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Subject:Japan scavenger hunt
Time:11:05 pm
Current Mood:calmcalm

Things I've found in Japan:

  • Honking cars! They were hiding in the rain in Sendai. OK, so people occasionally honked at each other in other places, but it's been pretty rare.
  • Homeless people! I had to search a little bit for this one. Still no sign of panhandlers though, just the occasional super-aggressive restaurant promoter.
  • A black person! Looking around in Japan almost everyone I see is Japanese. Even the people who don't look Japanese at first glance are usually Japanese. We've talked with a handful of Australians, and a pair from Italy and Austria who were on their way to Australia, and a Californian who apparently had nothing to do with Australia, but it was rather extraordinary to see a person of color here.
  • Trash on the street! Another one I had to be specifically watching for though.
  • Seedy neighborhoods! We stumbled across the seedy part of Sendai before we knew it existed. Afterwards we found the part of our guidebook that talks about it. Well, now we know, I guess.
  • A shrine with class! We took a day trip from Sendai to Matsushima today. There we finally found a shrine with simplicity and elegance and without a sense that it was really just there to collect money for somebody. There we also found the most blatantly comercial shrine yet, with its "omikuji" box being a little 100-yen coin-operated vending machine. The one we liked was in a quiet, secluded space with few tourists on a somewhat isolated island. Pretty awesome all around.

I've been trying to keep a list of these in my head and apparently I ran out of room for them days ago. Maybe I'll post more if I think of them.

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Subject:Arrived in Sendai
Time:04:17 pm
Current Mood:relievedrelieved
We arrived in Sendai after a couple of minor mishaps. First we found that we were supposed to have picked up our JR East pass at any of a number of places, Nikko not included. So we had to get all the way back south to Ueno in Tokyo before we could catch a shinkansen high-speed train north again. Then we were a bit over-eager boarding the shinkansen, and got one heading north-west to Nagano instead of north-north-east to Sendai. Fortunately the next stop for both trains was at Omiya so we were able to switch there.

More later when I can be bothered to plug our keyboard into my Freerunner instead of painstakingly tapping at a virtual one on-screen.
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Current Location:Tokyo, Japan
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Subject:Photo review: Tokyo
Time:05:09 pm
Current Mood:contemplativecontemplative
When I was wandering Tokyo streets by myself it was easy to notice things I wanted to share, and blog about them later. Now that Sarah and I are exploring Japan together I'm not thinking that way so much, because we've already shared it all. Sorry folks, nothing to see here, move along. ;-) But apparently you people are demanding to see something, so this time let's try a photo review.

Trains!



Bikes!



Sarah wanted a picture of a cargo tricycle she spotted. This was the best I could manage, hanging my camera over a fence at an awkward angle to get below as many power lines as possible.



Engrish! OK, there's very little point even mentioning this. Hey fish, swim into this barrel for me, won't you? But one example stood out.



Apparently I neglected to mention going to dinner in Tokyo last week with people Sarah has been working with, from Fresco Logic and another company. Here's some delicious sushi we devoured together before wandering off to Shibuya for desert.



Our first hotel in Tokyo was the Four Seasons hotel at Chin-zan-so, because that's where Sarah's conference was. After the conference ended we moved across town to the Hotel Unizo in Asakusa. I gather Asakusa is best known for its Kaminari-mon gate and the temples behind it? I didn't take any pictures of the temples, apparently; the big one was undergoing construction anyway. But hey, have some gates and a pagoda. Intricately constructed, very impressive really, but I'm afraid they don't do much for me.



Emperor's palace! You know, one thing we've been missing is any sense of background. After we visited the gardens east of the Emperor's palace, I've found some web sites about the history. I suspect if I could read Japanese at all well the assorted signs around the grounds would have told me the same things and more, but alas, I could only enjoy the now of the trees and flowers and stones and occasional swans.



While walking through the east gardens we heard a bunch of shouting, and discovered that on the other side of a tall fence was a gym of some sort. We couldn't get near but, holding my camera above the fence, I took a picture. A herd of copy-cats followed. I doubt any of us got very good results.



Sarah didn't see much need for a visit to what I think she considered a poor imitation of the Eiffel Tower, but graciously came along to the anime geek's Mecca: Tokyo Tower. I was entertained to find that the Japanese name for the place really is "toukyou tawaa"—that isn't just a translation. It was getting late in the day when we got there, and the lines inside were long, so photography became quite challenging as the sun set. Sarah and I both practiced our low-light hand-held no-flash photography skills.



Check this out: quarter-second exposure, no flash, no tripod. Pretty good huh? Yes Dad, I know the horizon line isn't level, but I had to brace the camera somehow...



A view toward Tokyo Bay at twilight:



Hey look it's Sarah! Holding very still for most of a second...



There's a "look-down window". Not that interesting itself, but the number of people who were frightened of standing on the glass was amusing. Especially the mother and young daughter who bravely crossed together.



Giant Sarah, ready to rampage over Tokyo!



In preparation for our trip to Nikko we checked out the train station the day before, and caught a rush of people coming into Tokyo from outlying cities.



Please excuse my fascination with the dense urban look, but there's something about the feel of Tokyo that's intriguing. It mostly looks like any modern city (despite the famous lights of areas like Shibuya) but it has its differences.



Commercial areas are quite thoroughly decorated though—even when they aren't as dramatic as the aforementioned lights—and densely packed. If you're only looking at the first floor you're missing half the city.



Off to Nikko!

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Current Location:Nikko, Japan
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Subject:New pictures up, from Tokyo and Nikko
Time:09:04 am
Current Mood:amusedamused
I Twittered last time I uploaded pictures, but it turns out there are people actually following this blog (why?) so I'll say it here: new photos are up. This is just a dump of everything that was on my camera; clean-up to follow, probably after I get home.

edit: I made a separate album for Nikko, and renamed the Tokyo album so it has a new link now.
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Subject:I can haz wireless now plz?
Time:02:38 pm
  • Mini USB keyboard from Akihabara: $10

  • "Illegal" USB gender changer from Akihabara: $1.50

  • Wi-fi access point from Shinjuku: $20

  • `apt-get update` on my Neo Freerunner in Asakusa: Priceless.


Typos from this point forward should be attributed to my attempts to use a keyboard that is too small for my hands. It's quite cute though. We found it at a little shop in Akihabara that was filled almost exclusively with keyboards; the rest was mice and other input devices mostly.

The "Akihabara Electric Town" is certainly impressive, though my first impressions were colored by the amount of difficulty that Sarah and I had finding what we thought would be a common item: a wi-fi router. In fact we never did find one we were happy with in Akihabara; they were all too big, too expensive, or both.

(Also, despite searching everywhere, I can't find any Heisenberg compensators. Not even a display model!)

We were looking for a wi-fi router because although the Tokyo hotels we've stayed in provide free in-room Internet access, it's only by wired Ethernet, not wireless. We only have our phones, and nobody puts wired Ethernet in a phone. I'd have thought that the lower deployment costs of wi-fi would make that the more common choice, but apparently not.

Of course after buying all this stuff, then I had to figure out how to use it. Would you believe a router purchased in Japan comes with instructions printed only in Japanese? So inconsiderate.

We leave Tokyo for Nikko, um, tomorrow I think? So at that point I have even less confidence about finding Internet access. We'll see whether I can post anything for the next week
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Current Location:Tokyo, Japan
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Subject:Surprises from Tokyo
Time:03:34 pm
Current Mood:satisfiedsatisfied
I was reasonably prepared for a place where people drive on the left side of the road (thanks, anime!) though it's still something of a shock to see oncoming traffic in the right-hand lanes. I was not prepared for a place where people walk on the left side of the sidewalk. I didn't realize how ingrained "stay to the right" was in me until I discovered that doing that means finding a lot of people in my way. I've been repeatedly having to remind myself to move over. Of course, it also didn't occur to me that as a pedestrian in Tokyo, it matters where the cars are going, too, so I've been surprised not just by my fellow pedestrians and the bicyclists and scooter-riders on the sidewalks, but also by the drivers around me when I cross the street. That's a potentially dangerous kind of surprise...

It's good to have an illustration that personal space is culturally defined. My fellow sidewalk occupants, whether on foot or wheels, don't seem to mind getting close to me as they go by, but every time they do I get a little more jumpy. Together with my confused instincts about which side people will pass on, this hasn't been entirely ideal for my state of mind. I'm getting used to it though. Going home will probably be briefly painful as I adjust again.

I would never have guessed I'd have trouble with doors. While automatic doors in the US are mostly found in large grocery stores, malls, and other major places of commerce, they seem popular here even in little restaurants on the street. And while American automatic doors either run all the time or use a motion sensor, I've encountered two other options here: the push-button on the door, or the pressure mat in front of the door. Embarrasingly, both have been a challenge for me.

Even on large, busy streets, cars routinely park in the outer lane of traffic. As far as I can tell, nobody minds much.

I found a line of parked cars today, mostly occupied by people sleeping, occasionally with door open and limbs hanging out. Taking a nap by the side of the road seems not uncommon.

There's an elementary school just outside our hotel! I'd wanted to see one, since I can't believe the depiction in anime is entirely representative, but this one escaped my notice until today I happened to be sitting in the hotel room when a bunch of children went outside for what I suspect was gym class. Particularly surprising to me: the reason I could hear them so well was that they were playing on the roof of the school. I guess when you don't have much land, you use every flat surface you've got? On my walk today I found a second school, with a large group of students sitting in orderly rows in the field listening to some sort of lecture from an instructor with a booming voice. He had a megaphone but he wasn't using it, and really didn't need to.

Yesterday in meandering around the streets of Tokyo I stuck to major roads so I wouldn't get lost. Today, emboldened by yesterday's success, I went for smaller side streets in the hopes of getting a better feel for life in this city. I suspect I'd discover a lot more surprises if I lived here a few months, but I found several in a few hours:

Many streets that look barely wide enough for one American car are two-way streets. When drivers need to get around each other they seem to be pretty good at getting out of the way and waiting their turn. It's common for pedestrians and bicyclists to be on these narrow roads too, and the handful of encounters I've seen seemed quite graceful. In fact I can only recall one driver honking, because a pedestrian stepped out in front of his taxi on a busy street. I've heard quite a lot of emergency vehicle sirens, though. They don't sound like the sirens in the US. They do sound like the sirens in anime.

Recycling and garbage are left at the curb, but at dedicated "Recyclables and Waste Collection Points", which I spotted every couple of blocks or so.

Tokyo is more hilly than I expected. Just another thing I didn't think about. I saw one woman about to bike up a steep hill I had just walked down; I thought she was crazy until I heard the electric motor on her bike kick in.

Am I in an area occupied mostly by rich people? (Near the Chinzan-so gardens, in Mejiro.) Few houses seem to be in disrepair, most cars I've seen look like what I would consider a luxury car in the US, and many houses have elaborate (if generally small) gardens. Or perhaps these are people of more ordinary means who place priority on having a car with leather seats?

Am I in an area occupied mostly by printing presses? My wanderings have taken me past more places with the sound of large presses running than any other single type of business I've noticed. Maybe it's just selection bias because printing presses are loud?

A token mention of the vending machines is in order here, because the only reason I haven't been surprised at the proliferation of vending machines on the streets is because so many other people have been surprised at seeing them. Like everyone says, there are vending machines everywhere. Most of the ones I've seen were for soft drinks or bottled coffee; some, for cigarettes. The more surprising goods have eluded me so far. I suppose I could be surprised that the tales of panty vending machines are exaggerated.

There are uniformed people on the street in quite a few places, who seem to be there mostly to direct traffic when needed, and I guess to give directions? I talked with one such fellow on the street in front of the hotel, in my stilted Japanese since his English wasn't very good. It turns out that he, at least, works for the hotel. I wonder who employs the rest, as I saw them on small back-roads in low-traffic residential areas. Once he'd established that I have a camera, he suggested a place I could go take pictures, but I couldn't understand the directions well enough, so I just walked down the street in the direction he pointed and found a nice pedestrian bridge to catch the traffic below from.

I think maybe I'm running late for meeting Sarah for dinner, so until next post... あとで!
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Subject:今日本にいます!
Time:11:56 am
Current Mood:excitedexcited
やった! Sarah and I made it to Japan last night. Also it seems that my Japanese skills are almost good enough to be useful. *phew*

After boarding our plane in Portland, we were stuck on the ground for about two hours because a seat broke. (Sarah says it was one of the flight attendants' chairs.) A Chinese fellow by the name of Tom Chen chatted with us quite a bit while we all waited; I gather he lives in the Portland area but was on a trip to visit China. Eventually the FAA paperwork went through to allow the plane to "fly in its current configuration" (that is, the "broken" configuration) and we were on our way.

Ten hours later... (In the meantime I drained one battery on my Neo Freerunner reading the first part of a sci-fi book I downloaded before leaving; watched a fun and humorous Japanese action movie with social commentary undertones called "K-20: Legend of the Mask"; explored the in-flight entertainment system that provided that movie and a fair selection of others as well as other stuff like real-time flight maps and info; discovered that said entertainment system was Linux-based when it rebooted in the middle of my movie and showed the single-CPU framebuffer Tux logo; ate a tolerable airline dinner around 5pm PST, an airline-provided ice cream bar a few hours later, and the airline's "breakfast" around 6pm JST... oh and chatted with Sarah sometimes when she wasn't sleeping.)

Once we landed at the Narita airport there was a further delay. People in Japan are pretty concerned about the swine flu right now, so nobody was allowed off the plane until government health inspectors had come through with what I'm betting were infrared video cameras, though they called them "thermographs". I hope Sarah's pictures of this bit come out well because it's quite dramatic to have your plane overrun by a half-dozen people in taped-shut blue hospital gowns, face masks, and eye protection. We were underwhelmed by their disorganized approach, though; I believe they counted the passengers on the plane at least four times, for instance.

Once off the plane we were into the land of signs we mostly can't read, so the most noticeable ones are, for instance, stylized depictions of butts identifying the presence of bidets in the bathrooms. Again I'll have to defer to Sarah's pictures for this.

I had to ask directions quite a few times but aside from going to the wrong Four Seasons hotel first (there are two, on opposite sides of Tokyo, but the first is on the way to the second when coming from the airport, so no loss there) we had no outright mishaps getting to the hotel last night. I tried to mostly ask questions in Japanese, and people usually understood my questions! Sometimes I even understood their answers...

I've often heard that Japanese people are very friendly and helpful. I'm relieved to report that this seems to be true. :-) Random strangers on the subway answered questions for me and helped us make sure we got off at the right stops, which was important as we had to transfer twice between the Narita airport and our hotel. The subway stations we passed through were rather large, even sprawling, too, so it was good that there the signs were pretty well-labeled in English. (I did have to notice that one sign labeled only in Kanji matched the characters I'd seen for the Chuo line though, and I had to ask for help to buy our train tickets from the vending machines.)

On finally reaching our hotel, one of the staff asked if we were the Sharps, because they'd been waiting for us. I said "おまたせいたしました" (idiomatically, a humble "sorry we kept you waiting") which I think surprised him. I don't know if the surprise was because I used Japanese at all or because a guest wouldn't be expected to apologize for that, and I was too sleepy to find out.

Sleep was nice.

This morning Sarah went down to her conference, which is in the hotel we're staying at, so she hopefully can't get lost someplace without me to translate for her. :-) She'll be busy with that until about 9pm this evening, so I'm on my own for exploring Tokyo.

I asked (in English, oops) at the concierge desk where I might walk to for breakfast, and the woman at the desk gave me a map and recommended "the bakery shops". I guess she got a little mixed up about English plural conjugation because she directed me to Sekiguchi-pan, a lone French bakery that I bet I will be taking Sarah to later. It didn't look like what I wanted for breakfast though so I kept walking, after studying the map carefully.

I think the map is wrong.

Still, I had no trouble keeping track of where I'd come from. I think I would have been hosed if I tried to explore at night, but in full daylight my sense of direction was fine. Spoiler: I'm writing this from the hotel, which I got back to without incident.

I passed a number of restaurants that I could probably have gotten breakfast at, and probably a number of restaurants that I didn't notice at all because so many things are marked differently than I expect here. I settled on what turned out to be a ramen shop, and more importantly at the time turned out to be a ramen shop that hadn't opened yet. So I kept exploring for another half-hour.

There are bicyclists everywhere in Tokyo, at least here in the Mejiro and Sekiguchi areas. Quite a few of them whizzed past me on the sidewalk, at distances a bit closer than I was entirely comfortable with. At street corners, the sidewalks are labeled with a spot for pedestrians to stop, and another spot for the bicyclists. I saw a number of mothers biking with a child in an extra seat on the back, which was neat. There are bikes leaning against walls and handrails everywhere, and very few of them seem to be locked or anything. I'm looking forward to renting a bike when we're away from Tokyo's busy streets.

I am happy to note that Tokyo's streets and sidewalks are not super-humanly spotless. They're merely really really clean. I walked past a shop-keeper spraying some spots on the sidewalk with something that smelled like a cleaner of some kind, and I saw someone near the hotel using a street-sweeper the size of a riding lawnmower. The effect is quite pleasant. The city air smells fine to me too, in contrast with what I've heard of the larger Chinese cities, or American ones for that matter.

I've probably forgotten to include important details, but I want to get back out exploring the city now, instead of writing about it. More later, given reasonable Internet access. じゃ、ね!

Edit: Just because it doesn't look like a bike lock I recognize, doesn't mean it isn't locked. On closer inspection it seems pretty common to lock one of the bike's wheels with a small ring permanently mounted at an edge of the wheel. Although there are some bikes around that I still can't see any lock on.
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Subject:Rocket telemetry visualization
Time:04:17 pm

Most people who might read my blog know I'm involved with the Portland State Aerospace Society, and probably also know I contributed to our August 2005 launch. Over the last couple of days, I've been trying to analyze the data we gathered in that launch. One of the things I'm most interested in about that is how to visualize the huge piles of information we collected.

Here's one attempt: a launch site map.

If you had a bunch of GPS coordinates or other 3D time-series data, what visualization tools would you apply to it?

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Time:10:25 pm
sahara_beara graduated! Congratulations!

We have some pictures of the occasion.

Congratulations also to Glenn LeBrasseur and Fabini Bassale, two of Sarah's classmates in the Electrical and Computer Engineering program who graduated today; and to Carrie Blowers (I dunno, she might have a different last name these days), who I know from church years ago and also graduated today.
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Subject:my first kernel module of any substance
Time:04:41 pm
Current Mood:satisfiedsatisfied

I've written and tested my first non-trivial Linux kernel module, which directly accesses VGA registers to track the beginning of each vertical blanking interval. It works!

Synchronizing with the vertical blanking interval is important in a variety of applications that draw pictures on a computer screen. Unsynchronized drawing results in a "tearing" effect, where the bottom part of an image becomes visible first, followed 15 to 20 milliseconds later by the top portion. Even if you don't consciously notice the effect, your brain is probably processing it at some level. At work, I need to avoid this tearing effect because we're making psychological testing software: anything that interferes with how your brain processes our test makes the results less accurate.

Of course, Linux already has support for this kind of synchronization, but it's limited to hardware from a few vendors. Our software needs to be able to run on as wide a range of hardware as possible, because we sell it to doctors, who not only don't tend to know anything about their computers, but also don't want to have to know. We can't tell them, "You need to buy and install a new video card." So my module is written to work with IBM PC-compatible video cards from 1987 to today.

If you don't want to know the really technical details, stop reading now. (I try to write for mixed audiences so my family and friends can all read my blog posts...)

I wrote a prototype implementation of this module a couple of weeks ago that programmed the VGA registers to turn on an interrupt when vblank occurs, but it turns out that many modern video cards don't implement that particular feature of the original VGA specification. (My laptop's Radeon 9600 has it, but not two other machines I tested on.) So this new version of the module polls a bit of the "input status 1" register instead. Of course, pure polling would waste a ton of CPU time, electricity, etc., and keep any other work from getting done. So I used the high-resolution timer API introduced in Linux 2.6.16.

First, measure the time from the start of one vertical blanking interval to the start of the next, using pure polling. Then set up a high-resolution timer to fire at the measured rate. If the timer fires in the middle of a blanking interval, make it fire earlier the next time. If it fires before the start of the interval, poll until the interval starts. If you had to poll for a "long" time, consider firing the timer a bit later the next time. If you had to poll for a "really long" time, probably there was heavy system load and you just missed an entire interval.

I've GPL-licensed the module and stuck it in a git repository, but haven't published the repository yet. In the event that I never get it published, I expect others could reconstruct my work from the above description. :-) Hopefully I can figure out where this kind of code belongs in a mainline kernel and get a patch submitted in the near future though.

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