Hello from Tokyo
I'm posting this from the Manboo comic library and Internet Cafe in Tokyo. It's probably the most uniquely Japanese experience I've had here. After all, cities are cities, and most name brands are global. Given a choice, I'd probably rather go to Fry's than the famed Akihabara district. But this is a concept that would probably only work in Japan, and definitely not in the States.
Basically, the deal is that you pay around $3/hr, which gets you a private cubicle with your own computer, TV, and PS2. Not only that, but you get free run of an impressive library of manga comics, free drinks, clean bathrooms, and a handful of similar perks.
Now, keep in mind, by Tokyo standards, that's an incredible deal. This glass of iced tea cost the company something around $8 at the Tokyo Hilton, a ten minute walk or so away. Refills not included.
The main reason it wouldn't work in the states, I think, is that people just wouldn't respect the space. They'd be stealing all the books and equipment (there's a decent pair of headphones hanging on the wall, no bizarre incompatible connector or other "security" mechanism to keep it there), defacing things for the hell of it, pissing in the cubicles, shooting up (although, truth be told, there rather is a distinctly herbal aroma to the cigarette smoke in here).
We had three meetings with three Japanese companies. Two went very well, one was near-disastrous. (I won't name the companies out of discretion)
Doing business with Japanese companies is very difficult for Westerners. There's all of this culture, and what would be a straightforward comparison demo of technical skill can be interpreted as an insult to the engineering capabilities of the host. People talk about "honne" and "tatemae" in terms of great mystery, as if it's impossible for Westerners to grasp, but it's not really that hard.
Take for example, when, at the really fancy Japanese dinner we were treated to at a restaurant in Matsumoto city on Friday, they offered a shabu-shabu of the male reproductive organs of some big fish, nobody was sure exactly what kind. Everybody's looking at me to see what my reaction will be.
So here's honne: "bleaghh, this thing tastes weird, and the texture is even weirder. I'll be lucky if I can get it down."
And, in contrast, tatemae: "Thank you for offering this experience. It is a very interesting flavor!"
Note that both are, in fact, true. I'm going to get a lot of mileage out of this story, much more so than if we had just had nice steaks or what have you. But the Japanese make the distinction explicitly, and pretty much expect it in daily relations. In a way, that's actually more honest than the American way, which is to pretend that it's all honne all the time, but we do it too. (lots of other gaijin have written about this topic - this one is one of the better explanations. And, of course, for insight into how dysfunctional Japanese culture is from the perspective of an American teaching English in the schools, nothing beats Azrael's blog)
I spent some time walking through Akihabara and just letting the gadget-ness wash over me. In some ways, the technological progress is awesome, but in other ways I'm beginning to wonder if the engine may be slowing down.
On the plus side, digital cameras have finally really arrived. I picked up a Panasonic FX-9 (6MP compact) and am absolutely thrilled with it. Good pictures (I've linked one or two from this entry), cool funky features such as the ability to take movies, and even a rotation sensor. (neither iphoto nor yahoo photo knows how to interpret the tag yet, but I'm sure that will happen soon). It's got a 1GB flash card that looks to me just like a 3.5" floppy scaled down to an inch. I remember my first hard drive, it was 20MB and occupied a 5.25" form factor.
But on the other hand, I sense the magic has gone out of it. Sure, the pace will advance. We'll be able to stick more and more songs up our ass. But a lot of the stuff, computers in particular, lacks much in the way of fresh and new. The majority of laptops here still have 1.2GHz Pentium M chips, although of course 2GHz is still available on the high end. Displays are pretty much the same as a few years ago, just a bit brighter, higher contrast, and faster.
I was also looking for a pocket electronic Japanese/English dictionary, but didn't find a model that really appealed to me. They've got relatively pixelly monochrome LCD displays, cost around $300 for a good model with the kanji dictionary and so on, and none of them have features designed to make life easy for a Westerner trying to learn Japanese (an untapped market, perhaps?) It seems to me you'd be far better off with a Nokia 770 and some dictionary software (perhaps even wiktionary-based, which seems to be gaining momentum).
Windows Media Photo
Windows Media Photo is part of the upcoming XPS format from Microsoft. From what I understand, it basically has the advantages of JPEG2000, but without the problem of people other than Microsoft owning patents on it. We may be starting a crash project soon to implement it from scratch. It's too early to tell whether it's going to be kosher to do a true free software release, but we're in contact with the right folks at Microsoft and are pushing on them. Anyone you know have an interest in image codecs, a taste for implementing specs, and a need for some extra walking-around money?
Now that I have a digital camera, I'm missing more than ever the ability to insert inline images, so I'll want to add that.
I'm also missing the ability for people to write direct followup comments, so much so that I considered writing this as an article. Hopefully now that the trips have wound down, I'll have some time for that. Hmm, where have I heard that before?
iagorubio: sorry about that. My acm account got thoroughly deluged by spam, so I let it lapse. I've updated my contact information, so hopefully it will be easier for people to get in touch with me now.