Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Formal Inventory

The family man, as a husband and father, has many responsibilities resting on his head. Not least among these is the care and protection of the family Legos. I know our Lego. I know exactly how many of which colour of which piece we have, and should any of them be missing when I lovingly place them in their Lego box for the night, I will know.

Grace's First True Lego Creation
(as opposed to a mere stack of bricks)

The most difficult thing about managing Lego is sharing. For example, let us say that I want to use all ten red 2 × 4 bricks in a bridge I am constructing. Chances are that Grace will decide that she wants to use red 2 × 4s too. Chances are even greater that she will knock down my Lego bridge for her own amusement before I even have a chance to lay the third red brick, let alone the tenth one. What is one to do?

Closeup of Grace's First Real Lego Creation

So Whatever Became of My CloudBook Mania?

I Ended Up Building This Cheap Knock-off Instead

Is My Daughter a Computer Cracker?!

A Closeup of My CloudBook Replica
(I didn't have enough black blocks)

As I have indicated in previous posts, I was one of the first people in the world to put in a pre-order for the first ever Everex CloudBook. Last week saw a lot of CloudBook un-boxings going online in the United States and, had I not canceled my order, I probably would have received mine here in Japan at the end of this week. So WHY, you might ask, did someone so obsessed about becoming an early CloudBook owner CANCEL his order?! Well, the fact is that I was beginning to realize (during Everex's one-month delay in their product launch) that I am probably not very well suited for the role. The CloudBook still requires a lot of developing, and--unfortunately--at present I have neither the time nor the necessary knowledge to be a part of that process. What finally nudged me into backing out--for now--was the following email I received from ZaReason.com :

We are nearly ready to ship the Cloudbooks. A few of the early orders (yours included) did not have the option to purchase the proper country-specific power cord since the non-US power cords were not yet available when we first opened up the preorders. We now have the power cords available. Please place your order for the proper type of power cord here. As soon as your order is complete, we can ship your Cloudbook with the proper power cord for your country.

Note that we can only ship your order when we have reassurance that you will be able to have a proper power supply in your country. If you would rather cancel your order, we will gladly give you a full refund. If you still want your Cloudbook, then please order the cord and we will gladly ship it to you.

Thank you,

[so-and-so] in Orders
---end quote---

I replied thusly:

Ahh. I suppose I should have noticed that a power cord was not listed in the hardware specifications . . . . Anyway, I respect and appreciate your offer for a full refund and, as reluctant as I am to do so, I think I am going to have to accept that offer. An extra US$29 pushes the total cost beyond what would make sense for me, especially since it is already costing me so much to ship the CloudBook to Japan.

My records show that you charged US$462.20 to my wife's credit card ($399 for the CloudBook and $63.20 for shipping). My understanding is that the shipping cost will also be refunded as no shipping actually took place? Please let me know how the refunding actually works, as we used a Japanese credit card (which, of course, charges us in Japanese yen) and I'm not very experienced with refunds on credit card charges.

I still think ZaReason is a great company, and I will be taking my time to research and consider your other products . . . or maybe even a future version of the CloudBook.

Luke Elliot
---end quote---

Sadly, I discovered later that refunds for credit card charges don't work very well at all . . . for the company that has to give them, that is (it worked out fine for us as we got all of our money back). A couple of days after asking for a refund, I began seeing the following message from ZaReason being quoted on CloudBook websites:

Due to the amount of money we have lost granting refunds (due to bank transaction fees) we can no longer sell the Cloudbook. You may be able to find it through other vendors but we can not guarantee stock. We are refocusing our efforts on laptops and desktops that we build ourselves over which we have complete control and which we have never missed a product launch. Trustworthy delivery of Linux hardware is the core of our business.
---end quote--- (Reference)

Reading that made me feel a little guilty about my personal role in the financial woes of a company I have come to respect greatly. I was also saddened by the fact that if I do buy a future version of the CloudBook, I will not be able to take my business to ZaReason. Hopefully--if Everex ever gets its game together with the CloudBook--the two companies will kiss and make up. Well, okay, maybe not kiss, but at least make up. Or maybe ZaReason will come up with their own implementation of the CloudBook. In any case, I'm hoping that the CloudBook will mature as a product by the end of the year (with a 9" screen and a properly developed gOS).

From reading articles and comments on various websites devoted to the CloudBook I am getting the sense that a) CloudBook fans in general are not necessarily being turned off by the problems that have been identified in the first batch and b) although ZaReason lost money in the end due to pre-order cancellations (responsibility for this outcome rests with both Everex and ZaReason . . . oh yeah, and with me too), their involvement with the CloudBook generated a lot of positive publicity for them.

This is a great site for learning about the CloudBook http://www.cloudbooker.com/

And now, for something completely different:

Can You Spot the Difference?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Oh Yeah, Saint Valentine's Day . . .

Baking Cookies with Mommy

For those of you who have never experienced a Valentine's Day in the Far East, it is the custom here to dedicate the day to enhancing shareholder value for the continent's sundry chocolate conglomerates (Lotte and Meiji come to mind). Contemporary culture dictates that women and girls buy valentine chocolates for men and boys. In many office environments this arrangement takes on an obligatory nature (the famous "giri-choco"). At the elementary and junior high school level girls give chocolates to whichever guys (yes, that's plural "guys" for each girl) they feel like giving them to in the confident knowledge that each of those boys will be obliged to return the favour in kind on White Day (March 14) in the form of cookies or white chocolate. Juvie chocolate giving usually kicks off around grade four. When I was in grade four, I received no chocolates. In grade five I received one. In grade six I again received one . . . from a different girl . . . a day late. I can only assume that this was "pity-choco." My best friend averaged about fourteen chocolates per Valentine's Day during those same two years. On the day before White Day when I was grade six, I ran into "pity-choco" girl in the local mom and pop shop just as I was preparing to buy her a White Day gift in return. She said: "just give me the money."

Ready for the Oven

While They were Baking

I Lego

Big Strawberry

. . . Two Days Later: Time to Put the Frosting On

Grace Approached the Task with a Can-Do Attitude . . .

. . . Not to Mention a "Help Yourself" Work Ethic

Ready for Delivery to Family Friends

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Christmas Photos I Never Posted

Our Ultra-Portable Christmas Tree

This year I knew it was time to start having our own Christmas tree. But a prerequisite of having a Christmas tree is acquiring a tree. Should we go with real or fake; large or small. Real trees tend to shed. I hate that. And the larger they are, the more they seem to shed. Fake trees are fake, and I hate that even more. Looking back on the preceding sentences, I realize that perhaps "hate" is an inappropriate word to be throwing around, especially in relation to Christmas trees. Please feel free to replace all the "hate"s with "have feelings of hostility or animosity toward." Fortunately, while on a family grocery shopping trip, I came across this little ¥600 (about $6.00) potted plant. It's called a Golden something or other . . . I think. I can't remember; I threw the tag away. Anyway, after attaching a few little Christmas tree decorations that only cost slightly more than the tree (bush?) itself, we had ourselves a lovely little Christmas tree. I liked it so much that I didn't un-decorate it until early February. Now it is sitting naked on our china cabinet, and our friend who is a forester is of the opinion that we should give it more sun. I have grown very fond of our little Christmas tree, so if it needs more sun to survive until next year . . . why, I will find a way to give it more sun. I am so proud of our Christmas tree that I am now going to force you, the reader, to look at it . . .

. . . again . . .

. . . and again . . .

. . . and again . . .

. . . and again.

Singing Christmas Carols by the Light of the Advent Candles
(We got this family tradition going two years ago)

Family Christmas--Early (i.e. 22 December)
(This is when I got . . . when Grace got her Lego set)

Our Latest Attempt at a Usable Family Photo

Christmas Dinner at Our Favorite
French Restaurant

(The only one within a hundred miles of us, I think)

The Two Moms

Oddly enough, this is the only picture I got of the grand-Elliot Christmas in Ajigasawa. Next year I should make a point of photographing the traditional Christmas sushi.

The Elliot-Ghent Christmas
at the Ghent "Warehouse"

Stay tuned for photos of New Year in Hokkaido . . . .

Dress Warm, It's Winter!

Grace Modeling the Knit Wool Jumper that Her Great-(in-more-ways-than-one)-Aunt Jan Made for Her Birthday

When Grace was born, I was there . . . with a video camera. I held Yuko's hand in my left, and filmed the happy occasion with my right (from carefully considered angles, of course). Then I took a bunch of pictures. Hardly a week has gone by since in which Grace hasn't been photographed, and perhaps that is why she can't look a camera in the lens without posing.

Pose 1

Pose 2 ("We're still doing rocking chair photos, right Da[d]?")

Pose 3 (The Casual "This isn't a pose" pose)

I'm not sure what the fashions are in North America right now, so I will point out here that pants worn under short dresses are all the rage for little girls in Japanese kindergartens.

Pose 4
(Grace: "Okay Da[d], now give me the camera and let me take your picture."

Dad: "Just a minute Grace, daddy will go put on his Mouseketeer uniform to make it a worthwhile photo . . . which reminds me, I haven't checked those mouse traps IN OVER FOUR DAYS!")

Many thanks for the jumper, Great-Aunt Jan!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Real Mouseketeer

Setting Out On A Mouse Patrol

For the past couple of months we've been hearing scurrying sounds in the ceiling. Yesterday, I finally picked up a couple of mousetraps at the hardware store. Personally I like the good old fashioned North American spring traps that are cheap, small and remarkably lethal. Unfortunately for me, most Japanese retailers only sell the cage and goo varieties of anti-mouse devices. With the cage variety success means a new pet mouse. Success with the goo variety leaves you with a sticky conscious since the victim presumably suffers a long drawn out and harrowing death as it wriggles itself deeper and deeper into the goo and eventually dies of suffocation or exhaustion. I bought the goo variety.

A Canadian "Tunnel Rat" Prepares for Mouse Clearing Operations During a Peace Making Mission in Northern Japan

The reason I took a knife up there was to make the photo more interesting. The reason I took the camera up was so that I could stick it through the ceiling insulation and rafters and do some photo surveillance of the traps without going through the bother of forcing my head and shoulders through small spaces at awkward angles.

Trap 1 Clear!

Trap 2 Clear!

"Clear!" is not the result we were looking for. What is going on? They are mice, these are mousetraps. I even embedded crumbs of whole wheat bread and brown rice crispies in the goo! Or "what if," as my wife suggested in a dark voice, "What if it's not really mice in our ceiling? What if it's a snake?" Well, I am possessed of certain primeval prejudices and phobias which make that thought too terrible for me to contemplate, so tomorrow I will sprinkle fish flakes on the goo. If there are no mice in my mousetraps by Thursday, I will entertain the possibility that more serious threats than mice are a-slither, declare DEFCON 1, and prepare for total warfare.

Grace Reading L.L.Bean:Kids During a Diaper Change
(Perhaps It's Time for the Dawning of a New Age--
the Age of the Potty)

Hard at Work, As Usual

Introducing: "Help Me Fix My Laptop"

This is my wife's old laptop: a six year-old "TiBook." It has been my interim computer ever since my not-so-trusty but still very serviceable Averatec died. Three more weeks to go before I get my CloudBook (I hope), but in the mean time I need to keep "Old Abi" going. The fact that it was sitting unused on a shelf for two years probably helps but, even so, some of the hardware is beginning to wear out. Last week I started having power supply issues . . .

. . . and I noticed that there was a lot of sparkling going on exactly where that dark spot at the base of the plug is.

So I cut the cord with my trusty Leatherman Wave's wire cutter . . .

. . . and discovered that one wire had burned right through. It was not only charred, but totally severed.

So I replaced the aesthetically pleasing but totally non-recyclable Mac plug with an ¥88 one I got at the hardware store.

It works great. I admit that this repair job is even less impressive and less interesting than the one I did on my Averatec a little over a year ago, and for that I apologize. I have wasted your time by sharing it with you.

Here is that self-same laptop a year later, and in need of more complex repairs. It has taken it's place on the floor of the spare bedroom, next to the box of old laptop parts and the remote controlled toy hovercraft I bought when I was a kid.

Maybe I will start a new series on this blog called: "Help Me Fix My Busted Laptop." We'll start with my old Averatec 3200.

Symptom: suddenly cuts out during the boot process (or, when I have it in BIOS mode, after a short period of time--the more times I try starting it in a row, the less time it takes to cut out).

Original Cause: I was defragging the hard drive--overheating may have been an issue.

If this laptop can be successfully repaired it will be donated to a good cause: replacing my father's eight year-old IBM that is still running Windows 2000.

Monday, February 04, 2008

A Reluctant Reference to My Least Favorite Institutions and, "Should I Pre-Register My Photo and Fingerprints the Next Time I Travel Outside Japan?"

I am a child of the Cold War, and if there was one thing I really thought was foul about the Reds when I was a kid (besides their perceived habits of throwing Christians into gulags and controlling the lives of their citizens), it was their maniacal border controls. Well, like old soldiers, the commies just faded away during my teens, but as a well-traveled third culture kid (TCK) I quickly learned that all border and immigration agencies of all countries were my enemy--especially after I turned eighteen. It has always been my desire, though, to keep my own little cold war with the world's border agencies from turning hot. After all, I am just one bug among many bugs, and they are a legion of stomping jackboots. They gave me a lot of grief, but I tried not to let them change my travel habits.

However, the day came (on my Honeymoon Part II) when U.S. immigration photographed and fingerprinted my wife during a changeover on our flight to Canada (I had been unaware of the new U.S. policy that required all non-Canadian foreigners to be subject to biometric identification). I decided then and there that I would never again fly with an American airline and that I would never again take my family through an American airport . . . and I haven't. It's not that I think that being fingerprinted is the end of the world; I had to be fingerprinted as a registered alien in Japan when I turned sixteen, and also when I applied to join the auxiliary police in Ontario, Canada. It is just that the once exotic world of airports and air travel has gradually been morphing into a venue for personally degrading probings by the executive branches of governments. Frankly, I am much more afraid of earthquakes, governments and war than I am of terrorists. I'm not saying that terrorists aren't terrible or that I'm not afraid of them . . . I'm just more afraid of the other things, and I believe that I am perfectly justified in being so.

All of the above is merely an intro to the fact that I am extremely unhappy that Japan has opted for its own (and less sophisticated) application of biometrics to border control. I have generally tried to avoid discussing the issue because in the ex-pat community it usually degenerates into a flame war between the "Japan is a Den of Incompetent Xenophobes" camp and the "Japan is Uniquely Transcendent and, Besides, America Did It First" camp. But this affects my life, and while boycotting the United States is painful yet possible for me, boycotting Japan is utterly impossible in the context of my life.

So, rather than wading into the debate (if you can even call it a "debate" when the bad guys aren't listening anyway), I will make my contribution in the form of some received practical advice. The following is an exert from an email I received through a mailing list:

For your information, our family has all done the optional pre-registration for entry/departure from Japan. I think this is available only in the Tokyo area for right now. Here are the details in case you are interested. You will probably find it is more trouble than it is worth. Anyway, I have composed what I learned in a question & answer format so you will know in advance:

QUESTION: Why on earth would anyone want to pre-register their fingerprints with immigration??
ANSWER: It may save you time standing in line upon re-entry, because you can use the automatic gate. And they are getting your fingerprints no matter what.

QUESTION: Automatic gate? That sounds cool! So I don't have to give my passport to an immigration inspector or be fingerprinted?
ANSWER: On the contrary. If you are a foreigner, your "automatic gate" will still be manned by an inspector, and you still have to be fingerprinted and photographed.

QUESTION: But just once, right?
ANSWER: No, every time you enter Japan you have to be photographed and fingerprinted if you are a foreigner.

QUESTION: So what, if anything, is different about this "automatic gate"? It sounds the same as a regular immigration gate.
ANSWER: You get to scan your passport page yourself. Otherwise, it is almost the same. Except that the line should be shorter.

QUESTION: Well, a shorter line sounds good...
ANSWER: Yes, but you still have to wait for your luggage...

QUESTION: Who gets to use the automatic gates?
ANSWER: Only Japanese or foreigners who have pre-registered their photos and fingerprints before leaving Japan.

QUESTION: So foreigners can go through the same gate as the Japanese?
ANSWER: No. There are separate automatic gates for Japanese and foreigners. But right now they only have a couple of gates installed.

QUESTION: What do you do when you get to the automatic gate for foreigners?
ANSWER: Use the scanner to scan the photo page of your passport, then hand your passport to the inspector, allow him to take your photo, and fingerprints.

QUESTION: That actually sounds like more steps than the regular line...
ANSWER: Is that a question?

QUESTION: Well then why would anyone want to use the automatic gates?
ANSWER: It doesn't matter. There probably won't even be one in your arrival wing. When my wife got back from China they did not have one in her wing.

QUESTION: Well where are they?!
ANSWER: Right now there is only 1 in Narita Terminal 1 South Wing (Lufthansa, Singapore, United, Asiana, and ANA) and Terminal 2 (JAL, Quantas, Air NZ).

QUESTION: If there is not an automatic gate in my wing, what should I do?
ANSWER: There is now a special line for foreigners who have a re-entry permit. If you have one you can go there instead of the regular foreigner line.

QUESTION: But I went through the Japanese line before. Can't I go through the Japanese line since I live here and have a gaijin card?
ANSWER: No. No more. Move away from the window please.

QUESTION: But my wife is Japanese...
ANSWER: Move away from the window please.

QUESTION: Well are there any disadvantages to using the automatic gate?
ANSWER: You need to know that they will NOT stamp your passport unless asked (arrival / departure info is recorded electronically for them, not you).

QUESTION: Well why would I need my passport stamped?
ANSWER: You might need proof of being out of your home country or in Japan for taxes, etc. It is up to you to keep a record. [. . .].

QUESTION: Well do I still have to fill out that stupid card? I always get confused about whether I am "embarking" or "disembarking."
ANSWER: Of course. You still have to fill out the card if you are a foreigner. Everything has to be done chanto.

QUESTION: So you still have to be fingerprinted if you use the automatic gate?
ANSWER: Of course. In fact, you have to be fingerprinted an extra time just to pre-register.

QUESTION: I am afraid to ask, but what kind of flaming hoops do I need to jump through to get "pre-registered for the automatic gate"??
ANSWER: If you have time, you can actually do it at Narita Airport on your day of departure. Otherwise you have to do it at the main immigration building in Shinagawa.

QUESTION: NOT Shinagawa!
ANSWER: See? I am helping you to make informed decisions already.

QUESTION: What do I need to take?
ANSWER: A valid re-entry permit in your passport. You fill out a form, give your fingerprints, and let them take your photo. They stamp your passport.

QUESTION: Is it quick? Do I have to take a number?
ANSWER: There were very few people registering when we went. We did not have to wait long. For some reason, people are not flocking to this.

QUESTION: Do I only have to do this registration once? And from then on I can use this high-tech automatic gate?
ANSWER: Are you joking? [. . .]. Your permission to use the automatic gate expires whenever your re-entry visa does.

QUESTION: Do the people who work in immigration at Shinagawa who only work with foreigners all day long every day speak any English at all?
ANSWER: No. Of course not. I saw a Middle Eastern family trying in vain to talk to them. But they do have the application forms in English.

QUESTION: Can I walk to Tokyo Immigration in Shinagawa from JR Shinagawa station?
ANSWER: No. Take a taxi. It is actually located on a kind of island so foreign detainees cannot escape. I am not making this up.

QUESTION: Do I have to give my fingerprints every time even if I have already pre-registered them?
ANSWER: Yes. And let them take your photograph. Actually they have to do both several times it seems, until they get it right.

QUESTION: If I change my mind and decide that I don't want to be "pre-registered" any more, can I cancel it?
ANSWER: Yes. You have to fill out some forms and it takes time. They will send you a letter when your registration is cancelled.

QUESTION: Will they erase the electronic record of my fingerprints then?
ANSWER: If you believe them. But note that they also warn:
"Please understand that if we discover that you have broken any laws, we will not notify you, we will arrest you."

QUESTION: Do they have to make it sound like those of us who bend over backwards to obey the law are practically criminal suspects?
ANSWER: You are. Enjoy your trip.

For those of you who have actually read this far, perhaps a comparison and contrast of these two government sponsored information videos will prove entertaining. This earlier one didn't go over so well.


So, they started from scratch again, and this time wisely left out the cameos of stupid, but suspicious, but compliant, but sometimes incorrigible foreigners. They also latched on to the public relations doctrine that if you want people to grudgingly submit to an idea they don't like, present it in a suave male voice with a BBC English accent (most other kinds of British accents won't do at all).


In practical terms, my biggest complaint with immigration procedures is that it requires international families to split up. We have been addressing, and will continue to address this issue by all lining up together in the lines for foreigners, whether we are entering Canada or Japan. Notice that the possibility of citizens attempting to go through the foreigners' lines is never addressed in any of the videos or literature. If we ever hit a brick wall when doing this, then we will become the t-word at heart, even though we would never do anything ungodly like hurt people. (An observation here--I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that the war on terror is the single biggest catalyst for turning non-terrorists into terrorists . . . but that is getting political and this is a family-oriented blog, not a political one).

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Who's the Baby?

Nobody knows. Yesterday, during its monthly photo-op, Baby #2 kept its back to us the whole time so we don't know yet whether we're looking at Jude or Faith.

Well, actually we were treated to a side view as well, but that wasn't much help either for purposes of gender ID. It would seem we were interrupting his/her midday prayers.

"What's all this, What's all this?!"
If only you knew, Grace, if only you knew. This is the (ultra)sound of your life changing . . . for the better, of course.

Soon you'll have somebody to play with.

Besides mommy and daddy, that is. Will the new baby like playing with Lego as much as daddy does? Usually, I spend my Lego time researching the perfect balance between efficiency and structural integrity in designing towers. Today, though, I was feeling reckless. The sky-pod three quarters of the way up is actually a separate unit and the only thing holding it in place is friction. My plan was to build a space elevator, not the CN Tower. (And yes, for those of you who were wondering, this experiment ended with the sky-pod crashing into Grace's head as soon as she began probing its defenses. . . just as one should expect when an eighteen-month-old and a Lego space elevator share a room).