chinese) is the idea of counters, or as linguists call them, classifiers.

In Japanese when counting things, you can't just use the number: you have to append a counter to the number to refer to that thing. You can't see, "As for pencils, I had three"; you have to say, "As for pencils, I had three-long-thin-things". This is a generic rule, with lots of different counters for different kinds of things, which need to be memorized.

In fact, as Japanese teachers like to point out, we do have counters in English, but they're quite rare. The famous example is "sheets" for paper. You can't have "one paper", you have "one sheet of paper" (you can have one scientific paper, but that's a different use of the word paper). I recently realized that 'pair' is a counter for both pants and scissors; it functions exactly like 'sheet of paper' (and all of them are excellent analogies to how counters function in Japanese).

I just finished reading Steven Pinker's new book, "Words and Rules," and as you might expect from the most prominent linguist of this era, at one point he rattles off a whole list of English classifiers! I didn't want to lose track of it, so here it is.
blade of grass
piece of fruit (you can't have "two fruits")
strand of hair *
slice of bread
stick of wood
sheet of paper
head of cattle

* I think this is a weak example -- in the classic joke the customer says, "Waiter! There's a hair in my soup!" not "Waiter! There's a strand of hair in my soup!" I think people do routinely say "one hair", "two hairs" etc.

08 September 2008

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30 August 2008

Beach House Happiness

Last night I went to maybe the coolest place I've been in Japan. My friend Yoko took me to the Blue Moon Cafe, a beach house out on the beach in Hayama, near Kamakura.

Beach house means it's not a real structure: it's a roof over the sand. In the case of the Blue Moon, it's actually done with bamboo for both the uprights and the roof (the more commercial beach houses near Kamakura are tin over a steel frame). Hayama is in general a lot less crowded and a lot less tacky than the more accessible beaches. I was there in the evening and it was raining, at some points intensely; but we just hung out underneath the bamboo roof.

Like the tourist season in Shonan in general, things are only happening during the summer. Blue Moon takes this to the full extent: it's only open in July and August, and the night we went was the next-to-last night for the year. It is seriously right on the beach, 20 yards from the surf. In addition to the bar/kitchen area and the stage, Blue Moon has a set of booths across the back of the beach house that range from selling hand-made locally-designed clothing, to promoting sustainable conservation measures, to a really good Chinese tea house.

Blue Moon has live music, dance, or other performances almost every night. Last night it was three guys who play traditional Okinawan music, with the lead musician and singer on sanshin, one guitarist (not visible in photo), and a multi-instrumentalist on the right who at various points played mandolin, violin, and even trombone! I really enjoyed hearing them, although I'm sure Okinawan folk music isn't for everybody.

The crowd at Blue Moon was great. For one thing, although it doesn't show in the pictures, in Japan there's effectively no drinking age and there are no laws about separating children from adults having a good time, so there were all sort of kids at Blue Moon running back and forth through the crowd and playing on the beach. And, the crowd was extremely friendly and mellow, lots of people said hi and we met a number of folks. There were a surprisingly large number of foreigners, which appears to be kind of true of Hayama and Shonan in general. However, they weren't the obnoxious foreigners that you sometimes find in Roppongi; it was more foreigners who seem to have settled into Japan for a bit and are comfortable there.

Blue Moon was a great experience and I hope to be able to get there for the 2009 version!

A Great Bit of Analysis, and Doomed to be Ignored

This excellent article in the New York Times is about how the rich and poor fare under Republican and Democratic administrations.

But few outside the New York intelligentsia will read it, I suspect, for the article takes a fantastic lead ("New Study Confirms that under Republicans, the Rich get Richer and Poor Left Behind") and buries it under multiple layers of introduction that will drive away any but the most intellectual reader.

  • The headline is a question, implying that the issue is under debate. In fact, Bartels' book (which is what the article is about) is shockingly clear about the historical record that Republican administrations are bad for everyone but the rich.

  • The headline talks about history, which is one of the best ways to get rid of any mainstream readers (for better or for worse, most American audiences don't care about history; those that do, watch The History Channel). If this was an article about history, that would be fine, but it's not: this is actually an article about politics.

  • The first two paragraphs start out with a tour through history and end up at democrats vs. federalists. He doesn't actually get to the lead of the article until his fourth paragraph about the Great Partisan Growth Divide. My friend Bill Polson routinely sends around example of this new style of quasi-reporting from the LA Times. I don't know if it comes from new NY Times style guidelines or merely from the writers wanting to feel like they're prose stylists, but I think it clearly makes the article less accessible as a source of information.

  • I'm very much a math-friendly person and even I found the explanation of how many percentiles get measured, what the measurement intervals were and so forth to be very dry. I realize he's trying to ensure himself against innumeracy in the readership, but the result makes the article even less casually readable.

The reason the above things bothered me so much is that they talk to why, when objective measurement clearly shows Republicans are much worse for most of the people in the country, many if not most people vote Republican on a regular basis. The contents of this article should be a incendiary bomb to the majority of Republican supporters, middle-class voters who may be church-goers but who also want to see their children make it through college. Those Republican you put in office are denying your Children their Future!

But you can't pose that kind of urgent issue in terms of historical trends if you want to affect the people who most need the information. If you look at Bartels' various quantiles of families, the ones at the bottom are not the most likely to read an article that starts out talking about history. You need to frame the discussion in clear ways that affect people now, not by placing it in context as a continuation of a fundamental debate begun at the very founding of the country. It's not that the historical approach is wrong; it's that taking such a highbrow path to explaining the facts, rather than the likely consequences on the reader, means the message is much less likely to get to the people who would suffer the most from a Republican administration.

As a Democrat, I'm continually appalled by the way the Republicans in the last twenty years have been more successful at packaging the issues where they are strong (Democrats want to Deny you the ability to Practice your Faith!) than Democrats are at packaging the issues where they are strong (Study Confirms Republicans are good only for the Rich!). Alan Blinder is a smart guy and a good writer, but his article seems to continue in that bad-packaging tradition that has lost so many elections for Democrats.

25 August 2008

The eternal question: Why?

While looking for a good tutorial on object-oriented Python for my Python seminar, I found this excellent article on how to write a solver for all Sudoku puzzles in about 100 lines of Python. I great article, but unless you're particularly interested in programming just scroll down to the hilarious section titled "Why?".

Denial of service attack on human intellect, indeed!

Stratfor's Latest

For some time I've subscribed to a free email blast from Stratfor.com, which I find very informative. In particular it has a lot to say about Georgia and how this crisis was clearly predictable from the resolution in Kosovo.

Georgia and Kosovo: A Single Intertwined Crisis

Say what you will about the Russian regime, I think if you follow Stratfor's analysis you'll see that Kosovar independence was very problematic in terms of international law, and Georgia is a surprisingly parallel situation (just not one aligned with the interests of the United States). When the Kosovo independence debate was raging, Stratfor's email blast noted that it would provoke a Russian reaction and correctly suggested that it would likely come in Georgia.

Why Hollywood is a Bunch of Idiots

There's something about the Hollywood culture that produces behavior of such titanically bad logic that Spock's brain would explode. Today's exhibit:

Batman to reboot Superman

Mind-boggling logic error summary (other illogic is left as a fun exercise for readers!):

  1. Because a Batman movie is successful, Superman movies will be successful.

  2. Because the last Superman movie wasn't successful, it must be all Bryan Singer's fault. *

    But the real kicker is...

  3. Because 2 superhero movies were successful this year, we're going to make 8 superhero movies a year! That way we'll be four times as successful!

My god, does no one remember the gluts of movies past (westerns, scifi, fantasy et al have all had their turn at the plate)? Making 8 movies a year at Warner, plus whatever gets made elsewhere, is the surest way to kill the whole genre and make sure Warner loses money on 8 movies.

Quick advice for Mr. Robinov: write 8 superhero movie scripts a year. Make the one or two best ones into movies. You'll make more money, and we won't hate you.

I've never met Mr. Robinov, but I've met some Hollywood executives and they were generally smart people. That's why I'm always puzzled when I read these things: it seems like more than the individuals, there must be some aspect of the system that causes this sort of bad thinking.

* In the end, directors get a fair deal, though, since if the movie is successful everyone assumes it was all the director's genius.

21 August 2008

Neat 3D Game

Beautiful implementation of this idea!


Courtesy of Lori King's FB.

02 August 2008

For those who run websites

Not particularly news, but I thought well-summarized. Quoted from the presentation at http://plone.tv/media/689203036/view:
Some Web 2.0 Characteristics:
  • A lot of users are accessing the top items with high bandwidth
  • The "Long Tail" is being accessed constantly (by web search crawlers)
  • A lot of personalization, stale content for logged-in users is no option

We're running into all of these even on siggraph.org (not a particularly high-volume site), which is why I was watching the video.

18 July 2008

Why the Web was Invented, July 2008 version

We've spent 13 years working on the web, so we could watch stuff like this. So sweet!


Go Jibjab!

27 June 2008

Wedding Gifts... from San Francisco!

So I attended a wedding here, and per custom I gave a gift of cash, but in turn received a gift. The major portion of the gift I received was the "Ring Bell Catalog Gift," a system for weddings where the recipient gets a catalog and a postage-reply card. You can pick any gift you'd like from the catalog.

I was browsing through the foods section of the catalog, and the World Food section looks like the Sunday paper in SF! They have a selection of items from Bi-rite on 18th, Scharffen Berger, California Harvest Ranch Market in Pac Heights, and Leonard's 2001 on Polk. Ah, food shopping in San Francisco...

23 June 2008

Endorphin High

With Nanke- and Nagasaki-san's wedding last weekend, I didn't get to the gym for a little bit. Man, every time you work out, it makes you feel so much better, you can't believe you ever skipped. Our bodies are hardwired to make us like it and still it's hard to get around to!

11 June 2008

MacBook update

Last week I was sad b/c my Mac kept crashing (kernel panic) and I had to take it into the Apple Store (happily I bought AppleCare for it so I wasn't worried about the charges). After keeping it for 5 days, they couldn't find any problems with it even though they could see the kernel panics in the panic log.

After I got it back, I tested a little more carefully, and I realized there was probably never any problem with the MacBook, but the Time Capsule I bought a few months ago has grown some data problem that crashes the Mac every time I try to access the incremental backup file. The reason I thought it was a computer problem is because the Mac automatically started a new incremental backup every 30 minutes or so, and boom.

So, really, I should take the Mac and the Time Capsule together to the Apple Store, sigh. I might do that eventually but for now I'll have to go without backup (yeep).

Just for the sake of people who might run into this and Google it, the kernel panic message is below the f. Not to be viewed by humans!


Thu May 29 10:13:43 2008
panic(cpu 1 caller 0x0031678A): "btree_swap_node: about to write corrupt node!\n"@/SourceCache/xnu/xnu-1228.4.31/bsd/hfs/hfs_btreeio.c:197
Backtrace, Format - Frame : Return Address (4 potential args on stack)
No mapping exists for frame pointer
Backtrace terminated-invalid frame pointer 0xbffffe68

07 June 2008

Butter Shortage and Journalism or lack thereof

The least-expected event of the year in Japan is the butter shortage. For a couple months now, it's been almost impossible to find butter in the stores. Japan is such a consumer culture that I assumed this was just a local phenomenon, but it isn't -- it's nationwide and several months old.

Sadly, almost all of the press reports I've seen, after reporting the basic facts, talk about how this is "one more example of the growing global food shortage." That makes for a good story... but one that doesn't actually jive with the facts. The Japanese English-language press actually has the most insightful reporting that I've found: see the Asahi Shimbun's summary.

Here are the facts that make me doubt this is "one more example of the growing global food shortage":
  • Japan's domestic dairy industry is long-established and well-organized.
  • The majority of Japan's dairy consumption is domestic -- for milk, approximately 100% (for cheese, it's mostly imported, which leads the overall figure to be 60% domestic).
  • For butter, domestic production accounts for 86% of production.
  • There is still plenty of cream in Japan. Those of you with the slightest exposure to dairy farms know that butter is made from... cream.
  • Japanese retail butter prices are high, about 2x American butter prices. Given that there's no butter shortage in the U.S. (at least not that I've heard about), this makes it seem unlikely that there's a global butter shortage.
  • Japanese butter tariffs are also very high in order to support those high domestic prices. According to WTO as referenced at this blog post, butter tariffs are 30% by value plus 1200 yen per kilogram. If you bought butter at U.S. retail prices and imported it to Japan, you would pay twice as much in duty as the butter cost you.
  • And here, I think, is the real keystone to the problem: since 2006, domestic butter production has dropped by 11%. This is expected to continue for another couple of years.
Really? What's going on with the last item? Well, two years ago there was a dairy glut in Japan. Farmers couldn't sell excess milk, and as mentioned above there's no infrastructure for a cheese industry, so the milk was being poured out. There was a calf cull (killing off some percentage of the dairy herd) in order to try and rebalance supply and demand coordinated by the government. As explained in this endearing blog post from a Japanese dairy farmer, it takes 2 years for a calf to become a productive milch cow... and coincidentally, it's about two years since the calf cull, so the results of it are hitting right now. By the way, in the long run the idea that Japan perhaps needed to cut back its dairy industry is not unreasonable: the low birthrate here means that the number of children is shrinking, and children are disproportionate consumers of dairy products.

In other words, the story as reported by the mainstream media (that this is merely one more part of the "growing global food shortage" story) makes no sense to me. What is much more clearly supported by the facts is:
  • Japan reduced their dairy supply two years ago in a way that took two years to reach the market.
  • This relatively small change disproportionately impacted butter rather than milk or cream (perhaps butter is the lowest-value-added choice for what to make from milk? Also, read the endearing blog post for a non-obvious connection between the butter shortage and the powdered skim milk glut)
  • Japan is prevented from availing itself of cheap international butter by a ludicrously high tariff, undoubtedly designed to protect those same domestic dairy farmers who had to kill all their calves two years ago.
I hate to sound like an Economist reporter, but the information I can find says that this is a clear result of government intervention in the dairy market. The tariff barriers are the fundamental cause of the shortage (Japan could easily afford to buy butter on the international market otherwise), and within those barriers they slightly underestimated the demand for dairy products.

With apologies to all those who (rightly) worry about a possible global food shortage and would like to use this as supporting evidence, this particular event seems like it needs to be marked up to domestic government actions. I'm disappointed but not surprised that it isn't perceived that way: the press likes tying this into the 'global food shortage' story because that story sells papers, and of course the Japanese bureaucrats would love to place the blame externally rather than admit it's the necessary consequence of the calf cull they organized two years ago.

This misdirection would also suit the Japanese domestic dairy industry because it avoids having anyone suggest the trivial fix: lower the tariff, and suddenly you'll have plenty of butter. The domestic industry doesn't want that in the long term because they're not efficient enough to compete with overseas producers.

06 June 2008

25 May 2008

Random thoughts from Korea

  • Koreans have a very "flexible" approach to traffic. When a light first turns reds, all the cars stop behind the stop line. As the light goes on, though, the crosswalk area slowly fills with cars, pedestrians, and the ubiquitous delivery scooters, until the green clears everything out again.
  • Korea has a lot more space than Tokyo, and is car-oriented rather than train-oriented (even though the subway works very well).
  • Right turn on red is interpreted in Seoul to mean, "I should be able to plow through the intersection and turn right without stopping, and will honk at anyone who impedes my ability to do so."
  • Korean food is good. But I knew that.
  • I love all the 'unofficial' food sellers in Korea. Tents, trailers, and trucks are found anywhere there's a little space to pitch one. The last night I was in Korea we stopped at a tent in a parking lot and had (Korean beer and) a yummy light soup broth and a dish that combined a purplish tofu with a green Okra-like vegetable soaked in sesame oil. It was great, even though the tables were stamped sheet metal (with a Korean BBQ fitting, though!) and the chairs were basically overturned buckets.

    When Jinny paid by credit card, they had a credit card machine attached to a cell phone, so they could accept credit cards without having wired power.
  • The Korean subway has this awesome station that's full of completely fake rock walls. It's a great idea but they could take some realism pointers from Caltrans:

26 April 2008

A Eco-nomical Solution

One of the great things about Singapore is that there are all sorts of yummy fruit drinks available everywhere you go -- Lime Juice is a staple. I was walking around last Sunday and dropped into a random cafe to put up a drink for "take-away" and instead of the full plastic cup, they had this ingenious solution.

The plastic bag weighs a fraction of what the cup does and of course generates way less landfill space and trash handling. And, the hanging strap actually make it more convenient to carry around to boot! Just be careful not to poke too hard with the straw...

There's a similar hanging strap they use there (I didn't get a picture of it) that they use for hot beverages like coffee, so you don't have to hold the hot cup (nor do you have to double-cup it). Why haven't these things spread, I wonder...

21 April 2008

Awesome (and also, a pretty effective ad)

On Apr 21, 2008, at 3:12 PM, Andrew G wrote:

> This 1-minute Discovery Channel ad beautifully merges technology with sheer joy:
> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V5BxymuiAxQ&feature=dir

09 April 2008

Springtime in Tokyo / 東京の春

Sakura along the Meguro river near my apartment.


07 April 2008

A Classic Reference Work Online: Composing Pictures

In the Cinematography & Composition for Computer Graphics lecture that I've given here and there, I always mention the great reference book by Donald L. Graham, "Composing Pictures," with a touch of sadness: it's out of print, and its price on eBay puts it out of the reach of students! However, someone appears to have taken pity on the students of the world and made a version of the book on scribd. This was the first time I'd been to scribd, it looks pretty nice so hopefully they'll stay in business!

30 March 2008

Today's Japanese Lesson

早い者勝ちです / はやいものかちです / hayai mono kachi desu
-> lit. "The swift are victory"

(used when English speakers would say, "First come, first served")

Tokyo Anime Fair

So on Friday I got a chance to go to the Tokyo Anime Fair. The funniest part of the whole thing is that just inside the entrance I ran into a friend of mine from Pixar literally ten feet inside the entrance, and he was there with his friend Yoko who used to work at Polygon. I ended up going out to dinner with them and yet another friend who also used to work at Polygon!

But on to the work. Next year will definitely be the year of robots-as-characters. Besides Pixar's Wall-E, there's Fireball from Disney Japan:

The white robot is a girl, there's a much larger multi-legged robot described as a "grouchy old man". This is one of the results of Disney's local content initiative, the other one was a new Stitch series, apparently being animated by Madhouse.

Another robot series (26x22min) was D.A.N.D.Y. from Red Rover studios:

Red Rover's been around, and the director is supposed to be from Disney's direct-to-video division. I don't know if it's his influence or not, but the animation in the trailer was great compared to most of what I saw at the show. You can see the trailer online at http://www.dandyrobot.com/. Besides the big maquette above, they had a whole bunch of the robots from the show in miniature:

My favorite thing at the show was actually a self-made CG film in the "Creator's Corner". It's a great storybook look in a film called "Jack in the Box" by Tomomi Masuda that she produces nights and weekends away from her studio job. There's a website at http://www.studio-tbox.jp/ but it doesn't doesn't give a good sense of how charming the CG look of the film is. As she says in her artists' statement, "I try to produce work which conveys the realms of fairy tales and nostalgia."

22 March 2008

A Very Personal Animation

From the YouTube 2007 Awards

How We Met

20 March 2008

Now that's a videogame


Has anybody seen Crayon Physics Deluxe in person? It certainly looks awesome in the video!

17 March 2008

Piperoidz -- Way cool new Japanese figures

I went to the Konica-Minolta Plaza in Shinjuku to check out the Geoscape exhibition, which was great. But actually the coolest thing I saw was in an ecology-themed exhibition next door: Piperoids!

It may not be immediately evident from the pictures why Piperoids are so cool -- they come as cardboard tubes, and nothing but cardboard tubes. You assemble them yourself from a bunch (usually 5) of cardboard tubes.

They're really an ingenious set of paper-folding and tube-nesting ideas (some of the tubes differ in diameter by exactly one thickness, so that they can function as bushings for each other!). They generally look cool, and there's a lot of clever stuff in how they go together. I don't know if they've made it to the states yet, but keep your eyes out for them!

16 March 2008

Spring is almost here in Tokyo

In Japan, the marker of spring is cherry blossom season, which is usually around end of March / beginning of April in Tokyo. The National Meteorological Agency keeps a running forecast of Cherry Blossom times here.

My more personal method is to check the progress of the buds of the cherry trees along the Meguro-gawa near my house. And they're agreeing with the Agency -- it's close. Here's a shot of the developing buds on some of the cherry trees just outside.

If you've never experienced Cherry Blossom time in Japan, it's an incredible experience -- but one very hard to describe in words. I can't wait!

15 March 2008

Nassim Taleb's "Fooled by Probability"

On a recent plane flight, I saw a copy of Nassim Taleb's "Fooled by Probability" and picked it up. Taleb is the author of the excellent "The Black Swan", a book about extremely rare events with a large effect on the world, and is a New-York-based trader who has managed to pull his living out of making slightly better probabilistic bets than others.

"Fooled by Probability" is a book about the general confusion that results in the human brain when confronted with matter relating to probability. This isn't a new theme -- there's some great material on the same subject in Richard Dawkins' seminal "The Selfish Gene" -- but Taleb definitely brings interesting and relevant anecdotes, and a little bit of research, to the topic.

He talks repeatedly about how we 'prefer the narrative' -- that is, we will search for a causal narrative in any series of events -- and the everyday manifestation of this in such inane headlines as "Dow down 3 points on inflation rumors". Yet, he's not foolishly prescriptive: he recognizes that the preference for the narrative is not something we can choose to discard, it's wired into us just as is the fact we remember emotions more readily associated with smells than sights.

And that's exactly the problem with the book: this book is a collection of observations and insights about humans dealing with probability, not a book that's actually about something. In that sense, it's clearly an earlier book than The Black Swan: by the time he wrote the second book, he had progressed as an author to the point where he could put together many of these same observations and insights into a more coherent book which is about something.

Thus, if you've already read "The Black Swan", reading "Fooled by Probability" is more about visualizing the progression of Taleb as an author than about new material on probability. It's interesting enough to read that I wouldn't recommend against it for that reason; but, if you haven't read either one yet, pick up "The Black Swan" rather than this one (and if you haven't read "The Selfish Gene" yet, that's your first stop!).

17 February 2008

Summer Days with Coo

At the Japan Media Arts Festival yesterday, I attended a screening of Summer Days with Coo / クウと夏休み, a charming film about a fourth-grader who befriends a Kappa.

Kappas are mythical Japanese water sprites, surprisingly strong for their size and completely at home in water. They're often used as a cautionary tale to keep Japanese kids away from the local ponds ("Don't go swimming in that pond, or the Kappa will get you!") and are famed for their trickery. Also, they have a wet spot in the middle of the top of their head, which they have to keep moist in order to stay alive.

The film is classic 2D animation, and while the story isn't epic in any way -- it's almost entirely concerned with Coo and his host family -- it's touching. It does open with a Finding-Nemo-like scene of Coo's trauma, but in general it's in the same vein as "My Neighbor Totoro," just a little less compelling all around.

The animation ranges from awesome (there's a beautifully animated Chinese dragon in the middle of the movie) to awful (some of the interactions with other kids at the end are just disturbingly off-model), but overall the story is well-told. It's too bad the rest of the world doesn't know what Kappa are: the storytelling is completely international, but if you don't know about Kappa a lot of the scenes will be a little mysterious.

Ironically, that wasn't the film we went to the festival to watch. We went there to see a very different film that showed just before Coo: Koji Yamamura's "A Country Doctor," a very trippy piece of surrealistic animation based on Kafka's story. It was well-executed in its own way, and intellectually the visuals were worth watching. However, it was the opposite of Coo in that it doesn't function very well as a piece of entertainment -- you have to watch it for the sake of the visuals.

01 February 2008

Hold it!

In case you haven't run into this, one of Improv Everywhere's best actions yet.


28 January 2008

Awesome photography hacking

Mesmerizing, I was especially fascinated by the Hummingbird & Dragonfly.

Just let the movies play: Vision Research.

21 January 2008

When do we get this for MUNI?

And, as if you needed another reason to buy an iPhone...

Real-time transit map

19 January 2008

Awesome, awesome things to do with your Wiimote

This guy at CMU has definitely been thinking about creative ways to use the Wiimote! The head-tracking demo is righteous. Leo Bob sez check it out.


05 January 2008

Great book on Japanese Film

My interest in (and even knowledge of) Japanese film started in graduate school. My friend Ken Carson offhandedly said, "Hey, I'm going to go see The Seven Samurai this weekend, want to come?"

"What's that?" I replied, never having heard of the film.

"Oh," Ken answered, "it's the greatest action movie ever made."

I thought that was a bit overhyped, but it certainly piqued my interest, so I went. The next Monday another friend asked me, "So, what did you think of Seven Samurai?"

"Oh," I answered, "it's the greatest action movie ever made."

Since then I've not only watched most Kurosawa movies but moved into the more esoteric realms of Yasujiro Ozu and others. Then, along came Donald Richie's One Hundred Years of Japanese Film, which I picked up at Kinokuniya last weekend.

A Hundred Years of Japanese Film cover

This is a dense but great book surveying the rise of the Japanese industry (at its height, in 1960, Japan made 537 movies) and the unusual aspects of the industry such as the long tradition of benshi, narrators used for silent movies who surivived in Japan for decades. It also covers fairly carefully the fall of the industry in the 60s and 70s: like everywhere, television was the main culprit, but the Japanese industry's response was in the end less effective than Hollywood's.

There are longish sections on Ozu, Kurosawa, and Mizoguchi but the real appeal of the book is its thoroughness: every studio and many, many directors are described, as are hundreds of films. I wrote a longer review of the book here.