Archive for January, 2009


Happy Chinese New Year to all out there that celebrate the occasion!

Though commonly referred to as the “Year of the Ox” or “Year of the Cow”, it is actually the “Year of the Earth-Ox”.  Each year in the Chinese calendar is made up of a stem and a branch.  So this year, the the stem is Earth (己) and the branch is the Ox (丑).

Having read a little about this, I’m now  very interested in the calendar.  Perhaps a topic for a future post? Anyway….

Happy 己丑 Year!


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Japanese terms in Taiwanese Mandarin

I have been watching a Taiwanese television drama on the Internet lately to try and pick up some new Mandarin vocabulary.  After all, being entertained and learning new vocabulary is the best way to learn, right?  Certinaly it is more interesting than the often dry, but necessary, Chinese reader texts.  The drama is in Mandarin (with that Taiwan-style slur) and has subtitles in English and Chinese.

In the drama, I burst out laughing at the following utterance that one of the male characters said teasingly to a woman in her late twenties, perhaps early thirties:


Translated to English, it means, “you really are like a vegetable market auntie,” which is not something a young woman would like to hear.  For those not familiar with it, “auntie” is the term used for a woman in her late thirties and up.  It doesn’t have anything to do with family relations in this usage.  “Aunities” typically talk in a loud voice, gossip with the neighbors, have strong opinions that annoy the youth, et cetera.  Aunties are not unique to Chinese culture though. Japanese refer to the same category of women as おばさん (obasan).  In the Philippines, though I don’t know any Tagalog, women of the above category are also “aunties”.  

What is interesting about this sentance is that it uses 歐巴桑 for “auntie.”  歐巴桑 is pronounced “ou ba sang” in Mandarin, and this immediately caught my attention because “ou ba sang” and the Japanese “obasan” are strikingly similar in sound.  Taiwan seems to often look to Japan for its trends, and I guess the Taiwanese also adopt Japanese words as well.  歐巴桑 has absolutely no meaning as characters, they simply provide the phonetic sounds “ou ba sang.”

I’d love to know it his is just something unique to the drama, or if this term is commonly known and used in Taiwan.

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The Good Drink

Last summer while driving around the mountains and the Japan sea coast, whenever I saw a microbrew or local beer, I picked up a bottle to try once back in Hachioji.  Why not? A After all, when in Tokyo one MUST have something to remind oneself that there is a world outside of the urban jungle and the monotony of corporate drudgery.

The first beer I picked up was Shirakaba/Tateshina (白樺・蓼科) München (Munich) style beer.  The beer is produced by Ikenodaira Hotel on Shirakaba lake.  I imagine the beer is not very popular in Japan because it is a dark “hefeweizen” (wheat beer), and lager seems to be the only popular choice amongst the Japanese.  I have never been able to get any coworkers to join me at a microbrew to try different types of beer because everyone is happy with the mass-produce lager.  (sigh)…oh well.  Beer lovers in Japan do seem to know this beer as it comes up in web queries.  I enjoy dark beers and this one had a bit of fruity taste that complemented the heavy wheat taste.  I’d definitely buy this one again!  I found it in a Family Mart, by the way, but you can probably buy it and a variety of others in the hotel lobby.

Shirakaba dark beer

It’s not flat, I just don’t really like bubbles in my dark beers, so I pour very slowly and let it slide down the side of the glass creating little to no bubbles

The next local brew I found was in Kanazawa in a Japanese sweets shop that also sold a set of local beer.  I also saw this in other shops so it must be rather common in the tourist shops of Kanazawa.  The bottles in the set were labeled Hakusan Wakuwaku Beer, and the set consisted of three types of ale: Golden, Amber and Koshihikari.  Ale happens to be my favorite kind of beer (a sin in a county where lager is the king and it is thought that ONLY Germany produces good beer).  All of these beers were very tasty, from the light golden ale to the heavenly amber ale.  The koshihikari was quite unique, but the fragrence was not very strong and it was similar to the golden ale in taste.  To the best of my knowledge, koshihikari is a type of rice produced in Japan, so I can guess this beer was produced with rice involved in the process. 

Hakusan beer set

The amber ale on the right was just perfect!

Finally, on the way back towards Hachioji, we stopped into Karuizawa. In the outlet shopping mall there was a foods shop that was selling sets of Karuizawa High Plains beer. The set consisted of three beers: national trust, wild forest, and 2008 seasonal. I’ve seen the wild forest beer on the shelves of the Sogo dept. store at Hachioji station, so I suppose this is probably a mass-produced beer, just not to the proportions of the beer giants. These beers were not as good as the Shirakaba and Hakusan, and if you blindfolded me and asked me to compare these to Ebisu beer line-up I probably would get a few backwards. Nevertheless, they were enjoyable beers. National trust is a dark beer with a gool old-fashioned wheat taste, wild forest is a regular Japanese-style lager, and the seasonal brew was another variaton of lager. 

Karuizawa beer set

I suspect that one can order these beers on the Internet in sets from the breweries; often it is the only way to order microbrews in this country.  I’ve seen a few microbrew sets for 5000 yen ($50), so it isn’t cheap.  Regular beer in Japan is expensive enough with all of the taxes there to protect the sake producers, but for a treat once in awhile, however, if you enjoy wheat beers you will, with no doubt, like the Shirakaba beer. One cannot go wrong with the Hakusan amber ale either.  After all, the images of Shirakaba (白樺)  and Hakusan  (白山 – White Mountain) are much nicer than anything that comes to mind from the mass-produced stuff.

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Radio spectrum woes

Obama’s wants to delay the digital television switch?  In an economic downturn, that is probably a great idea, right?  You’re the guy that saved everyone from having to buy a new teletivision set or from buying some silly digital-to-analog box just so you can take in the news.  “Its a populist move,” the right wingers will tell you.  “It will impede the free market access to radio spectrum,” the right wingers will tell you.  You have to give them credit, they are idealists–or they’re just deeply involved in the big telecoms business model.

I’ve read a lot from free market types who are excited about the radio spectrum that will be freed from this transition from analog to digital to digital television.  No doubt about it, digital transmission is much more effecient than its analog brother.  I can say this as an engineer myself, and the quality of the transmission should be much better too.  However, don’t be fooled into thinking that the released spectrum from this move will create more innovative and new wireless services.  That is, and never was, going to ever happen, no matter what the FCC and their friends tell us. 

As Google discovered last year, only those in the telecom brotherhood are able to buy spectrum.  The FCC will allow others to take part in the bidding, after all,  they have to appear to be unbiased, but in the end only the giant telecoms stand a chance at being granted a contract for spectrum.  Google has the financial might to fight it out with companies like Verizon and AT&T in the bidding process, but what it does not have is people in the right places.  The sad truth is that FCC officials, as well as telecom regulators in most other countries too, find that upon retirement, usually they can find their way into consulting or executive positions in the big telecoms.  You’re not surprised, are you???

If the FCC really wants to free up some spectrum for new innovative radio services, they are going to have to confront the Dept. of Defense which has a strong hold on many parts of the radio spectrum.  In our current climate of national defense above everything else, don’t count on it.  Instead, Verizon, ATT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile will continue to scoop up what little extra spectrum is available so that they can offer 4G wireless services where they will continue to offer the same outrageous rates for basic services like text messaging.  And don’t expect it to get any cheaper either.  To pay for the new 4G networks, they’re going to have to charge high prices like they did when 3G first hit the market.

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On Black and White Film

I was cleaning out my miscellaneous shoebox full of all sorts of things when I came across a roll of Kodak Black & White Film  and a roll of Kodak color film that had been used quite some time ago.  Curious about the contents, I went to my local shop to get the film developed.  The color roll came back with almost every picture a blank shot.  There were some pictures where I could make out lamps or items in a room, but I guess the humidity of Japanese summers ate the color film and destroyed whatever I shot.  The black and white film, however, came out with a bunch of photos that really brought out memories.  It was worth the money to get them developed.

Before I get into the photos, I thought I should mention that I have both a film and digital camera.  I love my film camera, but since coming to Japan I have not used it as much as I’d like because developing regular film is costly, especially black and white.  The roll mentioned above cost me 1800 yen or US$18, while the color roll was only about 600 yen or US$6.  I’m convinced that if you’re going to shoot black and white, you must develop the film yourself.  Sure, you could use your digital camera and then use software to convert your color shots to monochrome, but the level of detail feels so different.  The contrast in regular analog black and white film simply cannot be matched, in my humble opinion.  Perhaps someone could refute that?

A slight diversion, I remember as a child my father developing black and white film in the family bathroom with his friend Allen from the office.  And I remember getting in trouble for opening the door or a drawer or something like that where a bunch of light enters the dark room while the process was still happening.  I also remember vocational education from secondary school.  I didn’t max out on academic courses, I balanced the academics with technical education in courses like electronics, mechanical drafting, and graphic design.  In graphic design I remember developing black and white photography and really enjoying it.  There is something really special about taking your photos and then developing them yourself…you just have to experience the magic of it.  Of course Chemists wouldn’t call it magic, but then again I was never that strong in Chemistry anyways…

So, about the roll of film.  I wish I could share some of the pictures with you, but I left my scanner in my room at my parents home in America so I can only describe the contents.  The beginning of the roll takes me to March 2004 when I was visiting some friends who were still in the university and preparing to graduate in May.  I had graduated in December, but I was unemployed, rejected from the JET program to teach English in Japan (what was I thinking…who hires an engineering student to teach English????????), and was getting ready to start working as a warehouse hand at a store that would only hire me as part time, but work me for 35 hours a week. (i.e. no benefits).  In the pictures there is a light snow all over Norfolk, Virginia, of course a shallow snow, but so beautiful.  I really wish it snowed more in Tokyo.  I cannot understand why all Japanese people hate snow so much.  “It makes getting to work hard,” they say, but that is because the employers are whacked out and demand work over natural elements any day.  I won’t get started though on that….any way, I must have taken the photos during spring break as their are no students on campus and the snow is so beautiful.  Among the people in the shots are my good friend from Taiwan, as well as my ex-girlfriend from Malaysia.  It was a different time in my life then.  I truly thought I could land a job and do something meaningful with my life.  Perhaps that is due to the fact that engineering professors are so out of sync with the employment market!!!  Companies aren’t searching for hopeful youth with ideals and dreams, they’re looking for seats to fill to do a repetitive “electrical plumbing* job.  Get your Ph.D. if you have the talent and brains, it is the only way to escape this path.

All of the sudden, the roll of film jumps to October 2004 when I was in Japan and attending the Kawagoe City festival.  I had only been in Japan for three months and it was still so new to me.  It is a nation-wide famous festival and even today I try to get back to see it when possible.  After all, Kawagoe is my wife’s hometown.  Kawagoe is a great small city, of all the places I’ve lived in Japan, I liked it the best (thought it was lonely because not many foreigners make it out to that part of Saitama).  

I really love the photos that I took because when I look at them I can see that I was very different then.  I took pictures of not only the danshi (the wooden cars that everyone pulls down the street), but also of people participating in the festival.  Having lived in Japan for quite some time now, I wouldn’t take pictures of a stranger because I’ve been convinced by everyone around me that it is very rude to do so.  I didn’t know that at the time, and as a result I have some GREAT pictures of ordinary people enjoying the festival.  The black and white film really brings out the contrast and colors of the festival in a way that color film cannot.  I suspect it is because with color film our eyes are directed to the strong colors (red, orange, etc.)  With black and white photos, we have to take in everything, and each person finds his own treasure in the photograph.  If you don’t believe me, try it out yourself.  Only a techno-hippie would still argue for the digital color shot.

Quite honestly, I miss that feeling of being somewhere new and exiting.  Every once in awhile I get the crazy idea that I ought to move my family to Taiwan or China so that we can experience something new and I can add a skill to my resume that might make me more employable in the USA or Japan.  Engineering spreads across borders these days and is a very global market.  I’m sure I could learn a lot, and living in China would probably be an asset to add to my resume some day if I ever escape from engineering in the lab,  but moving a family to a new place just to experience something new is not always a smart idea.  Salaries in Taiwan and China, at the present time, are lower than that of Japan or the USA.  Cost of living is lower, but a lower salary for a foreigner makes it harder to afford air fare to visit family abroad.  Seeing my son after birth made me realize that while he’s just a young child I want to create an environment where he can just run around and play before he has to buckle down and get serious about life.  I always want him to be able to visit his grandparents in America and Japan.  Of course that will cost so much more than when I was a kid and I could visit my grandparents in Virginia and North Carolina.  That tis a drivable distance, after all!  But I still want my son to be able to experience that, and it means I have to make more money.  And unless I’m offered an expat package to go work in China, I suspect I’ll stay in Japan or the US for now.

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New Year’s Resolutions

These days it is popular to shun the making of resolutions for the New Year as a silly tradition, but I always like to take the opportunity to try to make some goals for myself.  Usually I would make some resolutions for my personal life as well as some resolutions for my career and work life.  I also always try to throw in some language learning resultions as well.  January always starts out well, but something always comes up at work that throws me off of the new routine and I never get back on track.  I often realize that I probably made too many goals and it would be impossible with the volatility of my work/free-time balance.

This year I’m not going to make any professional or language learning resolutions.  If I have time to deepen my knowledge of some technology or learn a new skill, that would be great.  If I can improve my listening skills in Mandarin even just a little, it is still an improvement.  I’m only making one resolution this year: to try to lead a healthier life.

As it is such a broad resolution, I have some areas I’d like to focus on to help achieve the goal.  The first is that I would like to create a habit of running.  I’m not aiming for a marathon or anything, but some daily aerobic exercise is really what I need.  I figure that in two years time my son will probably be running around playgrounds and I’m going to have to go after him.  When he gets older he might want to kick around a soccer ball with his old man.  I’m going to have to try to keep up with him!

The other thing is that I should probably cut back on my salt intake.  In the Tokyo area this will be a very challening task as everything is served with soy sauce.  To make things worse, all of my favorite foods have high salt content such as ramen or satays.  

Controlling salt intake and eating better is definitely something I can accomplish if I put my mind to it.  But sticking to a running habit is going to be tough, especially with all of the stuff that comes up at work.  I will do my best though, and this year I can’t complain and say I set too many goals.

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