The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Good news before bed

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.


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.)

American's reassurances

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.

Good thing I did this trip on miles

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...

Lunch at the dock

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.

Real train service

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:

The Big Mac Index

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:

The Yamanote line

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:

From Shinjuku, I went around to Tokyo Station, and walked over to the Imperial Palace. You can't get near the place, really; there's even a moat around it, in case of siege engines. I did wander the outer garden, dodging bicycles and Japanese tourists, and finding an unusual (for me) number of people doing watercolors:

Back to Tokyo Station for lunch in one of the crowded food courts, where I sampled three different kiosks and only bit into one thing I didn't like. (I must remember to ascertain what part of the chicken is on the teppanyaki stick.)

I decided not to try these, however; $15.50 was just too expensive:

After lunch I continued on the Yamanote train to Shibuya, which everyone who's ever seen a photo of Tokyo has seen. I plan to head back there around sunset to (a) get photos of it at night and (b) eat dinner in one of its thousands of little restaurants. Stand-up sushi, maybe? Itadakimasu!