Christmas Where Nobody Cares

Does Japan celebrate Christmas?

No. 

Sure you will see Christmas trees in the shopping malls and illuminations throughout the winter, but those have little to do with the actual holiday. There are holiday sales galore, because who doesn’t love a good sale? But that warm, hearthy, childlike anticipation that reaches crescendo in the early hours of December 25th (amongst children and adults alike) just doesn’t exist.

That isn’t to say that families are completely oblivious to the holiday. But most children receive just one gift on Christmas day. And those that have a tree (always artificial), have one that rivals the one from Charlie Brown Christmas. So it’s difficult to describe to my Japanese extended family the sheer gluttony of the American upper-middle class Christmas as I experienced it.

I think my Japanese wife gets it. She’s seen it in person. She seems to be into it. So when Christmas rolls around we really go full-on creating a holiday ambiance in our rabbit hutch of an apartment. Our artificial tree is larger than most, the lights twinkling each and every evening, and is overflowing with ornaments. We have stockings hanging in the doorway, even one for the dog. Christmas music from Accuradio is basically the background music for from December 1st (even earlier sometimes).

And here’s the real kicker. It never really has to end! Back in ‘Merica there comes a point after the new year where keeping your tree up (even artificial ones) is guaranteed to get some eyerolls. It’s gotta be down by February at least. And get those Christmas lights off the hedges or else you might as well declare yourself mentally unstable.

But here in Japan, because you don’t necessarily receive a lot of house guests and because few have any real understanding of Christmas etiquette, you can take certain liberties. It’s February 7th as I write this, and our apartment remains fully in the Christmas spirit. The tree won’t come down until at least after Valentine’s Day and “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” is on permanent repeat. Whatever keeps the hygge rolling is fair game as far as I am concerned. The only reason to pack all those decorations up is the joy I get setting it all up again. Too much of a good thing might diminish the holiday experience, so a Christmas intermission is probably necessary.

Maybe when the ice thaws we’ ll get around to sweeping up the tinsel, but I ain’t in any rush. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night! 

Zentangle

I’ve been experimenting with Zentangle, an artistic technique that is meditative, relaxing, and not dependent on skill. Some might call it advanced doodling. There might be more to it than that. But I think the results speak for themselves. Bare in mind that I can hardly draw a straight line.

I have been very impressed with my results. But the final artwork isn’t really the intention of Zentangle. The state of mind it facilitates is. I wouldn’t say I have reached any kind of pure meditative state while zentangling but it does focus me for extended periods of time. I don’t reach for my phone for excuses to abandon a session. When I seem to make a mistake (there are no mistakes in Zentangle), I find ways to alter my patterns and absorb that mistake. Something new emerges from it.

First I got comfortable just making patterns.
For many of these pieces I used just a few inexpensive sketching tools. A pencil, a couple black felt tip markers, and occasionally some colored pencils. There are countless books to help get you started. Joy of Zentangle has a nice collection of patterns (tangles) that helped immensely. Also, check out YouTube to see Zentangle in action and follow along. And of course the official zentangle.com. Their language may seem a bit cultish at times, but as long as they’re not passing out the kool-aid or waiting for the alien mothership to arrive, it’s cool. 

Farewell Social Media… forever?

I’ve gone back in forth on my relationship with social media. I went cold turkey off all of it a few years back only to have that experiment fail spectacularly. That led me to my most recent period of social media addiction, where I made accounts with countless platforms and allowed several hours per day to be sucked into their feeds. Well, that time wasting part of my daily routine is coming to an end.

I wasn’t a consistent poster or tweeter. But I was an aggregator. I needed to get through my Twitter and Instagram timelines, had to remain caught up. I guess Fear of Missing Out is a real thing. I wasn’t engaged with any of it though. I just needed to scroll. To get to the end.

But the reality is that I gained very little from my time spent on social media. I didn’t follow an overt amount of people or seek out anyone who would enrage me. I didn’t ever experience trolls. Maybe I was doing social media wrong.

My social media removal hasn’t been finalized as of yet. None of my accounts have been deleted. So far I have just removed the Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram apps from my phone. I haven’t checked any of those platforms for 2 weeks.

But in replace of those big three, another platform started to creep in – Reddit. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to be as dopamine driven as the others, so I haven’t build up any kind of addiction to it. Probably will delete that app soon as well.

Once I get through a couple more weeks of abstinence, I will start to sort out complete account deletion. Ridding myself of all those passwords and usernames will feel like joining an internet nudist colony. And it might not end there. I might even set up my own email server to get completely out from under Microsoft and Google’s fat thumb.

A Windows Free Apartment

Well, not quite. But it just got a lot closer. A few weeks ago I took some space from my ridiculously large Windows partition (200 Gb of 600 Gb free space) on my daily driver Toshiba Dynabook laptop and installed Peppermint OS, a semi-lightweight Ubuntu based Linux distro. It was a bit worrying. I had bricked my old netbook multiple times trying to do different dual boot implementations. So I made sure to take all the necessary backup precautions when shrinking my Windows volume (Windows actually makes this pretty easy, believe it or not) and installing Peppermint 9 from a USB stick.

Most important was ensuring that GRUB was installed onto the correct (efi) partition. Otherwise getting back to Windows 10 might be and issue. Thankfully everything went well and the PC rebooted without a hitch with both Windows 10 and Peppermint available on the GRUB menu.

Of course Peppermint boots fast and smooth with almost zero delay after login. No hangups on the password screen. No impossible wait times as bloatware loads in the background. All major issues with Windows 10. Peppermint runs like a dream and has all the benefits of the Ubuntu ecosystem but even more lightning quick. It also has many similarities aesthetically to older Windows versions so hopefully, with enough time, it will convince my wife to completely abandon that horrendous piece of Microsoft dreck.

Simple, lightweight, and gets the job done – Peppermint 9

But my dual boot was not without issue. The first problem I had to troubleshoot was fixing the clock de-syncing when switching between Windows and Linux. This is a common issue and is caused by Windows using local time for it’s default rather than UTC. I decided to fix this by changing Peppermint’s default time setting to RTC (local). This is the easiest, most no-hassle solution to get both systems showing the accurate time. (I know it’s not necessarily best practice, as UTC is preferred, but I just wanted things to work quickly.)

The second issue, which was more vexing than all others, was automatically pairing my Bluetooth mouse across both operating systems. Each time I paired it in one, I’d have to re-pair it in the other the next time I booted into it. Not cool! I won’t get into the vagaries of why this happens, but the fix was a bit more complicated than the clock sync issue. It involved extracting a key from the Windows Registry and copying it over to my Bluetooth configuration file in Linux. There are no two words in computer Geekdom that cause more existential dread for a regular Linux user than “Windows Registry”. Fortunately there are a million troubleshooting tutorials dealing with this issue, and after some mild hacking I was able to get my mouse working properly across platforms.

Finally having gotten these issues squared away, I know have a perfect dual boot setup: Windows 10 for the wife, and Peppermint OS for me. (Which I will now work out of – in perpetuity.) Bye Bye Windows… Happy New Year!

Raspberry Pi Virtual Fireplace

I’d been struggling to put one of my old Raspberry Pies to good use. For the better part of the last several months it’s been just idle, waiting to be tinkered with. I have all kinds of components to build a variety of wicked projects. But in the past, most of my attempts to make something interesting have been met with failure. So I decided to use this holiday season to finally bring something to life from the boxes of breadboards, transistors, and LEDs that are just taking up space in my Man-Corner.

Most importantly I wanted to utilize and old LCD composite monitor which stared blankly at us in the dining room each night. I came across an interesting guide to making a Pireplace that seemed doable. Something basic but fun. A video on a loop of a fireplace crackling that started on boot. Add a little LED Christmas light razzle-dazzle and now you got something interesting.

I set out to work using oshlab.com’s guide as a template. First on my list though was getting an old Raspberry Pi Model B (yep, we’re going old school) up to snuff to handle this project. I decided to use Dietpi as my OS since it offered a small enough image and could give me a minimal X environment (LXDE) to run the video from. I also put to use a 32 gigabyte USB stick to hold the mp4 video file. (plus any additional media for other projects down the line) This was necessary, since even this minimal DietPi install was pushing my 4 gigabyte SD card to capacity. I edited the /etc/fstab to mount it on boot.

Once I got all that squared away and finally got my USB WiFi dongle to work (remember that bullshit?), I started to get my project underway.

I used some random YouTube video downloader in browser to take a 1 hour fireplace video (there are quite a few to choose from), re-encode it at a lower resolution (to save space, and my first generation Pi can only handle so much), then uploaded it to my 32 gig USB stick attached to the Pi.

Next came getting the video to play. I tried the recommended omxplayer but was having some issues. So instead I went with MPlayer (a very similar, minimalist video player). That got my video playing fairly well. Then I wrote a shell script that simply executes my video playing on a loop in full screen mode through MPlayer. I placed that script in my /etc/xdg/lxsession/LXDE/autostart file so that my virtual fireplace starts burning away with no hassle after I ignite my Pi with the microUSB cable. (aka, boot the OS)

This worked wonderfully. Aside from some buffer overload issues that causes the fireplace’s sound to periodically drop out from time to time (video memory is not the original Pi’s strong suit), my Pireplace is a wonderful addition to our tiny Japanese apartment.

But of course, I wasn’t done there. Next came a Christmas light show to put everyone in the holiday spirit.

I busted out an 8×8 LED matrix and used some ready made C code from Sunfounder to drive the lights in a swirling psychedelic extravaganza. (just cut and paste, no C coding on my end) I compiled my code and then added that to my autostart as well. Light show complete!

Sunfounder’s schematics aren’t the easiest to follow when you are wiring something as complex as an LED matrix

Calm down folks, it’s just some LEDs. But whatever you do, DO NOT cut the red wire!

Well, not quite finished. I still had a lot of unused GPIO pins that I wasn’t about to waste. Python skills don’t fail me now! I wired up 5 LEDs and worked on some code to get them flowing in a nice little timed pattern. Then added it to the autostart, and now my virtual fireplace Christmas wonderland is complete.

Blogvember Retrospective

Well, that was interesting. 30 blog posts in 30 days. Some were better than usual. Some were just content for content’s sake. I learned a lot in the process. I became even more familiar with some of the nuances of WordPress. I mastered the use of the WordPress Mobile app. I was also able to fix some technical issues with the sight, and discover a few yet to be resolved bugs. It is always a work in progress.

Most importantly I learned to be free with my writing. Nothing is too delicate to blog about. I didn’t hold back. Will that bight me in the butt someday? Maybe, but I doubt it.

The Trans-Siberian Railway Dining Car

When I set off on my Russian trip in the spring of 2003 I had zero expectations, and was totally unprepared. I new more about some tiny ancestral village in the Ukraine, my final destination, than the thousands of miles of railway journey between there and Vladivostok. I did zero research on the language, people, or customs.

The flight from Niigata, Japan on Vladivostok Air set the tone for the whole trip. Broken tray tables, flight attendants with horrible fashion sense, and a runway disembark that featured soldiers with AK’s – all so charming. My only comfort came from the fact that I had paid MIR Corp a hefty sum to hold my hand after I cleared immigration.

My Russian visa is a direct reflection of my stay: gloomy, mishandled, and uncomfortable. Notice the conspicuous lack of departure stamp near the bottom. Apparently I never left, which feels about right deep in my soul.

Waiting in the arrival lobby with my name on a placard, was Ivan, my driver. I soon learned that Ivan spoke no English, listened to one Moby song on a loop, and that the road from the airport needs work.

Luckily my guide was waiting for me at the hotel, and she spoke English wonderfully. We set a morning pickup time for my one day in Vladivostok, and I got situated for the night.

Aside from some random phone calls to my room by local hookers working in conjunction with the hotel (a regular occurrence throughout my time in Russia), my short stay went well. I caught some excellent views of the navy’s sub pens in the harbor, was escorted to the bank for a cash exchange, and saw some stuffed Siberian tigers at the natural history museum.

My guide got me on the overnight train to Ulan Ude in the late afternoon, and all was right with the world. I had a nice 2nd class cabin all to myself (or so it seemed). But I was getting hungry. I would have to leave my protective bubble and venture towards the dining car.

I wandered a few cars down and luckily came across what appeared to be a restaurant. Now came the real challenge, ordering. Let’s just say that the proprietor/cook wasn’t exactly pleased with my presence.

Realizing that this Americanski spoke no Russian, he gruffly belched “You sit – now!” and gestured toward a booth with two other youngish Russian men. This despite the fact that there was quite a few empty seats, and this joint wasn’t going to be jumpin’ any time soon (or ever). But I wasn’t about to argue with the guy.

I looked at the Cyrillic menu like I had a clue, and tried just pointing to a few of the items.

“What you want?!”

I pointed again in fear.

“Borscht, you want borscht?!”

I nodded. I suppose I did. My other dinner companions were just as confused. They were handled just as curtly despite sharing the same mother tongue.

Of course our order took a painfully long time. We sat in uncomfortable silence for at least 30 minutes. When the food did arrive we all ate it quickly and got the hell out of there. Not my proudest international travel moment.

Fortunately, there were numerous other uncomfortable moments throughout my journey like: Doing vodka shots with the Russian soldier meant to be patrolling the train’s corridors, having my 2nd class cabin bunk mate change three times in the course of a night from hot redhead to shriveled babushka to sour construction worker, and having both the Russian and Ukrainian Authorities forget to stamp my passport at the border.

All of these and more can be experienced on the Trans-Siberian Railway!

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7e/Lenin%27s_head_in_Ulan_Ude.jpg?resize=438%2C584&ssl=1

Japanese Free Time

Quite a few years ago, before I set foot in the Japans, there was a policy shift in the Japanese school system. They stopped holding Saturday classes and cut back on some coursework. It seemed a step in the right direction. It was supposed to help invigorate the youth, help them to more independently discover their passions. All that good stuff.

It sounds reasonable on paper. But Japan looks good on paper in a lot of categories. When you put it under the microscope you find all kinds of discrepancies.

Case in point: school club activities.

With all this free time students would be having, of course joining clubs (sports, cultural, academic) would seem like an obvious direction many students would take.

I was in a few clubs throughout junior and senior high. I was on the no-cut soccer team in 7th grade, before it became competitive. Then in 8th I tried out for the golf team. That was an utter failure. I did some creative writing, sporadically worked on the yearbook staff, and got hoodwinked into building sets for the school theater productions.

There were also whole chunks of time I wasn’t involved in anything. School would end around 3 PM and I was running out the door, eager to get home, to just chill.

But here in ganbare Japan that luxury doesn’t seem to exist. I’ve been taking informal surveys of my 7th (1年生) and 8th (2年生) grade classes. Of the 35 kids in each class almost all of them are in a school club. That’s a pretty remarkable participation level for something I have been told is voluntary. But social/peer pressure is so intense in Japan that most students, teachers, and parents see not joining a club as some kind of failure.

Remember when Japan stopped holding Saturday classes? Well, guess what replaced that. Club activities. Clubs practice or meet six and sometimes seven times a week. But doesn’t that cut into their study time, you say? Sure. But my kid has to go to juku after school, Japanese mothers will complain. Don’t worry, Japanese schools have a remedy for such concerns: Club practice before school.

You heard me right. Many Japanese school clubs practice/meet before school. Nothing like coming to school before 7 in the morn for some table tennis practice seven days a week. Besides, who needs sleep? “Not the developing minds of teenagers,” said no modern doctor ever.

Have you ever tried teaching 35 unmotivated teenagers first period on a Monday morning? It sucks. Now add some intense one hour basketball drills into the mix just before that. Sign me up!

It all comes down to an almost primal fear of idleness by Japanese society. Every hour needs to be planned out. Should free time protrude into a young person’s life, then a life of crime, drugs, and moral ineptitude will surely take hold.

This literally was once expressed to me by an insane eikaiwa owner. A junior high school student who had been coming to that eikaiwa 5 days a week since she was in kindergarten, happened to be absent from evening class one day. The director pulled me into her office to discuss the “situation with Sakura.” I was perplexed. The director then started reeling off a litany of horrible and destructive life choices that Sakura might be turning to in that 2 hours of freedom. “She could be on drugs!” was the director’s logical conclusion.

Drugs? As if that is even a viable option for a middle school aged girl in Japan from a upper class family. I am not saying it can’t happen, but youth illicit drug use and addiction shouldn’t be the first conclusion one draws for a juku student skipping class. My more reasonable suggestion – that she probable is just getting a little tired of attending the same academy day after day for 12 years – was quickly brushed aside.

So the point is this. We need idleness. Japan needs idleness. It will help the country grow.

Winter False Start

It came and then it went. The snow began falling pretty heavily last weekend. It looked like an early start to snowshoeing season. I planned out my winter routes, prepared my Tubbs Wilderness snowshoes, got my gaiters ready – very exciting!

But just as it has been in the past, this snowfall was a short term visitor. A few days later the temperature shot back up above zero, and a rains came. This cycle will most likely continue for a few more weeks. Snow, then rain melting the snow, then the watery streets refreezing overnight. It makes my morning walking commute a real ankle breaker.

This part of the year is really some of the worst for outdoor enthusiasts. Snow can’t accumulate enough for snowshoeing or crampons. Trails are muddy, slushy, and too treacherous for even experienced hikers. Unfortunately, there is nothing to do but be patient. Hang in there folks!

Sapporo Christmas Market

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. The 17th annual Sapporo Munich Christmas Market. It’s has a selection of vendors from Russia, Poland, Germany, Japan, and other far flung nations. They’ve got roasted nuts, matryoshka dolls, Christmas ornaments, and novelty foods galore. Multiple varieties of hot wine, cider, and beer are available. Want a nice soft pretzel? That will set you back a minimum of ¥400. So if your on a budget this might not be your cup of tea. But makes for a nice stroll in Odori Park near the TV Tower. And it lasts until Christmas Day.

Also, Santa is there! And white guy Santa to boot! Sorry, Asian Santa freaks me out, that won’t ever change.