A Miniature Library Inside My Library

My COVID-19 quarantine is now being rudely interrupted by a return to work next week. No idea how long that will last, what the infection rates are, or what the forecast is. I haven’t read or seen “the News” in about three weeks, and it has transformed my life!

With all that cleared out mind space, I have been putting to good use my miniature modeling skills. Mainly, I have been focused on Rolife’s “Sam’s Study”. This kit tested my patience like none other. I had to cut, fold, and glue over a hundred mini books, I nearly lost my mind installing the battery powered LED chandelier, and I cursed the heavens as I used tweezers to attach each painting to the cluttered walls. The detail was overwhelming. And now, after two months straining my eyes, “Sam’s Study” sits snugly between my tomes, like it was meant to be there all along.

A perfect book nook, thanks to some factory in mainland China
A closer look reveals a lot of detail
The wiring for the lighting was not easy

What have you been up to during this “situation”? Back away from the TV. The reality is that all news is fake news… doesn’t matter what “show” you watch.

COVID-19 and the Image of “Safe” Japan

For as long as I have lived here, Japan has always evoked this image as a “safe” country. “Safe” in the immediate physical harm sense, I could go on ad nauseam about the “unsafe” nature of the overall business/workplace culture to the human psyche. But in terms of my physical safety, I probably haven’t lived in a more benign environment. Guns aren’t a problem, so no mass shootings. Physical assault is relatively rare. People generally keep to themselves and don’t act out their aggression on the general population. That isn’t to say there isn’t the occasional flare up of violence. Domestic abuse is a under-reported problem that is given short shrift by the authorities. But out on the street, I have always felt pretty much untouchable. Anytime of the day, any location.

Asahiyama Park 5:45 AM – I’d be hesitant going any later.

Petty crime too isn’t really a thing. I have always seen men walking around, in shopping malls, and on crowded subway trains with long wallets nearly falling out of their back pockets. They would be easy marks in most any other nation on Earth. But here it is generally a non-issue.

All this perceived safety filters down from the adult world, to how children are parented, and how those young people perceive and interact within this country. Spend anytime here and you will see 1st grade elementary school age children just loose on the streets. Not a parent in sight. They get on the subway, unattended, commuting to private school. They gang up with their friends in the park – not a parent in sight. That’s generally amazing, but unfortunately old habits are hard to break, and the COVID-19 situation has really come to loggerheads with this perceived “safeness” of the streets of Japan.

Despite being on psuedo-lockdown for a couple months, the attitude of the general population remains entrenched in this “Japan safe” ethos. For the past two months I have limited my interaction with society to a couple of walks with my dog, around a three block radius. I pass small community parks often packed with kids, even more than usual, as they seem to be surrogates for the closed public schools. Even worse, since most business, aside from those in the public sector and some retail shops/restaurants, have not actually closed, some duel working families see nothing wrong with allowing elementary age children to run free during the daytime. Scarier still, parents who are working from home are still sending the kids out on the town so that they can “focus on their work”. I have ready multiple interviews with parents who make this exact argument.

So, this is the challenge. Reported numbers of the disease are down here in Sapporo, but schools are gearing up to restart, and the disease certainly hasn’t been eradicated. Come a few months (or sooner) they might have to close schools down again. Again those students will just roam about, in groups, in parks, doing zero social distancing. The disease will fester but never really go away.

Is Japan safe? Not anymore folks. Get used to it… it could help save lives now and down the road.

Back to BASIC With a Little RISC

Getting back to fundamentals here in my micro-man cave. With the nation outside my window completely incapable of handling this pandemic, I’ve taken refuge in rediscovering the early days of personal home computing. Specifically the BBC Micro, and other similar boards from the early to mid eighties. This was slightly before my entry into personal computers, as I came into it during the 286/386 CPU era. So it’s back to my Raspberry Pi to transport me back to a simpler time.

I had experimented with RISC OS on the Raspberry Pi in the past but always quickly abandoned it because of its quirky 3 button mouse interface and lack of WiFi integration (WiFi is kinda essential to running a multi-Raspberry Pi setup in a 2LDK Japanese apartment). For those not familiar, RISC OS  was the operating system developed by Acorn for their Archimedes line of computers which ran on an early ARM (Advanced RISC Machine) processor. The same processor design that would eventually run the smartphone or tablet you are reading this on. RISC OS gives us a glimpse of where desktop computing, and their operating systems, could have gone, had the ARM chip set gained more traction 30 years ago.

So, I decided to give RISC OS Pi another chance on one of my original Raspberry Pi 1 Model Bs. The RISC OS 5 Raspberry Pi distribution hasn’t changed a bit since I last installed it. It still has no WiFi capabilities, but I decided to turn my other Raspberry Pi 4 (next to it) into a WiFi to Ethernet bridge, effectively sharing the Pi 4s WiFi via the ethernet cable over to old Pi running RISC OS. I relied on guide at PiMyLifeUp to help turn my Pi 4 into a bridged router.  Pretty cool stuff!

Bridged WiFi to ethernet running RISC OS using a discarded composite SONY WEGA monitor!

Now I got RISC OS running, with internet connectivity. Oh the joys of undiscovered early 90s computing! Not quite sure what do do with it, I guess just learn about RISC OS. It is still being actively developed for believe it or not!

Of course, one of the main benefits of RISC OS, hearkening back to it BBC Micro relationship, is the integration of the BBC BASIC programming language into the operating system. Right from the RISC OS terminal I can enter BASIC and start programming away. Remember this gem: 10 PRINT “DMH is awesome!”… 20 GOTO 10… Great stuff!

Of course this BASIC rabbit hole led me to another iteration of RISC OS called RISC OS Pico. Essentially, this turns your Raspberry Pi into an early BBC Micro, booting right into BASIC, no graphical interface, that’s it! Now I can get right to the heart of the matter, strip away all the bullshit, and relearn BASIC just like I had a 1982 BBC Micro plopt on my genkan from a magical retro computing Santa.

Happy computing everyone!

 

 

Book Nooks

A nice little project came my way via the interwebs, Pinterest actually, one of the few social networks I sometimes dive into. It’s called a book nook, and it involves crafting a bookend or book spacer into a scene. They are often themed based on the books surrounding it. (i.e. Daigon Alley from Harry Potter or a Narnia wardrobe) One of the most famous book nooks comes out of Japan, Monde’s Tokyo Alleyway. Achieving that level of detail might prove too time consuming for this corona-hermit, but I decided to give it a whirl using some remaindered Nanoblocks, an old headphone box, and some bright zentangle artwork.

First, for my book spacer. I found that my Sony wireless headphone box was sturdy enough. So step one complete!

Since I put my box in my “Japan” section of my bookshelf I decided to cover it with a hanafuda inspired zentangle piece which took way too long for my liking.

Then I made a Nanoblock sakura viewing scene in the interior. I cut out some aurora pictures from an old calendar to use as the backdrop, then did my best with some leftover Nanoblocks to make my scene.

All in all, I reckon it came out pretty well. A nice project for these self-isolating times. Here’s a video:

News Blackout!

I’ve attempted this many times before. But in the days leading up to the pandemic I re-triggered my news addiction, which in recent weeks sped wildly out of control. Every twenty minutes I was checking infection counts, deaths rates, and the paralyzed response of the Japanese government. As it stands now, here in Sapporo, it’s business as usual, and I am set to return to work on April 16th. It’s out of my hands. So in order to maintain serenity I’ve instituted a news blackout. I won’t be completely in the dark. My wife will relay important information as needed. But from this morning on, I am going to be working on a variety of projects here in my apartment without the distraction, frustration, and panic of the relentless news onslaught.

Zentangle

Control, When All Else Fails

Well, as I sit here, I fear the worst. Japan has done next to nothing to address the Corona situation. Here in Sapporo they closed schools for about 2 weeks at the start of March… and that’s about it. Almost a laughable (little) amount of testing has occurred, just check the stats. The government, both national and prefectural, seems to be incapable of of enacting anything other than strong verbal encouragements to “go out less on the weekends”. Aside from a handful of multinational tech companies, almost all jobs lack remote working capabilities. Schools are in the same retrograde conundrum. Having spied on the operation of Japanese junior high schools for a decade, trust me, they aren’t even capable of emailing assignments. Check out a Japanese public school’s website, it’s like jumping in a time machine to 1997.

Cases are spiking, despite the paltry amount of testing. My own company  reported that an ALT in another area south of Hokkaido caught it. They then sent out an email telling us to basically shelter in place. But I also know that for the last week my company has been rushing to change international and domestic flights of new branch workers, trying to get them to their job postings before travel bans/quarantines went into place on March 28th. The mixed messaging is absurd. Just this past week my company was asking people if they wanted to substitute at schools(i.e. fly to other locations around Japan) in the next couple of weeks. Fuck that. Of course they still plan on opening schools in about 2 weeks. People need to get a clue.

So what can I control? Not the policies of the nation. Not the utter disregard and flippant attitude of the general public of the world health crisis. I can control just my immediate environment, the present. Presently I am alive. Presently I am listening to The Practical Stoic Podcast. I watched a random film from The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time 2012. Funny how I chose The Seventh Seal, a Bergman film centered around the Black Death (plague).

And of course there is my other projects, including this intense “Happy Camper” model from Robotime/Rolife. This paper/cardboard model kit was extremely laborious, frustrating, and time consuming. It took well over a month maybe longer. But it really brings my micro-man cave together.

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Introverts Unite!

Well, it descends. All around. Nowhere to hide. No country to escape to. I’ve never liked crowds, which has always made Japan a tough sell for me. Now is the time to cuddle up with a few good books, build a model, make some artwork, study for a Linux exam that may or may not be canceled anyway. That was basically the plan all along, sans coronavirus. Here’s a rundown of what’s been going on in my neck of the woods – Sapporo, Japan, in a 2LDK, divorced from the world.

My spring break got started a little early, schools (and my work) has been suspended from February 28th until my next school year contract begins in mid-April. We’ll see how that all pans out.

Just before I was given early release from that prison-hell, I was doing a lot of zentangle.

I think they really tie the bookshelf together. I started many of these in the final weeks of the school year and have been touching them up recently.

Then I’ll switch to some good old fashioned adult coloring book action. I can zone out for hours with my Star Trek: The Next Generation pals.

When I want to get serious, I train for my Linux Professional Institute Level 2 (202) certification at the end of the month. Procmail filters, iptables, reverse proxy servers, secure socket layers, all that jazz. That’s assuming that the test center stays open through the rapidly deteriorating world situation…ho-hum.

Then comes my Nanoblock obsession. Or knock-off Chinese Nanoblock obsession. This pirate ship was a real chore.

That of course led to a complete micro-man cave redesign, now featuring a mini-mahjong table!

But all this is mere child’s play compared to my latest obsession: Robotime/Rolife’s miniature house model kits. I received these two kits, the Happy Camper and Sam’s Study, last Christmas.

It’s been slow going on these particular projects. I started the Happy Camper thinking it might take a few weeks, but I am quickly realizing this might be a year long affair. The level of detail is a bit overwhelming, but awesome. See! Not everything coming out of China is a nightmare.

This is after multiple weekends of work, and I only managed to make a few pieces of furniture. It’s a grind, but well worth it.

Other than these projects, I got my standard backlog of reading going on. Just finished Bukowski’s Ham on Rye, and am finishing up Harari’s latest book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Lot’s more to get to in the coming weeks. Hoping to finish up listening to Finnegans Wake on Waywords and Meansigns, which has been daunting. It’s okay, I got the time. We all have the time…

 

Lake Shumarinai Ice Fishing

We decided to head three hours north to escape this year’s mild Sapporo winter and try out some ice fishing on Lake Shumarinai. This was unknown territory for everyone in our group, so we had the facilities at the lake set us up with a rental tent, simple rods, and bait. Our main objective would be just staying warm enough to keep our fingers and toes from falling off. Of course, when we departed Sapporo at 3:00 AM, mother nature decided to make up for a month long snow drought by dumping about two feet of snow just as we were escaping the metro area. It was slow going. Temperatures by the early morning were hovering around -22 C, and I was already pretty cold before we even got all our gear from the staff at the lake.

Around 7:00 we had our sled loaded up with a simple bottomless popup tent, three incredibly short reel-less rods, a few bait boxes filled with maggoty grubs, and all the rest of our personal gear. We chose some pre-drilled holes just a short hike away, and quickly set up our tent, got a small gas stove burning, and tried to settle in for some frigid fishing.

Some bamboo poles mark our pre-drilled holes. The lake seemed pretty popular despite the low temperatures.

Unfortunately our river fishing skills didn’t seem to translate out on the ice. After about 3 hours, with some assistance from a wandering staff member from the rental center, our friend managed to haul in 6 wakasagi, my wife 1, and me – nothing. That’s not a good day, especially when groups often bring in over 100+ of the tiny tempura dish fish. The rental staff took pity on us and gave us a ziplock of about 30 fish as we dejectedly returned our gear.

Only our dog seemed to stay warm.

Despite our skunking, the day was still young and we took advantage of the blue skies to get the blood flowing with a snowshoe trek across the lake. The ride home was made more bearable with a stop for soft ice cream and a quick dip in an onsen. Better luck next time! (Which there will be, ice fishing poles are in our Amazon cart as I write this!)

At least the snowshoeing was good!

Snowy Cold Sapporo Commutes

A big part of my day is my morning and late afternoon commute. This year both of the schools I am posted at are within 30 minutes walking time from my apartment. My pledge has been to refuse to take public transport and walk each day, regardless of the weather. Until recently that hasn’t been a problem, but in the last week we have finally gotten some intense snowfall. On the day these particular images were taken well over 60 centimeters fell overnight.

Each day, as the snow piles up, my commute gets a bit more difficult. Sidewalk snowbanks often end up reaching 10-15 feet at winter’s peak.

 

Even though the Streetcar looks tempting, they are often packed like sardines and standing room only. I gladly let them pass knowing that I’d regret getting on as soon as I boarded.

Walking gives me some much needed calorie burn and saves me 400 yen in transportation costs. On severely inclement days I do my best to bundle up and zone out to my podcasts. Sometimes I even jog part of the way to get the blood flowing.

Jozankei Winter Camp Festival

Sapporo has had, until just recently, a rather marked decrease in snowfall from seasons past. In order to get our snowshoeing habit fulfilled, we had to take a trip south to Jozankei, the hot spring resort that falls within Sapporo’s city limits, but close enough to the mountains to get significantly more snow than downtown. Luckily there was a Winter Camp Festival being held at the Nature Village campground from January 18th-19th. There were tents on display from multiple manufacturers, woodcutting/fire-starting exhibitions, fat bike demos, food, and more. There was also a snowshoeing tour, which although it catered to newbies, gave our friend the opportunity to try it out for the first time.

We stopped at some great local eateries along the way too. So it was a good jump start to this belated winter outdoor sport season! I recommend it to camping enthusiasts who want to get into the hobby on a more year-round basis. The campsite also offers nice heated yurts for overnight stays that are great if your new to the whole “freezing-your-ass-off-while-you-sleep” thing.

The Jozankei Winter Camp Festival was a good opportunity to demo tents and other products outside in their natural environment.

Playing Mario Kart on a Super Nintendo on a snow screen inside a tent, while sitting on a deerskin covered cot. I did this. I am not proud.

Update: The following Monday after this event, Sapporo was hit with a 40 centimeter deluge of snowfall. We’re still about half way to last year’s levels, but finally we have enough to do some local snowshoeing. I will keep posting my snowshoeing adventures as the winter progresses.