Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's Day Round Up

I arrived safely at Koriyama Station after a night's travel, the last person to arrive on New Year’s Eve at the Tsuchiya’s house. I will write more about the train later. The weather has been snowy in Koriyama but no where near the biblical proportions that came down on Shikaoi on Dec 29th. In the end, it makes good weather for playing inside with the Wii that Santa brought. Also, people playing the Wii makes good pictures. Despite a feast for dinner New Year’s Eve we sat down at midnight to eat a tradition meal of soba which I thoroughly enjoyed. Everyone was able to role out of bed in time for a traditional breakfast of mochi (pounded rice cakes) and pickles (shown), and then all the boys headed out to shovel and between the four of us under Yukipapa’s direction we had the property cleared very quickly. How rare the occurrence of 8cm of snow was was illustrated by how long it took us to find enough snow removal gear for four people. For dinner I can imagine more pickled everything. The reason for this is locked in Japanese history. In previous generations stores were closed for a week at New Years and without the modern convenience of refrigeration, people had to depend on imperishable foods. I’ve learned to like Japanese pickles far more than Canadian pickles but eating them morning, noon and night is a bit much for me. Anyways, I can't say too much more about dinner because it's still a couple of hours away.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Koriyama Bound!

I'll be out of contact for the next day as I will be on the train to Koriyama. I'm well prepared for it with a full iPod and a good book. BB

Friday, December 28, 2007

These pictures have other meanings

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New Years Holidays Count Down

This is going to have to be a speed posting because the office is about to get very busy. In less than an hour the town basically shuts down for New Year's. In a welcome change, the office bought everyone soba for lunch. Also, a New Year's display sprang up in Chomin Hall where I work over the course of the afternoon.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

My special plans for New Years

In response to queries about my New Year's plans - or perhaps my over-hyping of them - I thought I'd outline my trip to Koriyama. I leave Sunday on the overnight journey by train to Fukushima. Why train? I love trains. No lines. Lots of room. If you have the time, an overnight train might be the best way to go. I say "might" because I've never taken an overnight train before, just the normal kind. I get to sweep under the ocean in the tunnel between Aomori-ken and Hokkaido that preceded the English-French Chunnel. It's also cheaper than flying, though once all is said and done, only by $30. Hopefully it will be light as I travel through the snow encrusted peaks and valleys of Northern Japan in the early morning hours before arriving in Koriyama. In Koriyama I will spend a week with my old host family the Tsuchiya's, a connection that might possibly be stronger than when I was living there in 1999-2000. A lot has changed since I was hosted there 7 years ago that I won't get into here but I feel very fortunate to be invited back for my 5th visit in 3 years. The good news is that all of Kumama's and Yukipapa's university age sons will be coming home for the New year's holiday. Making a total of 4 over-sized loafing boys. (There's also a rumor someone got a Wii for Christmas.) Reminding me a lot of my own mother, Kumama feigns hestiation at all that eating and laundry, but deep down I know she is happy to have all her boys is one place.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Where did the snow go?

Terrifying from the front, these mysteriously moved to the front of the building yesterday, meaning only one thing: snow. In the end, however, they were unneeded as the predicted snow never came. It's a balmy 0C today and such a small amount melted by afternoon. Recognizing the scarcity of this topic, I'm sure this post will be ranked high on Japanese snowblower searches but I have no information to offer except that knowing Japanese engineering, these robotic-looking self-propelled units are probably only a couple of generations away from self-awareness. Be very afraid.

File under "Inter-cultural Office Humor": every morning we have a formal greeting with the superintendent at the start of work (and at the end of work). Something happened during this rock solid ritual this morning that offers a subtle insight into Japanese culture; the far side of the room was engaged in something, I didn't notice, and ignored the greeting completely, no one seemed to noticed until it was over and our dutiful side turned and asked if everything was okay, then one of their guys responded innocently, oh has work started, and everyone laughed. Maybe you had to be there?

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Boxing Day Round up Part Two

Being a normal Wednesday, waking up early was the only thing different I did for Boxing Day. I was expecting calls from both my younger brother on west coast and my parents in Calgary. I have considered it at length, and well I can't necessarily explain it, I enjoy talking to my folks on their Christmas more than on mine. It makes me feel more apart of their Christmas. As luck would have it, with the price of international calls falling from year to year, we can fortunately talk on both Christmases. I was in Sapporo yesterday doing some shopping but came home will cash. Nothing I really needed. Nothing to buy. That's a good feeling. One important obersevation from around the station yesterday: I saw Nintendo Wii Fit's everywhere. I guess we know how the Japanese will be getting their excerise next year. (No more Billy's Boot Camp! <--- internal Japanese reference.) Of course I ate my fill of sushi. I have included a picture of me looking gluttonous and guilty. The sushiya-san wasn't busy as expected. In another stroke of good luck - a Christmas miracle if you will - I was able to pick up Radiohead's new In Rainbows. Amazon Japan and Wikipedia both listed the Japanese release date as Dec 26th. Initially I was disappointed being so close to a record store on the 25th but so far from the new album. To my surprise upon entering Tower Records I was greeted by a big display. I might have pushed a child, a clown or Santa out of the way in a rush to get a copy. It's all kind of a blur. I don't want to reopen the debate on digital rights management, but even though I took advantage and downloaded it for free when offered it was offered for free, I still did the completely illogical thing and paid for the CD (and not just for it's audiophile qualities) showing the music industry is still rocking and rolling despite people's worst predictions. (For people who love music or pointless facts, I have included an image of the Japanese cover because it differs from the North American version which isn't even out yet. Double cool.)

Saturday, December 22, 2007

How to Survive Chirstmas in Japan

This is by no means meant to be a complete guide on how to survive Christmas in Japan. Indeed some may feel no need whatsoever to be saved from Christmas in Japan, however, every year at this time the risk of feeling homesick increases; the foreignness is perhaps a bit more acute and what is missing is more readily apparent. In Japan, Christmas Day is just like any other day. People go to work. Kids go to school. Thus one could say the only part of Christmas to survive in Japan is the rampant consumerism. Take away the traditions and good will towards men and it's kind of depressing. One has to take all their desires for Christmas and put them aside. I have always worked it so that I have the day off as I don't think my gaijin mind could abide working on Christmas. Christmas 1999 in Fukushima was the hardest because it was not a white Christmas per se. Perhaps only a Canadian could understand the shock of a Christmas without snow. There's snow enough in Shikaoi for this not to be a problem. I avoid the Christmas blues two ways; one, I focus on the New Year's celebrations right around the corner which is a highlight of the year and goes on for a week. Secondly, I create my own Christmas traditions, such as eating sushi on Christmas. This leads me to note an interesting Japanese fact: On Christmas, many want to eat KFC. As in lines around the block want to eat. I see the lose connection between chicken and turkey but don't understand how a mob scene at a fast-food restaurant is appetizing. Thus sushi has a practical advantage in that we have the sushi joint pretty much to ourselves.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Kind of Sort of Christmas Dinner

According to the stats, the absolute most popular page on my blog was a post about Japanese school lunches. Since it's inception, people have flocked to it by the hundreds through google. (I really need update it in the new year.) My blogging about school is closely tied to how outside the norm it is; it's very easy to fall into the trap of apathy when routine and familiarity sets in. Today's school lunch was something I had never experienced before so it became perfect fodder for my jaded foreign soul - er, blog. Today was sort of a Japanese-school-lunch-on-a-budget version of Christmas dinner. So it involved the Japanese's mental conception of a western christmas dinner crossed with the cold tasteless food of kyuushoku. At lunch time, instead of the kids eating in their prescribed classrooms, we joined in the gym at low tables on mats to eat our "Christmas Dinner". It consisted of some roasted chicken, broth-based soup, sushi rice (very christmasy my kids stated), cake, mini-tomatoes, and boiled wakeme salad. I found the portions today much bigger than usual. "Cold and tasteless" deserves a wider explanation; I actually ate every scrap. The food gets cold because in Japan there are numerous rituals around meals, those rituals take along time to accomplish because we are working with kids. Thus, we sit there like sad hungry dogs in front of full plates while the food gets cold, waiting for everything to be perfect. Tasteless because school lunches have to be very healthy. Salt, fat, sauces, basically anything delicious, has to be kept to a minimum in the name of health. Everyone being extremely hungry is one of the best things going for it and normally my brain enjoys the food and the company of the kids, whose wondering conversation, curious questions, and innocent blunt comments are great entertainment. I was, of course, in exceptionally high spirits. Most of the past week has been centered around Christmas and in planning for today I was favoring games (Yes, I am an awesome teacher). At first I was overruled but once we saw staying with a normal class would be like teaching monkeys, my suggestions were adopted and we played Canadian dodgeball in the gym, much to the kids' and - reluctantly - the teachers' delight. While the younger ones followed me around like baby chicks while singing the only choral they knew well, "We wish you a Merry Christmas," the older ones rolled their eyes at my carefully chosen Christmas clothing and merry behaviour.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Chocolate Chirstmas

I opened my fridge this morning to a happy sight; chocolate. Lots of Chocolate. December has seen packages of chocolate (among other things) from my Grandma McR, Uncle Rick and Aunt Lori, and also my parents. Perhaps the amount of chocolate is not as stunting as keeping 30 or 40 Wakayama oranges in one's fridge, but it's still blogworthy. I find Japanese chocolate to be waxy in appearance and taste. I have no doubt there exists somewhere in Japan a person who has dedicated their life to chocolate; I would like to find that person. But until then, I will always crave Canadian chocolate over the Japanese variety. My uncle and Aunt also included peanut brittle, something that had escaped my mind for two years. It was more peanuty than I remember and perfectly hit the spot. What am I going to do with all this chocolate? Some of it I plan to share but most of it will be carefully rationed, like it's the world last. (Also included to get this blog into the Christmas spirit, a picture of a beautiful handmade card from my Grandma B.)

Monday, December 17, 2007

B-B-B-Badminton! FTW!

Some of the shock has worn off due to my delay in posting but I guarantee that Sunday was still full of surprises. The day previous had seen me partying at the Pure Malt Club house - schmoozing but not boozing - some might enticed by the sound of that and want details, but I'm moved to talk about the results of my badminton tourney today because that's where the months of hard work, discipline (like not drinking at a party!), and training went. And what a surprise it was! As a way of lessing what was sure to be disappointment later I had only told a small circle of people. (I remember explaining graphically to a friend how bad I was expecting to lose.) Held in nearby Makubetsu, I and another teacher were entered into the mixed doubles category. We had only played together once the week before, but both of us play weekly. Warming up I was getting worried watching teams with matching tops. The first game of the first match we lost. I take much responsibility because I couldn't tell where the lines were to save my life. After that first stumble we continued to win. My partner was helpful in yelling out (as opposed to quietly suggesting) when shots were out and communication was generally good. (We also improved once I told her my Japanese was not that speedy and to please use English.) My serving was good whereas my partner's serving was deadly. Nakamura-san was exceptional at the net all day and the opposing team had no choice to pop it up to the back of the court. In this type of play there is still a lot a person like me can mess up, but my smashing was solid, laying it right at the feet of the opponents, even eliciting some "wow's". I only put 2 or 3 in the net the entire day which is the reverse of how practice games normally go for me. With all the teams in the mixed round robin it was evident everyone had experience, but normally one had more than the other. I felt bad continuously hitting to the weaker player but I think this behaviour is programed deep in the brain. In the split second between getting into position and contact, careful consideration about relative player strength rarely comes to mind. In the final game we played a team we hadn't played nor observedbecause they were in group B. They were serious and had matching shirts to prove it. I thought, here is where the dream stops. It was the best serving we saw all day, they had excellent control side to side, and were just plain scary reading the lines. We took both games but had some epic rallies. We won the most anti-climactic way possible on one of their errors where they sent it out. I remember laughing so hard with Nakamura-san once we finshed the game. It was the last thing either of us had on our minds as we started the day. I know for a fact I was way more surprised at winning than the teachers and organizers were at a gaijin in the tourney. Afterwards on the way home I treated myself to the nice onsen in Makubetsu.

Friday, December 14, 2007

My Music has Rights!

I'm writing this on a computer and you’re probably reading it on a computer and thus it’s fair from time to time to examine issues facing the 'net. Digital Rights Management has consequences for every Canadian. This week Minister of Industry Jim Prentice withdrew his legislation that would have seen some of the toughest copyright restrictions in the world for Canada. Included in the legislation were absurd restrictions like no device shifting (don't you dare think about putting that CD on your iPod), no back ups (just plain inconvenient) and a rollback on fair-use exemptions for education and political comment which would have resulted in a tightening of free speech. The reason the proposal was withdrawn is simple; it represented a dream list of laws as conceived by the world's biggest media content companies and their lobbyists. More disturbing for me than the legislation was the apparent attempt by the government to quietly pass it without public debate - debate being the key world here.

There’s no denying Canadian copyright law is in dire need of updating. Laws written in 1997 don’t any good in today's internet and technology dominant age. And I’m not really a radical in this regard—I believe in paying for music—but any changes must represent a balance between with all stakeholders—musicians, consumers and lobbyists. With the age of digital, a remix cultural has emerged and the behaviour of record companies is truly backward (Suing music fans anyone?). Despite the ease—one might even say naturalness—with which digital information is moved around the world and altered, the media companies have seen fit to move in an army of lawyers rather than change one thing about their business model. Which is all good and fine—the market will take care of it—this makes record companies poor investments since their structures are becoming top heavy with legal departments (you know, instead of finding great new bands that would sell records). Small artists generally like the internet because—take something like the CBC radio3 podcast—it allows them to have a global audience where once all they had to look forward to was a life of endless local gigs. Taking the view that music should be paid for, I lament that music fans are starting to view music as free, however, artists are quicker than multinational companies to shift business models and many artists have found success in cutting out the middle man, directly connecting to fans. I think this is one of the things that most upsets the large record companies.

Probably the most alarming fact for me is that media companies, through the heavy use of digital rights management that protects content, are giddy at the prospect of controlling content even after it has been purchased by the consumer. They are ready to pull western civilization back several decades. Say you bought a CD to play in your stereo, the record companies believe you should pay again to have the honour of playing it on your iPod and another fee if you want to play it in your car, and on and on. This flies directly in the face of widely used modern technology that already allows this to be done cheaply and easily. That's why I want claim media companies want are pulling backward. Crippleware is another great facet to this debate. Industry wide there is pressure to cripple data devices with DRM. Window’s Vista is by far the best example. Here is an OS that is designed bottom up to protect the rights of other’s over the user’s. All at the expense of stability, operability, and even logic as users flee to any other OS besides Vista, be it Mac, Linux or even WinXP. Vista’s implantation of DMR causes the OS to act paranoid to the point of uselessness. This is only the first in what is sure to be a long sad parade of crippled devices. And don’t think for a second any tech company wants to cripple their wares. That just gives sales to companies with more open and useful platforms. In a remix culture, the ability to buy a movie, rip it, put it on a one gig USB drive and to show it at a friends, just as we did with DVDs before and VHS before that is threatened by DMR. And consumers should say yes to a balanced review of copyright in Canada.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Sorry for the Thusday delay.

Meetings and classes have been going longer than usual the last couple of days and then there has been stuff waiting for me at the office when I get back. All this limits the time I'm able to blog. Something will be up for Friday I promise.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Dodgeball Part 2

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This box was sitting at work looking too interesting to be ignored (click to enlarge). Upon further inspection, it contains a set of comic books. The box proudly proclaims it is educational manga about the history of Japan. Cuteness is probably the most ubiquitous thing in Japan, but manga might run a close second. It's questionable how historically accurate elementery school manga is. Reading some myself, it certainly approaches the topic with a certain amount of romanticism, but does nothing to shield the readers from the bordom and monotony that is true history. Parts of the books seem recreate the passing of time. My heart has finally returned to it's normal pace after playing dodgeball with the grade five and sixes at Tsumei Sho Gakko. It was a small group of three students against three teachers. There was a reason no small kids played which will become clear. I wanted to use a normal nerf ball but the kids wanted to use was a very hard, heavy, volleyball-like ball. I asked them why and, sure enough, they showed me written on the ball is, "Offical Japanese Dodgeball Tournament Ball". Discussion was closed as far as they were concerned about what ball to use. Two questions hit me at once: one, that such a thing exists and, secondly, why it would be composed of such hard materials. What kind of masochist wants that thing thrown at them? It certianly motivated me to get out of the way. The type of ball used dictated the game: absurbity is one way to describe it, with both teams sticking close the walls, as far as humanly possible from each other. When you see a grade six, arm raised, holding that ball, they may as well been holding a ball of flaming pitch. The game was reduced to the ball slaming into the back wall with a satisfy thwack, and also it slamming into things; pianos, soccer nets, unicycles, a pile of brooms, furnaces (sounds like a fun gym doesn't it?). I nearly had my head taken off a couple of times and dove for my life more than once. I think the kids like the rush but there is no way my conscience will let me throw it as hard as I can. They get mad at me for not trying if I obviously miss or lob it gently, so it required a certain amount of acting on my part make them think they were being hunted while also aiming carefully so as to leave a safe distance between the kids and the ball. When things were reversed, exiciting is not how I would discribed it. I got hit squarely in the back by a mistake on my part when I zigged when I should have zagged. Ouch. After the bell rang, my chest was hurting from my pounding heart having literately just dodged a life or death situation.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Something to Make Monday Great!

On most days I eat lunch with my students. It creates a day with no breaks until the kids go home but I definitely enjoy it. Lately I have been switching between one of two grade one classes at Shikaoi Elementery School. A lot of what happens at lunch revolves around students' craving for attention. On the rare occasion this is manifested through poor behaviour; it definately gets the person in authority's attention when you threaten to through food. However, the majority of the time the kids turn into perfect angels, in fact, sometimes things go a bit far in the other direction and they get scrapy. Everyone wants to show me where to sit; everyone wants to clear my dishes; everyone wants to sit beside me. I have learned pretty well to navigate these potential landmines with promises of "next time" or just doing it myself. I also love observing the culture surrounding lunch time the kids have created from their imagination. For instance, on the milkbox there meaningless single digit number - probably a lot number - every lunch it's imperative to share that number and check for matches. In case you think this is an orgainized process, you're wrong, it consists of yelling out your number and thus I end up answering the same question several times. During lunch the kids love love love creating quizes for each other, the broader the topic range the better, but this is in light of a 6/7 year old's world that consists of school and home. My most successful question today was asking my group if "Blair likes space vegtables?" which had the group evenly split and created a lively discussion. Wouldn't this type of lunch make anyone happy? It makes me tired just thinking about it, but I digress: Today everyone was in high spirits because today's school lunch was curry-and-rice. A meal that's very hard to mess up and thus is always tasty and filling.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Music Issue Pt. 2

Changing subjects now to Radiohead's new ablum which was released digitally all the way back on Oct 10th; I have to say I really like the album. In Rainbows is Radiohead's 7th studio album and, to say nothing of the uproar it's released causein the music industry, it is one of their best. A lot of the eletronic beeps seemed to have been worked out of Thom Yorke's system which led to a much more relaxed sound. Throwing back to the times when there was far less to prove for them and it was all about the music. There are only two tracks I consistently skip over, which is not to say they are bad, it's just they're not up to the high bar set by the other strong tracks on the disk. Reading the music forums about this disk it was great to see the varitery of tracks people picked as their favorite, it was almost evenly distributed across the entire album. That is a rare occurance and should show something of the albums quality. My favor tracks are:

  • "15 Step"; One of two rockers on the disk in my option. Tight drumming from Phil Selway. This is probably the most electronically inspired cut on the disk and also the closest thing Radiohead has ever done to R'n'B.

  • "Nude":This song has been played live for 10 years, become a huge crowd favorite. It has never been put doen until now. I have several bootlegs and the studio version is very good.

  • "All I Need": Probably my favor cut off the disk, it's a bit darker. Love the subterranean bass. It's a slow builder that doesn't fail like the last track on the album. When the crash symbols come in, one knows this track is flying.

  • "Reckoner": The other rocker on the disk that one can turn up proudly.

  • "Videotape": The last cut on the disk that in live shows exploded. Here we are offered a slow burner. Radiohead still pulls it off however, creating a great closer in line with OK Computer's "The Tourist." Lots of the track show strong writting and this is as a fine example as any on the ablum.

  • Will this album ever gain the status of 1997's OK Computer? Not it my book but time will tell. However, one thing I hate hate hate about this album is it's lame title. In Rainbows? How is Radiohead going to take over the world with a title like that? I'm not alone in my views as suggested by a fan made satirical cover displayed below. Isn't that what everyone was thinking when they first heard the title of the new disk?

    The Music Issue!

    Announcing I had received my new headphone amplifier just before my birthday raised the level of curiosity surrounding my hobby. Directly never making mention of it again was wrong. In an effort to reverse this deficiency, I henceforth offer an excess of numbers, statistics and details. I will describe my new headphone unit while strictly ignoring questions about why one needs a dedicated headphone amplifier.

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    Wide angle view of the Yamamoto HA-02. (Click to enlarge)

    The Yamamoto HA-02 is a singularly beautiful piece of audio equipment. Hand-made by Shige Yamamoto in Hyogo prefecture outside Tokyo, it uses two type of exotic woods, a hand-wound transformer, gold-plated tube guards and a life time of experience in electrical engineering. Asking “why tubes?” opens a topic that threatens to overtake my blog. The short of it is is that there must be some type of inherent value in a technology that perseveres even though it was far surpassed by modern offerings by any scientific measurement 50 years ago. At risk of ignoring large parts of the topic, like the clipping characteristics of tubes or impedance curves, I will start at the point I find most interesting having to do with the different types of harmonic distortion found in audio circuits (feel free to jump to the pictures at this point); odd order harmonic distortion versus second order harmonic distortion. Smarter people than I have put it better:

    …tubes have more measured distortion. However this distortion is primarily 2nd order, lessening greatly as we go through the higher harmonics. Distortion characteristics for solid-state however, tend towards higher odd order harmonics (5th 7th etc), albeit in smaller amounts.

    Scientific studies have shown that humans perceive even order distortion as being musically consonant while odd order distortion is perceived as musically dissonant. Anecdotal evidence shows that while up to -5% of 2nd order distortion is audibly tolerable, only -0.5% of 5th order distortion is audibly tolerable.[thanks!]

    Staying on the topic of harmonic distortion, the harmonic distortion found in audio circuits is what allows the human brain to distinguish between a recording and a real instrument. Because such low levels of odd order harmonic distortion are audible to the human ear, solid state manufactures have gone the very edge of material science in a quest to lower harmonic distortion. On the other hand, second order harmonic distortion is the type associated with the decay of a note in space and time or a chord being struck. Called “musically consonant” in the quote above. A tube amplifier’s high levels of 2nd order harmonic distortion in effect accentuates the decay of notes and creates a sonic glow around harmonies, though the exact mechanisms of such are lost in the workings of the brain. One could almost say that tube circuits sound “hyper-realistic.” This is the characteristic euphony that many listeners describe ultimately leading to a more musical presentation at the expense of accuracy.

    My Yammy, as it has been coyly named on the internet, uses two Western Electric 408As tubes. The WE408A themselves have an interesting history that prove it did not find its way into the Yamamoto HA-02 by chance. The tube was initially used in underwater telephony applications in the early 60s. This gives the tubes excellent reliably and longevity compared to other tubes. Most tubes are designed for higher output levels than needed for headphones amplification, meaning they are not working within their optimum range. However, the WE408A’s optimum working specs sit exactly in the micro current range needed for headphone amplification. Coupled to the tube circuit is a transformer output stage. Glossing over volumes of electrical engineering theory, a quality transformer is essential and this is where lesser amps fail. Shige-san guarantees quality by providing an in-house built, hand wound design. If you are familiar with what goes into hand winding a transformer, than you know this means serious dedication, and ultimately, along with the circuit design and tube selection, defines the sound of the Yamamoto HA-02; which is transparency, coherence and musicality. The Yamamoto HA-02 has a life-like flowing midrange. Over the years, I have read comments from the hi-fi community that music lives in the midrange. My Yammy has certainly turned me into a believer. (Upper Left: "Pilot Lump"? Just to prove it's a product from Japan, there's an English error included on the front.)

    My description has probably raised questions in the reader as to why one would ever need anything beyond an iPod with those white things. Again at great risk of ignoring large swaths of the discussion, I can touch on two major positives for myself. Headphone listening in my opinion, offers a great value, even in light of the law of diminishing returns that defines hi-end audio. I could probably never afford a tube amplifier for a stereo rig but because of the lower power requirements of headphones it offers a possible solution. Top-shelf headphone gear can offer surprisingly high sound quality. Consider, for example, the stereo system needed to distinguish between a $1000 CD player, $3000 CD player, $10,000 CD player and a $50,000 CD player; it would take speakers in the $20,000 range to say nothing of ancillaries. A headphone system can do the same trick at a fraction of the cost. Secondly, a stereo system deserves a home. Hi-fi hobbyists are not a condo association’s best friend. Because home ownership is far off for me, headphone listening offers the perfect balance between sound quality and the ability not to drive roommates or neighbors crazy.

    I probably didn’t change too many people’s opinion about my hobby. However, I offer this warning: if any reader feels a slight tickle in their brain to try, please do yourself the favor of first giving a trusted friend or family member your wallet.

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    Macro shot of a Western Electric 408A out of it's socket. (Click to enlarge)

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    The Yamamoto HA-02 at work. One can see the headed cathodes and the blue plasmas created by the electrons jumping the vacuum. I believe Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D Major was playing.

    Tuesday, December 04, 2007

    Seen at a Japanese Construction Site

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    This made me smile (and nearly drive off the road). Now I can say I'm ready for Christmas.

    Sunday, December 02, 2007

    Monday on my own

    I'm going to make this a brief update because I'm planning for a longer post tomorrow about two things I have neglected for a month. Today, all the Japanese English teachers in Shikaoi, and Austin, who is a JET-affiliated English teacher, are in Sapporo for a two day teaching conference. I wasn't invited, I'm guessing because I'm privately contracted with the town of Shikaoi. This left me on my own. Instead of sitting in the office all day, I offered to teach. This left me in charge. In consultation with the other teachers, normal classes were eschewed in favor of a christmas craft class. The only thing special I did was get to bed extra early last night. The classes could of gone smoother, but that was really a function of time. I also went for a really super good run last night. Not quite sure where that came from; I wish I knew because them I would bottle and sell it. My feet were so light and I kept a great pace. Why can't everyday be like that?

    Wednesday, November 28, 2007

    Ice Golf

    This is just a quick story from yesterday. I have been rushing around with odd jobs all day and have only just found now time to sit down and write. Please excuse its brevity, but it's pretty funny. In a classroom, all it takes sometimes is one student to go off track and the rest will follow like sheep. Case in point; yesterday teaching my grade twos, I was trying to gesture "Ice Hockey." The skates, the ice; that was no problem, but when it came to the stick, R-kun, smart bugger that he is in the front row, offered "Ice Golf?" I can see the connection but I reacted with a loud laugh at the image he suggested which the rest of the kids mistook as comformation the answer was correct. Next thing the kids are all saying "Ice Golf" "Ice Golf," some quizzly, others happy finally to have set on the answer. Now we are all off topic and readers will have to imagine me in class waving my arms wildly like I'm trying to herd monkeys, trying to get the class back on track.

    2007 NaNoWriMo Complete!

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    It's official! I won the 2007 NaNoWriMo competition. I entered my document into their website before the end of November and their army of robots counted and certified my novel as being over 50,000 words. In reality, all I won was a stupid internet badge, but I post it here proudly. It's a soul crushing experience to push out 50,000 words in a month, especially for me who managed to reach it by November 15th. In 2005 I calculated the stats for the month but this year, because my novel has a more serious tone (in contrast to 2005's effort which was just absurd), I will now attempt to humorously summarize my novel in less words than it took to write.

    Imagine you live in the future. Everything is perfect. It's truly a utopia on Earth. Now imagine it's because everything is run by a super-intelligent computer called the Singularity that has wrestled control of earth from humans by predicting, controlling, and harnessing human behaviour and bending the laws of physics itself. Now imagine that instead of the author taking the opportunity to create original characters or develop any sort of plot, nor attempt to penatrate the enigmatic philosophical properties of such a system or the implications of such a omnipotent, benevolent controller, he uses the book as a platform to describe the structure the Singularity is housed in. Nearly 40,000 words dedicated to describing a fictional building. Then, the author, upon realizing he is going to run out of things to write about before reaching the goal, changes course and decides to put a second Singularity in space. What a stroke of genius on the part of the author, Luanching a second Singularity into space easily allows another 10,000 words in the course of describing the ship--christened the Hamlet. The transition is handled flawlessly with stock characters called by such inventive names as Dr. Matthew and Dr. Morgan and a ninja attack at the 41,000 word mark. The spaceship Hamlet is launched just as an earthquake strikes the original Singularity, collapsing what had been previously described as a very strong building, returning the population of earth to a pre-historic way of life. Ultimately, the book argues a real utopia is impossible and life tragic; another paradise lost. Reviewers suggest alternatively that perhaps the author came up with this idea when he was having a bad Monday; perhaps having stubbed his toe getting out of bed or upon realizing he forgot to buy orange juice for breakfast. Publishers are quick to comment that in several places the author outright stole plot devices from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Harry Potter and Bridget Jones's Dairy and that the manuscript is only fit to be burned. By way of closing, the author wishes to delare his intent to keep writing the little known genre of sci-fi architectural fiction.

    Sunday, November 25, 2007

    It's okay it's Monday

    What a wild morning! We had visitors at Shikaoi Elementary School from the Ministry of Education who watched my grade one English class. Besides the implications that even the federal government is interested in Shikaoi's English program, the way people were treating the situation like an approaching rock star was comical and it kept me relaxed. Also keeping me relaxed was the fact that I was kept in the dark about most of the days details, except for my class, which a small core of people had been planning since last week. It went as well as can be expected with a class of forty-five grade ones. It's like training a goldfish; doable, but not always predictable. Ten teachers, which was not special for the class, also helped. I honestly had fun.

    Also making me smile today was picking up a package at the post office. From the notes left behind, I knew I had already missed the package twice, such is the penalty when one lives in a country that still has Saturday and Sunday delivery. But I digress; I went to the post office at first opportunity Monday and discovered my package was unfortunately out for delivery again for the third time. The guy that is helping me got on his cellphone to contact the driver who is out on delivery. I know this because soon there after, waiting and watching out the window, I see the poor driver return on his motorcycle, appear, disappear around the corner, come in the back door and, in his outdoor coat, walk straight over and hand me the package. I felt horrible for them to go through all the trouble of calling the diver back. I'm really not worth effort. I would have insisted they deliver it to the Board of Education had I known he was planning on calling the driver back; he left out off earshot when he got on the phone. The package turned out to be a wonderful box of Canadian chocolates from my Grandma M. I try to eat sweets only in the morning on the 18th century notion that it will burn the calories off throughout the day. In reality, I probably just like the sugar rush in the morning. I must admit at the first sight it was chocolate I ripped into the first package. I will save the second for the office to spread some Christmas cheer tomorrow.

    It was so beautiful when I got up this morning, walking to work the wind was warm not unlike the Chinooks we get in Calgary. However, things have changed nasty in the last hour of work. Not it is raining. I'm not confident it will stay as rain as the temperature drops over night.

    Tuesday, November 20, 2007

    Razor sharp or Polished smooth ice surfaces

    It has, for the recording, started snowing here. It snowed for most of the day yesterday while managing to stay above zero, so as one can imagine it left quite a mess. Things aren't so bad today as everything froze in the exact state it was left in yesterday, even if it be razor sharp or polished smooth. I think the snow dump was big enough that it won't be going away until spring. I'm a bit depressed that all I can look forward to is for things to get colder and darker before they get warmer. I am not impressed.

    Monday, November 19, 2007

    Always Something of Interest in Chomin Hall

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    I work in a large spread out public building called Chomin Hall of which the Board of Education takes up only a small fraction. To readers of my blog that have visited Shikaoi, this will all make perfect sense. I love working here because out the door there is always something of interest going on in the public spaces of the building. Today is a perfect example; the building is crawling with children because those entering grade one next year are required to have a health check. (From the din I can hear at my desk I can tell everyone's lungs are healthy.) Last week the news I couldn't share was the death of a previous Shikaoi mayor. I didn't recognize the name but I wanted to give the news a chance to travel to Stony Plain ahead of my post.

    This offers the perfect opportunity to talk about some Japanese customs surrounding death. In Japanese funerals only two things are held as universal; the funeral is always Buddhist and two, the body is always cremated, which makes sense in a country as populated as Japan. I appreciate how the Japanese are not so uptight about sacredness and spirituality. Ringing cell phones still cross the line, but taking pictures, walking around, or making a grocery list is not considered high treason, and no one will be reincarnated as an ant as nothing is infringed upon or disrespected.

    The first thing I learned about Japanese funerals was at the dinner table. There are few behaviours in Japan that will stop conversation, one being if you pass an item chopstick to chopstick. Never ever do this. People's jaws will drop, some might push back from the table in horror, a sign or silent scream is not out of the question. The reason is to be found in the cremation process; afterward pieces of bone left intact are collected by the use of chopsticks and only during this process is it permissible to pass something chopstick to chopstick.

    New Years, which is coming up, is normally very festive, with many visitors and special New Years' postcards, however, if a close relative passes in the preceding year, the family is considered in mourning and must be left alone, they don't even go to the temple on New Years.

    The Japanese wake and funeral are very similar. Both times, a Sutra is read by a Buddhist monk, the only difference being that at the funeral the deceased is given a new Buddhist name. This is so the deceased will not return when their name is called. At some point the attendees walk to the front and light incense. Beyond this, the traditions surrounding Buddhist funerals are numerous, varied and arcane, following an individual's wishes, which is sometimes dictated by family tradition. The photograph shows the setup for a very large public wake previous to the monks being seated. The funeral took place in the same space the day after. It was a romantic scene leaving work later, Buddhist chanting could be heard throughout the building and the scent of incense still hung in the air the following day.

    Sunday, November 18, 2007

    Dear Goodness! That was close!

    I had already given away four oranges when I was about to give another four to our friendly neighbourhood Pure Land Buddhist priest. (Trust me, as he would say himself, he needs else in his diet besides beer and yaki niku, especially since he's trying to stop smoking.) But then I caught myself and remembered than in Japan four is an auspicious number and that gifts should be given in groups of three or five, never four. Austin might well let the first four slide but Sensei would definately noticed and thought I was trying to dis him or kill him or curse his family.

    Saturday, November 17, 2007

    What would you do with a Sunday in Japan?

    I worked like a dog yesterday; got up early and did the dishes and vacuumed all before I had breakfast, I was out the door for a run by 9AM. Did my weekly shopping in Otofuke (I wanted to make pasta tonight) and brought four wakayama oranges to some friends. My kindness was repaid with a lunch of trout sashimi and miso soup. With all my chores finished yesterday, I'm looking to doing nothing Sunday. The whole day is open. I normally wake up early so there is even more to fill of nothing. I will probably bundle up and go for a walk before the weather turns bad tonight. With naked trees, grey ground and threatening skies, it makes for a gloomy walk by the river. At least I can say it's warmer than Stony Plain is today. I also have two longish ideas for posts next week that I want to start. Happily, sandwiches for lunch today but what I am most looking forward to is burrowing into my long neglected Complete Works of Shakespeare and finishing Hamlet.

    Friday, November 16, 2007

    In addition, I can happily announce, it's Friday.

    I guess there's really is no excuse not to post with NoNaWriMo out of the way, if you exclude that I'm tired and sore and my fingers are just bleeding stubs. It's Friday here and the office has been very busy all week with something I can't comment on until next week. Added on top of an already busy week, the Shikaoi Board of Education had yet another fire to fight: there was suppose to be a teachers' strike begin today at 5 PM. It was called off. Instead, teachers are holdings meetings tonight. Only in Japan would the proper response be to hold meetings on a Friday night. The principals and vice-principals looked jumpy and twichy and add to that guilty all week. The kids were gleefully oblivious. I'm completely on the sidelines for this since I'm contracted with the town. I feel within me the return to decent sized posts next week instead of these small fry.

    Thursday, November 15, 2007

    My NaNoWriMo goal is complete

    And The Heavens Opened! While my story is not quite finished, my pace won't be quite as prolific from here on in. I autheticed my story just a couple of minutes ago and it totaled 50,150 words; not bad for 15 days work. ....sigh....

    Tuesday, November 13, 2007

    My oranges came and I have a headache

    I normally don't complain about such things but there are worst sufferers so I decided I would mention it here just this once; I have a splitting headache. At Shikaoi Elementery School they are re-doing the roof this week - with jack hammers. I guess November seemed like a better time to be on a roof in Japan than August, but it means people will be attempting to learn under a construction site. It sounded the whole time like they were about to come down on us. Even on the first floor the din can be heard. But the ones I feel most sorry for are the five and sixes that have classrooms directly under that area. The students are starting to look nervous and twitchy and the teachers are walking around like they have constant migraines. I was only there for the morning and I had to get out. I don't know how they expect kids and staff to go a whole week.

    In other news, my oranges came. Before hand I had research proper orange storage on the great library known as theinternet. A cool or warm tempature doesn't matter so much as good circulation, which would take some creativity. Now they are spread all over my house, the best pictures coming from my stuffed fridge. I have another project in mind for the oranges but that will have to wait until I have more time this weekend.

    Word Count: 44625

    Sunday, November 11, 2007

    It's Monday; cold and raining.

    Well, this is kind of a cute story for Monday. As I have said numerous times previously on my blog I'm fairly impressed with Japanese produce. The fruit and vegetables are always perfect and tasty; opposite of how I remember fruit from Safeway. I have been introduced during my stay to Wakayama mikan, we know them in Canada as Japanese Christmas oranges, expect that here, starting in November, we can get them for a five month period. I have eaten them before and fell in love with their sweet flavor and blemish-free appearence. The whole eating seasonally thing that continues in Japan also entertains me. Actually, the oranges almost unnaturally good flavor and perfect appearence makes me doubt their earlthly orgin. At the end of the day, I loved them enough to track down an internet shop on to procure my own stash and last week I ordered 5kg of oranges direct from the orchard in southern Japan (60~65 oranges). They have serveral size catagories to choose from, from extra-small to large and also a desicion has to be made in regard to the grade; household consumption grade and gift grade. Knowing the dedication of Japanese farmers I can't imagine the difference in grade is that great. I went with medium size on my coworker's opinion that it's the most popular, revered for its balance of taste and texture. The prices over the internet were very cheap but there was a slight delay in shipping my box: I got a cute note direct from the orchard informing me they only pick fruit on days corresponding to maximumal ripness; they don't mess around, and never ship under-ripened fruit. It will be picked and then overnighted to me. I should be reciving my oranges anyday now and I am happy to wait if it means fresh fruit. I appricate the farm's dedication to quality because it means my oranges will be at the height of flavor and nuitents. Too often in Alberta we settle for long distance fruit that is picked way too early and assumed to mature en route. I expect to give a fair portion of my box of oranges away.

    Word Count: 40171

    Thursday, November 08, 2007

    Friday comes again

    My guilt is from not updating my blog as much as I wish I could because of my marathon writing goal this month. After pushing out 3000 words on days that are already too full, I can't sit through any more extracurricular non-essential writing. I hope to side step this dilemma today because it's Friday and I'm already way ahead of the norm and can afford to slack off this one day. This way I won't burn out.

    My days are so full this week because of badminton. Tuesday was my normal badminton club, but Wednesday, Thursday, and finally tonight, my badminton club is holding a special Badminton clinic. It's a bit farcical because it's the same group of nine that come to the club twice weekly, but this time the five best teach the other advanced players and, I should add, think of really devious drills. For the clinic we do a whole bunch of formal Japanese greetings that we don't do on normal club nights. It looks absurd to me because every other time we are so casual with eachother and there are so few of us; more teachers that students. Badmintion is not exactly taking Shikaoi by storm, though we treat it like it is. Supposely these clinics were pretty popular in years past. I'm more than happy to play along, for $5 I get more of the same dedicated one-on-one coaching I'm already use to receiving at the weekly badminton club. My friends are happy to have a student that is loyal and dedicated, tries hard and never complains. It's nine hours of badminton over three days which is a bit scary but I'm in good shape and no muscle soreness, espeically in my arms, has yet materialized. I also want to repeat how horrible I am at the Japanese verison of stretching. We sort of do this counting thing as a group where we do a predefined set of stretches. "1-2-3-4, 4-5-6-7 swtich." Everyone else has been doing this since elementary school but I'm as lost as plastic famingo in a forest. I have no idea what the stretches are nor can I keep pace with the count. No one laughs at me for trying, but they can't help but crack up when I consistently fail to keep up and get that look on my face like I'm lost and confused.

    Word Count: 30772

    Tuesday, November 06, 2007

    We Just keep rolling here

    Halloween just kept going when celebrated again by carving pumpkins yesterday. I'm actually a bit sick of the holiday at this point but the kids were happy with any change away from a usual english class. In addition to the pumpkin I carved, I also made zillions of roasted pumpkin seeds. You can see one of my students unable to pull himself away from the task of carefully arranging seeds to dry. The roasted seeds turned out great. (Thanks recipe wiki!) The golden brown colour and satisfying crunch was impressive. A student noted that I had used the perfect amount of salt. I thought this was a rather odd compliment coming from first grader. They will be roasting seeds all week at that school because five large pumpkins produce a lot of seeds.

    Word Count: 23788

    Monday, November 05, 2007

    Type for you life.

    In the period since I last updated, we had a night of hard rain and it knocked all the leaves off the trees. This left Shikaoi looking very different from the pictures I posted last week. Now it's just grey and brown and barren. It's so nice to be writing something other than that bloody novel at the moment, though I really should be adding words there if I want to make my deadline. I admit it's been a while since I last posted, but I have not been idle, my fingers have been turned into stubs from typing, my eyes bloodshot; over 17,000 words have passed from my brain, into my hands, and onto the screen. That's a lot. To try to give my readers some idea of what a challenge NaNoWriMo is, I wanted to share some excerpts from a thread entitled "Dirty ways to reach 50k" on the NaNoWriMo forums. It won't turn the manuscript into something publishable, but many writers can identify with these tempting methods to make their total:

    • Dreams. Lots and lots of dreams.

    • Description. LOTS of description.

    • Flashbacks. Often inserted in awkward places.

    • Step 1: Grab cat around middle.
      Step 2: With a vertical stroking motion, maneuver the cat's front paws across the keyboard, producing a barrage of characters.
      Step 3: Take notes.
      Step 4: After NaNoWriMo, write a book detailing your experiences. Title it Why Cats Type. Include artistic photos.

    • Introduce a hearing challenged character... and have lots of dialogue.
      "The train will be here in five minutes."
      "I said the train will be here in five minutes."
      "It isn't raining." etc.

    • Interject character's thoughts as stream of consciousness every ten words or so.

    • Chapters Titles, The longer and the more ridiculous, the better.

    • Have a character try to tell a joke to a person. Except every few seconds someone comes in and wants to hear it from the start. At first the character can get annoyed, but then have them think of better and more dramatic ways of telling it and they get really enthusiastic.

    • Never use contractions or acronyms.

    • Famous quotes can jazz up a book. Consider starting each chapter with a relevant Shakespearean play.

    • Wikipedia is your friend. "Warden, you want me to rat on my buddy? Not for all the tea in China! Which, by the way, was made from tea bricks prior to the Ming Dynasty when Emperor Hung-wu decreed that tributes of tea to the court were to be changed from brick to loose-leaf form. So fry me, cuz I ain't talkin'!"

    • Public record government documents can add odd bits of randomness to your plot. Say, for example, bill H. Con. Res. 13, 'Recognizing the importance of blues music, and for other purposes,' introduced in this year's Congress, which provides a fast 425 words and an increased appreciation for what politicians do all day.

    • Make sure all of your characters have at least four middle names.

    • Title a chapter "One more time, only this time, with Pirates!" Then re-write the chapter, adding pirates.

    • Anyone using a gadget in your book should be sure to read the instructions first, including the French and German translations. It's just good sense. Also, foods are much more interesting if your descriptions include ingredients and nutritional values

    • Give a detailed life and history and character profile of everyone of your characters even if they only appear in one sentence.

    • Making and eating food offer a great oppurtunity to describe a meal in detail, make sure to include the full recipe and nutritional value.

    • Don't delete anything. Ever. If you end up with large chunks of plot that no longer make sense, leave 'em in and make them fever dreams and traumatic acid-trip flashbacks.

    Wednesday, October 31, 2007

    NaNoWriMo 2007 edition

    With little notice I have started writing again for this year's NaNoWriMo. I completed it in 2005 and am again attempting it. For those of you not in the know, National Novel Writing Month is a global event where particpants try to finish a 50,000 word novel in one month. (You might want to give that website a little time. It's getting slammed at the moment coinciding the global start of the event. I expect it could go down completely at any moment.) It's much harder than it sounds. That's about the length of The Great Gatsby or Moby Dick. The event has also been described as a caffine and alcohol fueled exercise in futility, or conversely, a globally shared dip into insanity. What ever it is, I am well equiped this year with a better story, new CDs, a a new headphone amp, good tea, red wine, a slow month, and a reason to stay inside - a cold. Past expeience tells me proabably the most important thing will be a story that will nearly writes itself. My only worry at this point is that I don't have a title yet. It has left me directionless and restless. I will report the title to my readers as soon as I have decided on a title. People wanting to watch my run at 50,000 words in more detail can visit my profile page on the NaNoWriMo site. Anyways, I'm back to writing; I shan't waste my word count here!

    Pictures Part 2

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    Tuesday, October 30, 2007

    Extra Pictures

    I'm going to be using extra pictures for the next couple of posts. It's been such a beautiful fall I wanted to share them. Starting with the one directly below, it was taken somewhere between the house and the car at a time I had my big camera with me. Several things came together for the image; such as the sun breaking through dark rain clouds. I never have to travel far from my house to see the seasons change dramatically. I mean, just look at that red tree, it's like it's on fire.

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    Sunday, October 28, 2007

    Fun Fun Fun Fun

    Reporting on one's own birthday party objectively is a journalistic minefield. Not only because there was a huge, well attened party that I got to DJ at, but because I must admit I had such a good time! I had a handful of excited foreigners that turned a room full of "too cool" Japanese into a dancing machine. The music was a lively party mix with a focus on Canadain hip hop in the first half. I think the tracks that went off best were; Sean Paul's "Get Busy", a subwoofer-stressing Rockafella Shank remix, an 8min house burner by DJ Q and the last song before the band went on, "Hey Girl Hey Boy" by The Chemical Brothers, which I had quietly been sampling in thoughout the set in build up for the last number. Personaly, I liked Canadian MC Belly's "Pressure" and 1995's "I Wish" by Skee Lo which I recalled out of thin air from Junior High School dances. I hope that gives some of my readers that are curious but couldn't make it an idea of what I played. I was also happy to have Gwendolyn there to share her own brand of cultural exchange on happless Japanese men. (I promised not to reveal who the friend in the picture is because he has a job in a sensitive area.)

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    After my set and after the live band I set about smoozing with all the people I haven't seen forever; deep in conversation I missed by own birthday being announced over the PA, and nearly ignored the person I was talking to to look over there. Taken completely off guard - I had kept my birthday a tighly held secret - I stammered a couple of sincere thank you's in front of the audience before digging into my cake. In the above picture taken by my friend Chris, I can barely contain my happiness, just like my own students. I feel torn because my actual birthday the next day included a much quieter dinner with two Shikaoi teachers (and their lovely families) that had recently stayed at my house in Stony Plain. However, I won't deny how much fun it is to play your favorite music loudy for a over hundred of people at your own birthday party. (In an effort for turth, the event just happen to concide with my birthday; it was well-planned before anyone knew it was my birthday.)