Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog
Saturday 3 December 2011

Tokyo has maps in all the metro and train stations showing where you are and where everything else is. However, throughout the city I found exactly one map where north was on top. Otherwise, they were all oriented in different directions. Here are two maps near Ueno-Koen within sight of each other that illustrate the problem. Exhibit A, with north towards the bottom left:

Exhibit B, with north in exactly the opposite direction:

Exhibit C, near my hotel, shows two maps next to each other with completely different orientations:

Why does this matter? Because whenever I looked at a map in Tokyo, I always had to spend several seconds figuring out what it represented. And it wasn't as if the orientations followed any pattern, for example showing what happens if you turn right or left from your current position, as the photo directly above shows.

I have no idea what, if any, principles are at work here. It's almost as if every map's orientation is completely left up to occident.

Saturday 3 December 2011 17:35:08 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Geography | Travel#

Republican party big-wigs want Romney to win the nomination, for the simple reason that he's the only one with a chance of winning next November:

"Bigfoot dressed as a circus clown would have a better chance of beating President Obama than Newt Gingrich...." quipped a Republican.

"Newt can't take the scrutiny," agreed a Democrat, "and he has the personality of an angry badger."

Only 340 days remain until President Obama's re-election.

Saturday 3 December 2011 00:11:43 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US#
Thursday 1 December 2011

Just now, going into hour 32 of the (technically) longest day of my life, I noticed that the blog's comment view feature isn't working. This is Case #2869 in FogBugz, and will be fixed as soon as possible.

Not tonight, though. Just like Saturday, my goal is only to make it to 9pm. If I can do that, I will defeat jet lag in one stroke. I must not fail. Sleep deprivation leads to pointless blog entries, and we can't have that, can we?

Thursday 1 December 2011 16:57:42 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Aviation | Blogs#

I recognize it may signal mild mental illness, but I don't mind 12-hour flights. I built up to this, of course, starting with 4-hour flights from Chicago to L.A. when I was a kid and growing into almost daily flights during a particularly annoying part of my career as a consultant. These days, Chicago to London (7 hours) isn't too long for a weekend; and Chicago to Tokyo (12 hours) only requires dumping a few frequent-flyer miles to ensure that I do the overnight flight in a premium class.

That helps, of course. Twelve hours in first or business is a lot more tolerable than 12 hours in coach. Ultimately, though, I'm engaged in an activity that was totally inaccessible to all of my ancestors, even my parents: cheap, convenient air travel to almost anywhere on the planet in less than a day.

"But wait," you cry, "they had airplanes 30 years ago." Yes, but before the Boeing 777 and Airbus 330/340, all three of which entered service only in the mid-1990s, fuel costs made cheap tickets to Europe or Asia impossible. When I first went to Europe in 1992, the ticket cost in nominal terms about what it would cost today: $600 or $700 for the round trip. Only, in 1992, $700 went almost 50% farther in real terms.

Also in the last 25 years or so, visa regimes have relaxed throughout the world. For all that politicians worldwide complain about illegal immigration, in reality citizens of the U.S. can visit almost anyplace in the world without a pre-arranged visa. As recently as 1985, most Western European countries required Americans to get visas from their consulates before visiting; now, Americans can get a stamp at entry in 173 countries, which includes all of the OECD, all of the Americas (except Brazil and Venezuela), all of Europe (except Russia and Belarus), and all of Oceania.

None of that, of course, makes the actual flight more fun. For that, I have:

  • A Kindle, with two novels I've yet to read;
  • An iPod, with the last 10 episodes of This American Life; and
  • A laptop, with three projects I can work on, two of them billable.

Still, thirty years ago, the idea of spending a week in Japan, posting photos of the trip in near-real-time, and keeping in touch with people by text and phone for pennies—all of this would have seemed like science fiction.

Welcome to the 2010s and cheap travel. I wish more people would take advantage of it. I'll have more thoughts on that point when I land.

Thursday 1 December 2011 17:51:42 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Aviation | Travel#

My last meal in Tokyo came off a conveyor belt:

For ¥600 I got this:

...plus a salmon roll, a pair of shrimp nigiri, and a pair of grilled salmon nigiri. And it was yum.

If you're ever southwest of the Shinjuku train station, look for this place:

And in a little over an hour, the long voyage home begins...

Thursday 1 December 2011 13:34:10 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink | Travel#
Wednesday 30 November 2011

While most people back home have yet to down their second coffees of the day, I'm about to go to bed. Tomorrow—December 1st—starts for me in 10 minutes and ends 39 hours later thanks to the miracle of air travel.

I go to bed happy that I've had a great little vacation, and that the FCC told AT&T where to take its merger with T-Mobile:

Although the Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday granted AT&T’s request to pull its merger application from review, giving AT&T time to retool the plan in private, the FCC also published a damning, lengthy report outlining why it wasn’t convinced the merger was in the public interest in the first place.

“…The Applicants [AT&T and T-Mobile] have failed to meet their burden of demonstrating that the competitive harms that would result from the proposed transaction are outweighed by the proposed benefits,” the report states.

This comes after the Justice Department slammed the brakes on the merger last month. For some reason, the government sees duopoly in nation-wide mobile phone service anti-competitive, and thinks that AT&T will raise prices and cut service if it becomes the only GSM carrier in North America. I mean, AT&T has never behaved that way before, right?

As someone who fled AT&T for T-Mobile years ago, I am relieved that the merger will probably not go forward now. I hope T-Mobile either stays in the U.S. or sells to a company other than AT&T, like U.S. Cellular. At least I never have to go back to Ma Bell for mobile service.

Oh, and the U.S., U.K., the ECB, and three others injected liquidity into the Euro Zone this morning, which may (everyone hopes) save the world economy from utter ruin. That this means more dollars have started circulating, and therefore my next trip abroad just got more expensive, which I think is a small price to pay for avoiding, you know, a global depression. In the last hour, Sterling, the euro, and the yen have all risen 2% against the dollar, though. I'll be interested to see how much the yen in my pocket is worth in the morning.

Wednesday 30 November 2011 23:48:04 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | US | World#

Tokyo at night, with a 6-second exposure:

(Here's the daytime view.)

Wednesday 30 November 2011 17:16:54 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Photography | Travel#

I had planned to visit the Tokyo National Museum today, and possibly one of the other museums at Ueno Park, but then this happened:

Yes, a sunny autumn day with the temperature passing 21°C simply did not allow me to go inside. I spent a few hours just walking around Ueno-Koen, encountering the local fauna:

More fauna:

Oh, and hey, my camera shoots video:

(Apologies for the jerkiness; I was hand-holding a 250mm lens.)

Wednesday 30 November 2011 16:35:20 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Geography | Weather#

Yesterday (er, earlier today in the U.S.), American Airlines filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11, hoping to reorganize itself into profitability. A few hours after the news, the head of the frequent-flyer program sent out a reassurance to us members:

We want to assure you that your AAdvantage® miles are secure. The AAdvantage miles that you've earned are yours and will stay yours, subject to usual policies, until you choose to redeem them for a great award with us. Likewise, your elite qualifying miles and your elite status, including lifetime status granted under the Million MilerSM program is secure and remains intact. You will continue to earn miles through all our existing AAdvantage participating companies and you will be able to redeem those miles for the same great awards — flights, upgrades, car rentals and hotels just to name a few. And, throughout the coming year, we will be adding even more opportunities to earn miles, as well as new ways to redeem those miles.

(Emphasis in original.)

Of course, the X factor remains the attitudes of the pilots, flight attendants, gate agents, and other front-line employees who stand to lose the most (other than, obviously, bondholders) from the restructuring. I'll keep an eye out—and I'll keep flying American and it's oneworld partners.

In a related bit, private pilot and journalist James Fallows has a lively debate on his blog today about electronic devices on airliners, and how your Kindle most certainly will not crash the plane if you forget to turn it off.

I'm off on my penultimate day of exploring Tokyo. Yesterday I hit the photography museum; today, I think, the Tokyo National Museum.

Wednesday 30 November 2011 09:24:49 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Aviation | Geography#
Tuesday 29 November 2011

My airline has filed for bankruptcy, to the relief of some and the surprise of none:

AMR was the last of the major legacy airlines company in the United States to file for Chapter 11. Analysts said that its reluctance to do so earlier had left it less nimble than many of its competitors.

The company says it intends to operate normally throughout the bankruptcy process, as previous airlines have done. AMR does not expect the restructuring to affect its flight schedule or frequent flier programs.

Actually, the frequent-flier programs never get cut in bankruptcy, because we frequent fliers keep the airline aloft. Still, a part of me had hoped the airline could stay out of chapter 11 if only to prove it could be done, even while most of me realized that it couldn't.

AMR's bankruptcy won't hurt customers, but it will make the flight attendants, maintenance crews, and TWA pilots uncomfortable. In fact, the TWA pilots, who lost most of their seniority when AMR acquired their previous employer in a bankruptcy sale, will probably hate this development the most. The Times continues, "[t]he company had been in contract talks with its unions until the negotiations stalled earlier this month when the pilots’ union refused to send a proposal to its members for a vote. Because federal bankruptcy rules allow companies to reject contracts, AMR may take a harder negotiating stance with its unions."

As long as I can get home Thursday...

Tuesday 29 November 2011 23:51:37 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Aviation#

I didn't get up at 4am to go watch the tuna auction at the Tsukiji Fish Market, but I did go there for lunch. Oh, what a lunch. This man knows how to make sushi:

And I found the place by looking for a line:

Then I had one tekka maki roll, one tai nigiri, one hamachi, and because the tekka maki made me want to cry, I had a maguro.

Let me explain this tuna.

No, there is no time to explain, let me sum up: It came off the boat this morning.

From the first bite of the tekka maki, when the tuna started melting on my tongue, I understood sushi. I'll still enjoy Green Tea, Ringo, and a couple other places in Chicago, but now, I've had the ur-sushi, right at the source. I might have to go back there tomorrow or Thursday for lunch... (Tomorrow and Thursday? Possibly.)

Oh, and the miso soup? Unbelievable.

Tuesday 29 November 2011 15:47:26 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink#

Yesterday I took the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto and back. The 476 km trip takes two hours and twenty minutes, averaging 200 km/h including stops.

The best we have in the U.S. over the same distance, the Acela from Boston to Philadelphia (511 km), takes just over five hours on a good day and more if it snows. Chicago to St. Louis (457 km) is scheduled for five and a half hours, but I haven't ever made the trip in under six.

The U.S. made different choices than Japan (or Europe: London to Newcastle, 483 km, takes 2 hours and 50 minutes), because our vast depopulated spaces made an automobile-based infrastructure deceptively appealing. Wouldn't it be incredible if the U.S. experienced some kind of economic situation where it made a lot of sense to start correcting that monumental error? Oh, right.

In any event, I left the Tokyo train station a little past 10 in the morning and got to see this by 2, which is really the point:

Tuesday 29 November 2011 09:27:19 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Geography | Photography | US | World#
Monday 28 November 2011

Exhibit 1, a very fast train:

Exhibit 2, autumn at Tenryu-ji, one of 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto:

Exhibit 3, a juxtaposition of transportation technologies:

Explanation, to the extent required, follows tomorrow morning.

Monday 28 November 2011 22:48:36 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Geography | Photography#
Sunday 27 November 2011

Every year, the Economist publishes the Big Mac Index, "a fun guide to whether currencies are at their “correct” level. It is based on the theory of purchasing-power parity (PPP), the notion that in the long run exchange rates should move towards the rate that would equalise the prices of a basket of goods and services around the world." The current spot price of a Big Mac in Tokyo today is ¥680: just under $9. Yes, NINE DOLLARS.

This fact might cushion the surprise I experienced this evening when I discovered that four small chicken skewers (yakitori), one medium bowl of rice, and a beer, cost $32.75, including tax. This wasn't at the Tokyo equivalent of Charlie Trotter's; this was at an anonymous izakaya near the Shinjuku train station.

Now, friends and enemies alike will tell you that I routinely spend that much at, say, my remote office. There's a tip, for starters, not to mention the occasional disnumeria after I've spent an afternoon there. Only, at Duke of Perth, that amount goes a little farther.

I've noticed other things beside the angina-inducing prices in this city. In no particular order:

  • I stand out. I've traveled all over the world, and in no other city (except possibly Shanghai) do I stick out more obviously than I do here. I find no small irony in that here, people don't know whether I'm American or Albanian; but they know I speak English, they know I'm not from these parts, and they know I'm the most likely person in any crowd to act unpredictably. It's not just me; all European-looking people look out of place here. And we all smile wanly at each other on the streets. It's odd.
  • Shibuya at night looks just like you'd imagine, sort of Piccadilly Circus, Times Square, and North Michigan Avenue smashed together and fed amphetamines. I'm glad I had the experience. People who know me will understand how happy I am to report that I have been to the most crowded, most chaotic, and most commercial place I have ever seen (i.e., the Shinjuku train station), on my way to the most crowded, most chaotic, and most commercial place the world has ever seen (i.e., Shibuya Crossing at 5pm). And this was Sunday night. Tomorrow, when both the train station and the shopping area are actually busy, I might avoid it. In fact, since my access to the rest of Japan depends on going through the busiest train station in the world, I may start fantasizing about renting a cabin in upper Manitoba for my next vacation.

Obligatory Shibuya-at-night photo:

  • No one here speaks English, but it doesn't matter. I've encountered none but helpful, patient people for the last two days. The price of dinner tonight may have made my baby cheeses cry, but the wait staff really dug in and helped me find the right words in my little dictionary. They were also enormously impressed that I know how to use chopsticks, which puzzled me, because I haven't encountered too many Americans who can't. Perhaps they thought I was British?

None of these things really bothers me, by the way. Well, all right, the crowds in Shibuya did, but it's Tokyo, so there are crowds, so what? I mean, we don't have this back home:

Sunday 27 November 2011 21:11:09 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Geography | Kitchen Sink | Photography#

Lonely Planet has by far the most helpful guidebooks in English. Their Tokyo City Guide recommends hopping on the Yamanote train to get an overview of the city. The train goes around central Tokyo in a little more than an hour; when combined with an all-day rail/subway pass (¥1580), it gives you a good overview of the place. Here's the inside (counterclockwise) train pulling into Tokyo Station:

More photos at The Daily Parker.

Sunday 27 November 2011 15:36:52 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Geography | Kitchen Sink | Photography#
Saturday 26 November 2011

Someday, I may got on a total vacation, a trip during which I completely disconnect from all that matters in the world. This may be saudade[1], or possibly outright delusion. In any event, this week, I'm still reading the news before breakfast.

Here's Krugman this morning (last night? It's dinner time Saturday in Princeton):

[T}he notion that denying health care to the near-poor is a serious deficit-reduction policy, but raising taxes on the very rich is not, is not something you can justify at all on the basis of the actual numbers. Anyone who says different is practicing, well, class warfare.

More wealth in the middle classes means more wealth for everyone. This is what next November will be about.

Speaking of elections, the front page of today's Japan Times ("All the News Without Fear or Favor") mentions New Zealand Prime Minister John Key's re-election this weekend. New Zealand matters in Japan. Who knew? (No offense to New Zealand, which I very much hope to visit one day and I will certainly love with all my heart, but that brings to three the number of countries who do. The others, of course, are New Zealand and Kiribati.) Interestingly, the story does not appear on the paper's website.

Enough paying attention to the world. I'm off to explore.

[1] "The feeling of longing for someone that you love and is lost," according to Pamela Haag in a cute list of phrases describing love that don't translate directly into English.

Sunday 27 November 2011 08:42:29 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | US | World#

I failed at both tasks last night. I didn't find sushi (at least, not for less than ¥1,000 per piece), so I had—wait for it—Lebanese. After dinner I came back to the hotel room and managed to read until about 8:30, before I could no longer remember the last sentence I read.

It's just 7am now, and I feel like I've had the best sleep in weeks. Good morning Japan:

After I get showered and caffeinated, I plan to wander around Tokyo randomly, and find sub-$12 sushi. Then I will read the instruction manual for the washroom, because this:

...is just too intimidating right now.

Sunday 27 November 2011 07:05:33 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Geography#

I've arrived in Tokyo, not sure if it's Friday night or Saturday night. This is a known hazard of flying across the International Date Line, one I get to experience in reverse in a few days.

For now, I'm just looking for sushi. Must...stay...awake...until...9...

Saturday 26 November 2011 17:49:15 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Aviation | Geography#
Friday 25 November 2011

I'm 10,500 m over the Yukon on a Japan Air Lines 777-300.[1] In the last couple of hours, I have started to understand, rather than just "know," that Japan is the most technologically advanced country in the world. I'm also wondering why my main carrier, American, can't learn how to do some of these things.

First, the plane is spotless inside and out. I mean, immaculate. I mean, if you wanted to give visitors a good feeling about your country, you would start by making your airplanes really attractive, right?

Next, unlike in American's fleet, the washrooms on this plane have a device to select how hot or cold to make the tap water, and another device that magically senses when you've put your hands under the spigot. Previously I'd only seen those two technologies—continuously-varying water temperatures and motion sensors—almost everywhere else. American Airlines planes, by contrast, have two buttons or levers, and you push the buttons or levers either alone or in combination to get about 10 seconds of water. In other words, the water shuts itself off regardless of how much soap you still have on your hands, and you only get three temperatures. I believe it's the same technology they've used since, I think, 1930.

Then we have the incredible service in business class.[2] For lunch, I eschewed the steak in wine sauce for a 9-item array of Japanese morsels including duck meatball, yuzu pepper chicken rolls, a soba (noodle) sushi roll, deep-simmered pork in shoyu, grilled Greenland halibut in miso sauce, steamed fluke with apple vinegar, two pieces of "Philadelphia" roll (smoked salmon around cream cheese), and steamed sea-bream with lotus root mousse. Throw in a small bottle of dry sake, some green tea, a bowl of rice, and an amuse bouche of shrimp in avocado sauce and marinated mushrooms, and a cup of English tea with milk for dessert, and I don't want to leave. (Except, you know, I'm in an aluminum tube high above the Canada-Alaska border, and there's another reason to stay.)

The service continues until 90 minutes before landing, or about 6 hours from now (we land in 7:40, according to the moving map). They have two pages of food and drink options passengers can order any time, plus a two-page wine list and a reasonably stocked open bar just past the bulkhead.

I can only imagine what's going on in first class. I believe I saw Charlie Trotter opening an entire restaurant up there, plus a sushi bar and, for the Americans, a charcoal grill.[3]

Finally, a little thing American and other carriers should consider: mirrors in the overhead bins (which have enough room for small elephants, I should mention). You can actually see, using the extremely high-technology reflective plastic at the back of the bin, what you can't see standing on the floor. How much does this cost, I wonder? Maybe $100 per airplane?

We are now passing the northern-most point on our trip. All the windows are closed so I don't know if the terminator is visible off the right. Off the left, we have snow-covered snow, on top of mountains.

I'm going to try napping now, though the tea I mentioned earlier—not to mention the coffee necessary to get me awake enough to find O'Hare—might make that impossible. We land just past 23:30 Chicago time, or 14:30 in Tokyo. I sense a horrible exhausted crash coming right around dinner...


[1] I'm going to sync this entry with the flight's track from FlightAware so you can use the location feature to see exactly where I posted this. Unfortunately, I'll have to copy the post to the live blog after I get to my hotel.

[2] Yes, business class: I paid with frequent-flyer miles! My entire round-trip to Tokyo cost me $53 in cash, and I'm not even using up all the miles I've earned so far this year. I also paid for the hotel room with points, except for the last day, for which they gave me a deal. Total cash for five nights in Tokyo: $200.

[3] I'm making that up, of course. The airline's website has the business- and first-class menus, if you want to drool more.

Friday 25 November 2011 12:44:54 AKST (UTC-09:00)  |  | Aviation | Geography#

I've long advocated doing things when no one else seems to be doing them. In furtherance of this philosophy, I'm starting a vacation today. The two days following Thanksgiving are truly a delight at O'Hare (despite a bit of amateur hour at the security checkpoint when the woman in front of me emptied her entire purse into an x-ray bin), and on the highways around Chicago. Yesterday it took me an hour to get from my house to the intersection of the Kennedy and I-294, which is about 3 km from the O'Hare terminal I'm sitting in right now. This morning, from dropping Parker off at boarding to O'Hare took 28 minutes. I was through security ten minutes after that.

My next trip out of O'Hare will be two days before Christmas, however. So allow me to enjoy the relaxed, unhurried atmosphere today.

Friday 25 November 2011 09:20:41 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Aviation | Chicago#
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David Braverman and Parker
David Braverman is a software developer in Chicago, and the creator of Weather Now. Parker is the most adorable dog on the planet, 80% of the time.
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