Sunday, December 31, 2017

Happy New Year

Happy New Year

The Year of the Dog.

Janne and Ritsuko

Summer Vacation: Singapore

It's New Year, and we're spending it is Osaka. That means I've got access to a real internet connection again for a change. What better time to post about our summer vacation?

OIST has a 7-day summer leave that we can/must take in August or September. That's also the peak tourist season on Okinawa, so we decided to escape the crowded beaches for the streets and high-rises of illustrious Singapore.


This was the first time in Singapore for me, and I didn't really know what to expect. Everybody keeps saying that the food is great but the city itself isn't too exciting. We mostly travel for the food anyway, so we figured it was worth a shot.


We had to go there on a roundabout route: Naha to Osaka, then another 7 hour flight from Osaka to Singapore. It's _really_ roundabout; we passed right over Okinawa and Naha again two hours into the second flight. Fortunately Jetstar (an LCC) have now started direct flights between Naha and Singapore, so it'll be much easier next time we go.

"I can see my house from here!" Not quite; this is Taketomi island in the western part of Okinawa. We did pass right over Naha, but I didn't get a picture.

Singapore is about half the size of Okinawa island; that's small of course, but still a lot bigger than I thought. I'd somehow assumed that Singapore was just a city state, but there's clearly (a bit) more to it than that. It is completely dominated by the city, though, and we didn't see any other part of the country.

A well-groomed park near Newton. This is about as close as we got to actual nature during this trip. Not that we ever go looking for it of course; we travel to cities for a reason.

There's not a lot of nature, but there is a lot of greenery. Singapore is right on the equator after all, and the city is very lush and green. Very pleasant.

Singapore has a lot of manufacturing industries, one of the largest seaports in the world, and is one of the major financial centers. Over 25% of the population are immigrants, ranging from Malaysians cleaning hotel rooms to expat European bankers. It is also the richest city on the planet. This means a lot of in-your-face conspicuous consumption. It gets a little silly at times.

Corporate towers and high-end apartment complexes have (very visible) flourishes such as roof-top gardens, light shows and terraces. Expensive cars are _everywhere._ Some people desperate for attention resort to painting their million-dollar Ferraris and Lamborghinis in loud colours and patterns just to stand out from the crowd.

We stayed at Goodwood Park Hotel. A nice resort-style place right in the city center.

Your humble correspondent in front of some shopping mall or other. Which one doesn't matter; they're all lined up cheek to jowl, and all with the same worldwide brands.

Cars, by the way, cost 3-5 times more than in Japan, and you need to bid for one of a limited total number of permits. Singapore also has excellent public transport, with a dense network of subways, buses and local trains. And if you live in the city itself, you are apparently only allowed to drive every other day, so you can't even rely on your car for your daily transportation. Unless you're driving in from outside the city, a personal car is really a pure status symbol.

Salary levels are high, but so are living costs. I may be wrong, but I get the impression that "keeping up" with other people by having the right car, home, schools and so on is very important here.

The subway is clean, neat and efficient.

A nap in the midday heat.

Coffee break.

We largely spent our time around the city center, walking or taking the subway to the different areas. There's an enormous variety of very good food for any budget level here. Singapore is mostly ethnically Chinese but there are sizeable Indian, Arab and Malay minorities, and they each leave strong impressions on the culture and foods in the city.

A lot of the good food is in outdoor food courts like this one. As a guess, these were originally actual open-air food stalls like you can find all over Asia, before they got regulated away and moved into fixed storefront locations like this.

Noodles and pork.

Chicken rice. The point here is the flavoured rice; some people apparently like to order chicken rice without the chicken.

Fish market in Chinatown.

Dinner time. Laksa, stir-fried vegetable, fried rice and fried spring rolls. Like Singapore itself it's mostly Chinese with a strong influence of Malay cuisine.

We spent a few days around Little India and Arab Street, where we had Indian and Arab food. Unsurprisingly, the most fun is the cheaper eateries where the focus is on the food itself rather than class and ambiance.

The Sultan mosque in the Arab section.

Good food this way. Or any way; while it varied a lot, we didn't have a single truly bad meal during this trip.

Super Star Hair Cut. Little India.

Outdoor lunch in Little India. The food came on a piece of baking paper right on your tray, you ate it with your fingers — and it was perhaps the single best thing we ate during our stay in Singapore.

Wherever we go, we try to find the time for a cooking class. It's a fun way to spend a morning, and a good way to learn a little more about the local food traditions. More often than not we also come away with a recipe or two we put into rotation at home.

The Food Playground cooking school. A small group of students, an engaging and knowledgeable teacher, and we got to do most of the prep work and cooking ourselves. It had a very similar kind of vibe to Hanoi Cooking Centre (in Hanoi, obviously), our favourite cooking class so far. I can warmly recommend this place.

Our chicken curry with roti jala. We've made this a couple of times since, and it turns out great.

My biggest disappointment was electronics. I'd hoped that, as one of the major electronics manufacturing and trading centers, I'd be able to find fun offbeat stuff and cheap devices. But overall, things such as laptops, computer parts and circuit boards were actually more expensive in Singapore than in Osaka or Tokyo; and the parts stores had nothing I couldn't just as easily find at home.

Apartments. Hanging the Singaporean flag is something you do, apparently.

Little India.
Coffee break.

Nighttime on Arab street.

The city itself is beautiful and colourful, but, well, bland. It's organized and regulated to within an inch of its life. This is really the first Asian city to make Japanese society feel excitingly spontaneous and unpredictable by comparison. It's the kind of place where warning signs have warning signs. I won't say it's downright boring, but I don't feel very compelled to take pictures when even the street views seem carefully preplanned and designed.


Mural in Little India.

A bridge fundament. I like the shapes.

Is it worth going? If you like food, then yes, absolutely. The reputation as a food center is well deserved. If you expect an exotic experience or an Asian atmosphere you may be disappointed. And if you like shopping you'll just find the same brands, at the same prices, as absolutely everywhere in the world. But we like food, and for that we will certainly return.


Monday, December 25, 2017

The Holidays Are Upon Us

Winter holidays! I'd say Christmas, but it was 26 degrees and sunny this weekend. Mangrove and coral reefs are not conducive to a proper Christmas mood.

We're spending New Year in Osaka again this year. Will be great to revisit our favourite eating places in Osaka and Kobe, do some shopping and just generally wander about. Naha and Okinawa is very nice, but it feels good to spend some time in a big city now and again.

Meanwhile, here are some random Tokyo pictures. I spent a couple of days there earlier this autumn for some work-related training. Brought a film camera (my flawed-but-beautiful Rollei 35S) and a roll of BW film. This really is one of my favourite set-ups.

JR loop line in Tokyo. Many stations still have this cool old-style riveted steel-beam construction.

Office worker descending a staircase.

Lunch time. It's strange and interesting to see how much style differs even within a single country. In Osaka, office workers have fairly wide range of styles, and in Okinawa most people sport Kariyushi shirts in a riot of colours for much of the year. But in Tokyo it's all the same severe, dreary white shirt and black pants, with no personality or variation allowed.

Ochanomizu station. I always neglect to bring a tripod when I take my small cameras with me. With a big medium-format camera a tripod weirdly feels less of a hassle; the camera is already so big and heavy that a tripod doesn't add much. So I end up improvising support for pictures like this, propping the camera up on railings, tree branches or right on the pavement.

Crossing trains. Near Ochanomizu station.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Network! And make my commute more entertaining.

So it's decided: fiber installation — including drilling holes into the building elevator shaft — will happen January 22nd.

On one hand: Yay! On the other: another month without fixed-line internet. Oh well; my brother suggests viewing it as a form of detox. And maybe he's right - if I can't be without all-I-can-eat high-speed internet, then perhaps it's good for me to be without for a while.

Meanwhile, let's talk about cars. Or more accurately, commuting in cars, and making that time if not fun then at least bearable. Your options for entertainment is frankly pretty limited when you're supposed to be driving. Can't read, can't sleep, can't practice the ukulele.

But you can listen to things. And what I listen to is podcasts. Bespoke radio programs, usually on very well defined subjects. So I thought I'd introduce my favourite podcasts here, then ask you for any good ones I should know about. I haven't, for instance, managed to find any Japanese-language podcasts that I find interesting; if you know of one, let me know.

English Podcasts

  • In Our Time.

    This is a weekly BBC radio show, available as a podcast. In short, each week the host and a few invited guests discuss a subject, usually something with a historical connection. Subjects have ranged from the ancient Greek city of Thebes; Picasso's painting Guernica; Kants Categorical imperative; Purgatory; and bird migration.

    And if you think these subjects sound dry, even fussy, think again. This is the BBC we're talking about. Almost every episode I've heard has been absolutely fascinating; even - I'd say especially - the hard-core historical ones such as the Congress of Vienna that I knew nothing at all about (historical education in Sweden being what it is). If anything I'd say the science episodes are the weakest ones.

    This is one podcast you really owe it to yourself to follow.

  • Embedded

    A podcast by a husband and wife team of developers, ostensibly about embedded computing — you know, industrial computers, control loops, internet of things and so on. In practice the subject matter is much more eclectic — and more interesting — than that.

    Each episode is a well-done interview with somebody connected to embedded computing or making in some way, but the hosts manage to find some very interesting people, and while the discussions are centered around computing in some form it can easily stray into music, books, working life and so on.

    If you're into computing you should follow this. Oh, and don't mix this up with another podcast called "Embedded" that's apparently more of a current news show.

  • IRL: Online Life is Real Life

    A podcast from Mozilla about technology in general and the net in particular — but from a social perspective, not a technical one. Privacy issues, social media, online harassment, "fake news" and so forth. The first couple of episodes were a little rough, but it's matured into a really interesting, very well made podcast. It finished its first season this fall, and the next season should start in a few months.

  • Steal The Stars

    This is not a recurring podcast. It is, instead, a self-contained science fiction drama in 14 episodes that ran over last summer. The story was fun, the acting was great, and the production is really high quality. This was the rare thing where I was impatiently waiting for the next episode to be released already so I could find out what happens.

    All the episodes have aired, so you can listen through them at your own pace. And you should; this was a high point of my commute last summer. And I hope TOR books will create more dramas like this.

  • Ubuntu Podcast

    If you use Ubuntu Linux (or, really, any Linux variant), this is a fun, well-made weekly news and talk show about events in the Linux world. They cover both big events and small things (neat new utilities and whatnot) in a very entertaining manner. And unlike many ensemble podcasts, it never devolves into multiple people all talking at once (hard or impossible to understand when you're not a native speaker).

Swedish Podcasts

  • Vetandets Värld

    A Swedish weekly radio show, it is similar to In Our Time in a way, but with shorter episodes (20 minutes rather than 40), and with the focus decidedly on science rather than art or history. This one, too, is a high-quality production with (usually) interesting subjects each week. Around this time of year they tend to focus a lot on the work of Nobel price winners, but the rest of the year it's a fairly eclectic mix of subjects.

  • Språket

    Another Swedish radio program available as a podcast. The Swedish language in all its forms, with a linguist and with listener questions. It can be more than a bit uneven, but when it's good it can be really good.

There you have it: a list of podcasts well worth listening to. I do subscribe to a fair number of other podcasts but the rest are too uneven for me to recommend outright. I've also tried and rejected any number of others.

You can find all these from their homepage, or from an aggregator such as gPodder, iTUnes, and, lately, Spotify. They'll have links to feeds that you can put in a podcast app or RSS reader. You'll then be able to list, download and queue episodes right in the app, and you'll get notified of new episodes automagically.

If you have any tips for other high-quality podcasts, please let me know.

Friday, December 1, 2017


We've had our new apartment for two months now, and lived there for one, all without internet. We could get some kind of connection pretty fast (through the cable-tv company for instance), but we really want a real fiber connection. The problem is that it's on the 11th floor of an old, complicated building with mostly offices, not apartments, so actually running cable through all of it is very non-trivial.

An NTT tech came by a few weeks ago and did a thorough examination of the different possible routes. The old cable canals are long since overfull with stuff, but he determined they could run the fiber through the elevator shaft. Problem is, they'd need to drill a hole from the shaft into our apartment, and that would of course need approval from building management, and approval would be all but certain.

But a couple of days ago we got the go-ahead from the building manager. So we will get fiber at home again after all! Now, the fiber installation people are heavily booked, so we won't see them before New Year, and I suspect it may not happen until February. We're looking at another couple of months without a real internet connection.

Meanwhile, we've managed to sort of find solutions. Our mobile data plans are basically a 3GB data allotment each month, with unused data rolling over to the next. But even without the high-speed connection enabled we have an unlimited use of a really slow 128kbit/s connection. And I can of course tether my laptop to the phone, and get connected that way.

128k is not fast. But it is surprisingly useful. Forget any kind of video, music and most image-related stuff. But if you stick with mostly text, and you carefully block ads, then a lot of the web is useable.

Email and chat works fine; google, most news sites, Stackoverflow and the like are all about as smooth as ever. Reddit is fine on the desktop, but the mobile app is not (crappy app). Voice-only hangouts work fine - voice audio compresses really well. SSH access to remote machines is no problem, and git could probably use smoke signals if you let it.

On the other hand: no YouTube, no Spotify, no video clips or images from family or posting my own images online, no online gaming. Searching for recipes, how-tos and that sort of thing is hopeless as that's all going to heavy websites with lots of images and video. Can't do remote backups or transfer significant data.

So yes, I miss my high-speed connection, and I eagerly await its return. But meanwhile, it turns out we're not quite so disconnected as I thought we'd be.