Friday, December 17, 2010

My Learning Plans for 2011

Hello, everybody. I apologize for not updating this blog; a lot has been going on in my life during this past year and I haven't had much time to update it during then. However, I hope to be updating this blog much more frequently from now on. There are a lot of things on my mind that I would like to share and to write about.

One of my core interests is learning new things. I have a love for learning and I have a desire to learn as much as I can about the subjects that I am interested in. Sometimes I can spend hours upon hours reading articles on the Internet about various different topics, whether it is about computer science, politics, Japan, Christianity, academia, or something else. Because I have just started a PhD program in computer science, I will need to use my free time much more efficiently, since free time is increasingly becoming a scarcer resource in my life. To avoid wasting my free time, I would like to apply much of it to a few learning pursuits of mine. Below are the things that I would like to focus on learning during my spare time in 2011:

Computer Science:
  • Aside from my coursework (I plan on taking courses in programming languages, machine learning, and data mining during the rest of this school year, and I still need to decide what to take next year), I also plan on learning more about large-scale storage and data management systems during this year. My PhD advisor has already given me some introductory work to do during the break, which will introduce me to this field and will prepare me for some exciting research work in this area later in the school year.
  • I want to develop system administration and computer networking skills. I realize that those skills are very important to have when working in a computer science research lab where we fellow students help maintain the lab's machines.
  • I will commit myself to studying Japanese at least one hour per day next year. While my language skills have improved a lot during my stay in Japan from January to August, I still have a lot to learn before I gain fluency. I am currently about halfway done with the book Remembering the Kanji I, which is an excellent way to learn kanji. I should be finished with the book in March 2011. In the meanwhile, I will be studying some of the Japanese grammar books and guides that I've found.
  • I also have a large collection of Japanese reading material that I need to, well, actually read. I hope that my technical Japanese improves tremendously once I finish reading my collection of Software Design magazines. (I even have the 20th anniversary edition of Software Design, which contains a DVD containing all of the back editions from 2000 to 2009). I also have a biography of Satoshi Tajiri (the creator of Pokémon), 1Q84 (a bestseller in Japan), a book about an World War II interrogation center near Tracy, CA, a book about Christianity in Japan (more on that later), and some other reading material that I need to get through.
  • I also want to buy a Japanese drama DVD box set to help me with my Japanese listening skills. I heard that there is a DVD store in San Francisco's Japantown that sells boxed sets of dramas. I'm going to have to check it out soon. Some of my friends from Japan recommended a drama named 「結婚できない男」, or "The Man that Can't Get Married." I also enjoyed the episode of 「ゲゲゲの女房」 ("Gegege no Nyobo" or "Gegege's Wife"; Gegege is the nickname of a famous manga artist) that I watched this summer. There is also a movie currently in theaters in Japan with the same title; I want to see it once it's out on video.
  • I want to be much more serious about studying the Bible. Currently I am doing a cursory read over the Old Testament (I am currently in the middle of Isaiah). Once I finish this initial reading of the Old Testament, I want to start studying the Bible in-depth, in a manner similar to how seminary students or others really serious about understanding the Word. I plan to begin with the first four books of the New Testament and start examining the life and actions of Jesus. I will develop a "plan for action" soon.
  • I am very interested in learning more about Christianity in Japan. As mentioned above, I have a book called "Japan's Christianity" 「日本のキリスト教」, written by Yasuo Furuya and published in 2003. It's 282 pages long and is written in Japanese. Since I am not fluent in Japanese, it will take me a while to finish it. However, I am determined to read the book. The book contains a brief history of Christianity in Japan, comparisons between Japan, the United States, and Korea, and many other facets of Christian life in Japan. I will share some of my findings as I progress through this book.
  • I am interested about learning about the history of academia. Since I may become a professor once I finish my PhD, I would like to learn more about how academia works and about how it grew and evolved over time.
  • I would like to read some biographies or autobiographies of some scientists and mathematicians. I enjoyed reading Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman and What Do You Care What Other People Think, which are both books on Richard Feynman, a prolific and very interesting 20th century physicist.
  • I want to learn Korean for a variety of reasons. I know some hangul, but the only words that I know are food-related terms like 김치 and 비빔밥. Hopefully that changes soon!
Hopefully I will be able to commit to this plan this year! I'll keep you all posted!

Monday, April 12, 2010

お先に失礼します and お疲れ様です: Two Important Phrases When Working in Japan

I've been interning for Fujitsu Laboratories in Kawasaki, Japan for three months. During my three months I've noticed many interesting things about the Japanese workplace. For those of you who don't know Japanese or are unfamiliar with the Japanese workplace, in Japan it's considered a badge of honor to log very long hours at work. When the shift is over and the end-of-day bell rings (yes, Fujitsu has bells that rings that indicate when a shift begins, the beginning of lunch, the end of lunch, and the end of the day; I don't know if this bell system is standard across Japan), most people do not begin packing; instead they are still working. My work ends at 5:40pm, but I'm usually in the office until 6:00pm-6:30pm on average; I rarely leave at 5:40pm, and the latest I've stayed was 7:30pm when waiting on a coworker to return to a meeting to ask some work-related questions before leaving (but staying this late is very rare for me). And while I leave at about the same time as other people in my group, I'm never the last one to leave the office, although I'd venture and guess that most people are gone by 8:00pm or so at Fujitsu.

Anyway, if you are leaving the office at the end of the day and there are still other people in your group, you say to them 「お先に失礼します’ (osaki ni shitsurei shimasu). It literally means "I'm being rude for leaving before you," but it is the standard greeting for leaving work before other people. When somebody says that to you, you reply with 「お疲れ様です」(otsukaresama desu), which literally means "You must be tired," but it also has the meaning of "Great job!" or "You worked hard!" and other similar connotations.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Trapped With a Samsung 730sc -- A Multi-Part, Japanese Urban Opera (or Drama)

Coming to stay in Japan for a medium-length term (greater than two weeks, but less than two years)? Need a prepaid cell phone because your phone from your home country does not operate on the Japanese network or because you don't want to pay the exorbitant international roaming fees, and because you can't meet the two-year contract requirement for most phones and services in Japan? Whatever you do, thoroughly research your cell phone options in Japan BEFORE you arrive here. Research not only the prepaid plans here (which I did), but also research the individual phones themselves (which I did not do, regrettably). Researching what phones are available will prevent you from just buying the cheapest phone available and paying for it dearly through many inconveniences and annoyances in the long run.

During my second day in Japan, I purchased a Samsung 730sc cell phone from Softbank, one of the three major cell phone providers in Japan (the other two are au, which is run by KDDI, and DoCoMo, which is run by NTT, Japan's equivalent of AT&T). One thing to keep in mind before coming to Japan is that not all cell phone stores provide prepaid phones; I visited a few other Softbank, au, and DoCoMo shops around my area but was turned away because those stores didn't carry prepaid phones. Another thing to keep in mind is that prepaid phone buyers are restricted to only a few phone models; some of the nicer phones such as the really advanced Japanese cell phones with Internet access and games in Japan and the Apple iPhone require two-year service contracts. I believe I only had a choice between three models; the Samsung 730sc was the cheapest one at around ¥4,900 (about $54 at this time of writing). There was another model selling for around ¥7,900, and a high-end model for over ¥10,000. I ended up choosing the Samsung 730sc due to price concerns; I came to Japan with just enough money to survive the first month's living expenses, and I did not want to spend any more money than necessary. The Samsung 730sc also had English menus, which was nice, and a camera, which made it very convenient to take pictures of my time in Japan without having to carry my camera everywhere, which can be inconvenient at times and vulnerable to loss or theft (I once accidentally left my camera, in its case, on a Metrolink train in the Los Angeles area at nighttime; I never did see the camera or its case again, even though I called lost-and-found immediately after I realized that I lost the camera. I had some awesome pictures on it that I had just taken of my adventures, too.).

Before I describe my experience with my phone, keep in mind that a prepaid plan is not a contract. Instead of being committed to a plan, a person with a prepaid plan purchases calling cards, which come in either ¥3,000 or ¥5,000 denominations. I forget the charges, but they are relatively steep compared to the charges if one has a contract, especially for international calls, but the charges are still lower than international roaming with American cell phone providers.

The phone has been nothing but trouble from the start. The phone is not a flip phone and therefore lacks a cover. Because of this, if you forget to lock the keypad on the phone, it is possible for the phone to dial numbers while it is in your pocket. I think I wasted about ¥1,500 on accidental phone calls; some of them were to my parents 5,300 miles away!!!!! Once I realized what was happening, I quickly learned how to lock my keypad. Problem solved. No more accidental calls back home, and no more money thrown away.

The next bad thing to happen related to my phone happened just two weeks after I bought my phone. I was using the restroom at work. A few days before this incident, I learned how to lock my keypad. I also decided to not carry my phone in my pocket due to fears that the keypad will unlock itself while the phone is in my pocket, so I then started keeping my phone in my shirt pocket. Unfortunately, I found out the hard way that this was also not a viable solution, but for different reasons. After I finished, ahem, doing my business, I went to bend over to clean around the toilet. As I bent over, I groaned "Noooooooooooooooooooo!!!" in horror as I saw my cell phone go in the toilet. (Thank goodness I didn't flush it right then). I immediately pulled the cell phone out of the toilet, dried it, turned it off, and then placed it in my desk after flushing the toilet. Unfortunately, I was unable to provide any more immediate attention to the phone due to the fact that I was at work; I just finished my lunch break and there was still at least four more hours left until I could leave for the day. Thankfully after removing the battery (which I did at work once the cell phone started vibrating uncontrollably) and after letting my cell phone dry in my dorm room for a few days, it started working again four days after its drop.

As I said, my cell phone has a camera. It also contains storage for storing data; however, there is no SD card slot; the data is stored directly on the phone. The cell phone also supports emailing pictures. Unfortunately, the maximum size for sending an email is only 300KB, and my pictures ranged from 80KB to over 250KB each. This made sending lots of pictures very time consuming. Annoyed by this method of sending pictures, I thought, "Hmmm, the cell phone uses USB for charging. Maybe I can buy a USB cable, connect it to my laptop, and transfer my pictures to my computer." Problem solved, right? Wrong! I purchased an overpriced USB cable for ¥1,200 (this is before my first time in Akihabara; I should have held out for then), and then was disappointed with the fact that not only did my operating systems (Mac OS X and Windows 7) not only not detect my cell phone, but there were no drivers available for the phone for any platform, either. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!!! After scouring the Internet, I discovered that the only supported interface for transferring data between a computer and the cell phone was through an infrared connection. My computer, a first-generation MacBook, lacks an infrared connection (in fact, according to my friend Dana, who knows a lot about computer hardware and has kept up with the latest hardware news for many years, laptops have not shipped with infrared readers for over ten years. The only computer that I have that has an infrared reader is an old Compaq Armada 7400 laptop with a 266MHz Pentium II processor and 64MB RAM, which I did not bring with me to Japan).

In the meanwhile, after another few weeks or so, I then discovered that my cell phone was getting no reception at all. I just bought a new prepaid card, and I wanted to enter the code into my cell phone (you dial a number to do it) so that way I can start calling others again. But when I tried to dial the number, the cell phone was unable to call the number because it couldn't get reception, it was "out of range." After a week of no reception, I then took it to the SoftBank store that I purchased it, hoping that they would be able to fix it quickly; I thought the reason why I didn't have reception was related to the fact that I was out of prepaid cash, and I needed to input my prepaid information in my phone so that way I can use it again. Turned to find out that I was wrong; the phone really didn't get any reception at all. They tried with other SIM cards; still no reception. They recommended repairs, but then they gave me some forms, which had some scary-looking fees on them. I also ran into language barriers, too; they suggested that I bring a Japanese-speaking friend with me and come back again. So I was left with a phone with no reception. Not only that, but I then found out that while they were trying to change the settings of the phone, they changed the settings in such a way that the cell phone can no longer even take pictures; even when attempting to load the camera, the cell phone says that it can't obtain the network information, and then just returns to the main screen. Why does the camera rely on the network??? Grrrrrrr!!!

Recently I've been focusing on trying to get my collection of photos off of my phone. I thought, "Hmmmm, how hard can it be to find a USB-to-infrared adapter?" Very, very, very hard, it turned out. You would think I was trying to find a 5.25" floppy disk drive, copies of WordPerfect 5.1, or something else rare and now obscure. I first tried the local electronics stores in my area (Yamada Denki and Yodobashi Camera). They didn't have it. Then I went to Akihabara, a sort of mecca for computer and anime nerds where there are dozens and dozens of computer shops everywhere, selling almost every computer-related thing you can think of, even used computers at decent prices (I'm flirting with the idea of buying an used 12" ThinkPad or netbook). During my first time in Akihabara on February 28, I stuck to mostly the big places along Chun-dori, which is the main street. No luck once again. On my return trip to Akihabara today (March 14), I started going to the little shops, one-by-one. After visiting about another dozen stores or so, I finally found it! It was a Best Connectivity USB to IrDA Adapter, manufactured in China, sold at a store in Akihabara called Tsukumo, and cost only ¥1,780 (a little less than $20). The cashier did warn me about the system requirements of the device before proceeding with selling the item to me; the box says it "support Windows 98SE/Me/2000/XP and other most popular OS" (I'm quoting verbatim), and he told me that it wouldn't work on Vista or Windows 7, and he hesitated about its working on even XP. Even with this concern, this was the only USB to infrared adapter that I can find after browsing a ton of stores, so I bought it anyway. When I got home, it (expectedly) did not work under Mac OS X 10.6 (there are no drivers for it), and it did not work under Windows 7. I then pulled out the driver disc for the device. Unfortunately, I saw that the driver disc is a mini CD, not a full sized CD. This is a big problem, since my MacBook has a slot-loading optical drive, not a tray-loading optical drive (most desktops have tray-loading drives; most non-Mac laptops have tray-loading drives, but Macs have slot-loading drives). Slot-loading drives and mini CDs do not mix; there are many incidents where a mini CD would be stuck in a MacBook's optical drive. To avoid that risk, I am forced to find another computer with a tray-loading CD drive and transfer the driver files from the mini CD to some other device. And then I still need to install the drivers, which might not work on Windows 7, which means that I'm going to either need to reinstall Windows XP on my MacBook, find virtual machine software that supports the guest OS (i.e., the OS running on the virtual machine) accessing USB devices, or buying an old computer with XP.

I question Samsung's design decisions for their 730sc phone. Why did Samsung choose to use an infrared connection for wireless connectivity, which is now considered obsolete, is no longer built-into laptops, and has hard-to-find adapters, when they could have used Bluetooth, which is the modern standard for wireless connectivity between a computer and a peripheral device? Why did Samsung not choose to implement support for mounting a cell phone as a hard drive so that users can access their files on the cell phone through a USB connection? Why did they choose to make the only interface between a computer and the phone an infrared connection given these facts?

This cell phone has been a never-ending nightmare; I now have to focus on getting those drivers onto some alternate media. I'm just trying to get my pictures off of my phone. Once I can retrieve those pictures, then I'll try to have the phone repaired. If it is too expensive to have repaired, I'll call it quits and purchase another phone. Hopefully the other models provided support modern features such as USB connectivity and Bluetooth. Whatever the decision is, I need to do it relatively quickly; people (including a woman) are starting to ask for my phone number, and my parents are starting to send me emails about when I'm going to call them again, and I can't go without a working phone for too long. I'll keep you informed about the latest of this drama.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Things I've Noticed About Japan -- Streets and Customer Service

I've been keeping track of all of the little things that I've noticed in Japan for the past two months. Living in another country is quite an experience. What I find very interesting about the experience is noticing all of the little things that are different from back at home. This post will cover streets and customer service; I have many other thoughts that I want to share, but I do not want everything in one large blog post; I will split them up into multiple posts. I won't bore you with basics like "People drive on the left side of the road," "Everything is in the metric system," "All of the signs are in Japanese," and other facts that you either learned many years ago or are obvious. I want to express some things that are not obvious.

  • Where I live (the Nakahara district of Kawasaki), there are very few streets that are wider than two lanes (one lane in each direction). Even the Nakahara Highway, an important street that I pass or walk on every day with plenty of shops and is a link to other towns about 30 miles away, is only two lanes wide. (I have not been on a freeway in Japan yet, so I can't comment about the difference between Japanese freeways and American freeways other than the fact that in Japan, freeways are not free; they are tolled. [The word freeway actually has nothing to do with price at all; the "free" in freeway has to do with the fact that freeways are "free" from impediments to the free-flowing of cars on a road such as driveways and intersections]). However, in Tokyo proper, there are many wide streets with four or even six total lanes, such as the main streets of Akihabara, Shinjuku, and Shibuya.
  • There are lots of cyclists in the Nakahara area, ranging from little kids to elderly citizens. It's not uncommon to find a man in a suit or a woman wearing a skirt, stockings, and heels on a bike; that is very rare in America, where most cyclists either wear informal clothing or clothes specifically made for cycling. And, just like back at home, very few of them actually follow the traffic laws. I've seen cyclists frequently run red lights and ride on the wrong side of the road.
  • There are stoplights in quiet residential neighborhoods that don't get much traffic. Back in America, these stoplights would just simply be stop signs.
  • Speaking of stoplights, stoplights are timed in Japan. I don't believe that stoplights in Japan are controlled by sensors in the road, unlike many places in California. The stoplights appear to be preprogrammed. I don't know if the stoplights are synchronized (i.e., when if you get a green light, the next few successive lights will also be green as long as you stay within the speed limit); it's hard to tell when you don't have a set of wheels.
  • Oh, and I have not seen a red-light camera in Japan at all so far.
  • Even though there are lots of cyclists, there are no bike lanes at all. Most of the streets are too narrow to add room for bike lanes; they are literally wide enough for one car in each direction, with no shoulder. (The Nakahara Highway does have a shoulder). All of the cyclists ride on the streets unless there is a lot of high-speed traffic on them; then the cyclists move to the sidewalks, which is acceptable (if not exactly perfectly legal) here.
  • There are plenty of pedestrians, especially near the shopping areas and the train stations.
  • There are lots of cars in Japan that are not available in America. More details to follow.
  • In Japan, Toyota also makes cargo vans and small commercial trucks. Thank goodness Toyota vehicles in Japan havent't had the same gas pedal issues as their American and European counterparts have had; runaway vehicles combined with a much higher amount of pedestrians on the road would have been disastrous.
  • Speaking of disastrous, the Nakahara Highway has signs that say "Closed during a major earthquake." The signs have a picture of a namazu on it, which is a creature in Japanese mythology that causes earthquakes. (A namazu looks like the 3rd-generation Pokémon Whiscash. Interestingly enough, a Pokémon episode centered around earthquakes and Whiscash was actually unaired in Japan [and subsequently not dubbed at all] due to the fact that a large earthquake happened in the Niigata prefecture days before the episode was set to air. Whiscash did make appearances in later episodes, however).
  • Japanese customer service is excellent! Workers always greet you with a smile and a "Irrashaimase!" (Welcome!) when you enter their business. They listen to your requests, try to understand them if your Japanese isn't that great, and follow up on them. They also speak in honorific Japanese (for those of you who don't know, the Japanese language has politeness levels, where different verb conjugations and sometimes different words are used depending on the situation). When you leave, the workers bow and say thanks ("arigatou gozaimasu!") for your business.
  • Whenever you have a request (for example, you're trying to find an iron skillet at a department store), the customer service workers will sometimes go through great lengths to serve you. It hasn't always happened (I'm still trying to find a USB infrared reader here for my cell phone), but I have encountered worker who dropped whatever they were doing in order to help me and go through great lengths, such as travel a few floors in a large department store, to find what I needed. I couldn't imagine getting such treatment in America; at best I might get a suggestion for where the item is; in most cases I'll get a "sorry, we don't have it here" and that's the end of it, although some nicer companies would offer to special order the item such that it would be available for purchase within a few days. When I was buying a towel during my second or third day in Japan, one customer service worker at a Marui depaato (department store that's kind of like a mall) even went as far as showing me a cheaper place to buy a towel, and even walked with me for five minutes outside of the store to show me where it was!
  • Whenever I enter a store in America, I cannot go 30 seconds without an employee walking up to me and saying, "Do you need any help looking for something?" Sometimes I'm followed in the stores. In Japan, this never happens to me. I am never followed in the stores; I am left to do my shopping in peace, and nobody seemed to care during my first few weeks in Japan that sometimes I could spend nearly half an hour in a store looking around because I'm unfamiliar with the store layout and certain items.
  • Japanese customer service is also highly professional. Employees are always dressed in uniform. Plus, you will never see a cashier, for example, make personal calls while "helping" you, express bad attitudes or sentiments, treat you badly for no reason, or do anything else that is bad or unprofessional like you, unfortunately, sometimes see in America (and don't get me started on "customer service" in the ghetto). However, one consequence of this professionalism is that the service may seem a little impersonal compared to service in America. Unlike America, were really nice cashiers ask you about your day, make comments and suggestions about some of your purchases, and even sometimes crack jokes, Japanese cashiers stick purely to business. And if you ask, "How are you doing?", he or she may just giggle, say "I'm doing fine" ("genki desu"), and just continue his or her without continuing the conversation. (Note that this isn't universal; I had a few conversations with the ANA cabin attendants, who complimented me on my Japanese. But, now that I think about it further, all of those conversations were germane to the flight and are service-related; we did not discuss anything that was unrelated). Even when I visit the same places multiple times per week (and it's been two months) and see the same cashiers or other workers, I've never heard, "Would you like the usual?", "So how's it going today," or any of the other questions that I would normally be asked back at home if I frequented a business that much on a near-daily basis. It's a cultural difference; service workers in Japan are not supposed to fraternize with their customers. So, for future visitors to Japan, when a service worker is treating you very well, he or she is treating you well because it's the requirement of his or her job; the employee is not trying to ingratiate himself or herself to you. And, if he or she does not ask you any questions about your day or anything like that, it's not because he or she is not friendly; it is because of cultural differences in customer service; it's nothing personal.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

List of Things That I Want to See In Japan Before I Leave in August

Here is the list of all of the things that I want to see and do before I leave Japan in August. There is a lot more things that I'd love to see (such as Osaka, Fukuoka, Sendai, Sapporo, and the memorial in Hiroshima), but I will most likely not be able to visit those places because of my relatively tight schedule (I'm here on an internship, and there is a paucity of three-day weekends here), so most of my trips will be relegated to the Tokyo area. I'll update this list and cross off the things that I've already done.
  1. Visit Mt. Fuji and possibly climb it. Now, before you get any ideas of me climbing a steep mountain with bungee cords and other tools and gear, climbing Mt. Fuji is not like climbing Mt. Whitney or other similar mountains; it's not very steep and is pretty easy to climb. See this page for more information. I probably won't climb the whole thing, but I'd love to at least visit and try it for a few hours.
  2. Visit Kyoto and stay for a weekend. Kyoto is a showcase of Japan's traditional architecture and provides a glimpse of what Japan looked like before the Meiji era and industrialization. I've always wanted to go.
  3. Ride the Shinkansen, the famed bullet train. Why wait until 2025 to ride a bullet train in California when I can ride one right now in Japan?
  4. Visit some of the universities in the Tokyo area, including the famous University of Tokyo.
  5. Visit Akihabara, Tokyo's famed spot for anime, manga, and computer geeks. While I'm in Akihabara, browsing the manga stores and checking out the computer stores, I hope to have lunch at this maid café. For those of you who don't know what a maid café is, you can read the Wikipedia article.
  6. Watch the sakura (cherry blossoms) at a beautiful park in the spring. Here is an example of cherry trees blooming in Tokyo.
  7. Visit the Pokémon Center in Tokyo, a store officially owned by The Pokémon Company that sells nothing but Pokémon merchandise. (There's also another one in Yokohama, which is closer to my dorm in Kawasaki, but I specifically want to visit the Tokyo one). If it weren't for Pokémon, I probably wouldn't have bought my little Japanese dictionary in 1999 and started learning the language, and I probably wouldn't be in Japan right now. Here is a clip of somebody in the Pokémon Center.
  8. View the Rainbow Bridge in Tokyo, during the day and at night.
  9. Visit the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum in Yokohama. There are plenty of ramen shops there. And, for those of you whose only experience with ramen is the instant kind, this museum deals with the non-instant kind, which is very delicious! Instant ramen is to real ramen as a frozen burrito is to a burrito straight from the kitchen in a taqueria. If you haven't had real ramen before, find a ramen shop near you!
  10. Visit rural Japan if I get the opportunity. It would be nice to explore the countryside here; I hear the culture and pace of life is different there than in the city.
  11. Sing at a karaoke bar. Once.
  12. Buy music. There are certain jazz albums made by American musicians that were only sold in Japan; I'd like to track them down while I'm here.
I'll add more things on this list as I think of them. And if you have any suggestions, feel free to comment!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

My First Month at Fujitsu Labs in Kawasaki

Hello, everybody! I apologize for not updating this blog in nearly four weeks; I lacked a regular Internet connection during my first two weeks in Japan, and I have been very busy with work and also getting used to my surroundings here.

With that being said, my time here has been nothing short of awesome! My job with Fujitsu Labs is going very well. Currently I am in the research phase of my project, which is to design a cache using a solid state drive for a iSCSI raid system that will be implemented in the Linux kernel. (If you did not understand that past sentence, feel free to skip this paragraph). I work in the Cloud Computing Center at Fujitsu Labs with a team of about six other researchers. I work directly with one researcher (in fact, he sits next to me at work, so he gets to see what I'm doing, and we get to talk all the time), and I meet the other researchers once per week during a weekly lab meeting. During my first three weeks on the job, I read a stack of over a dozen research papers related to cache management. Some papers were much easier to read than others. I've been currently studying the Linux kernel source code, which is a challenge; this is the largest code base that I ever had to read. Not only that, documentation is scarce, and when I find documentation, it is most likely obsolete, since the kernel API is a moving target. Luckily, tools such as cscope and ftrace have been very helpful with figuring out the kernel source code, and my coworker has experience with the Linux kernel. After about another month or so, I will be moving on to the implementation phase of my project, which I am pretty excited about.

Working at Fujitsu is a little different from working at an American company. When I interned at Lockheed Martin, there were no specific shifts. Yes, I was expected to come in at work at a specific time (i.e., before the boss showed up), but as long as I came in at the normal time and worked eight hours that day, I was fine. Theoretically, it didn't matter if I started work at 6:00am or 7:30am (I usually arrived at 6:45am); as long as I came at a time where I was accessible to other coworkers and to my boss (and as long as I showed up before my boss did), I was fine. Fujitsu, however, has actual shifts that everybody has. My shift is from 8:50am to 5:40pm, with a lunch break between 12:20pm and 1:20pm. There are different shifts; there is a shift that starts at 8:10am, has a lunch break between 11:40am and 12:40pm, and leaves work at 5:00pm. There is a melody (which is actually soothing, by the way) that plays throughout the campus at these times. While we are still discussing the work schedule, I notice (and I expected this; I read about this a lot before coming to Japan) that very few people leave immediately after their scheduled work day ends. In America, you'd be shutting down your computer and putting things away in your disk when it's three minutes or so before you're done with work. Not in Japan. Nobody seems to be watching the clock as if they were waiting for an escape. And when the melody plays, people are still working hard at their desks as if they never heard it. It seems to me that the melody doesn't signal, "it's time to go"; instead, it signals, "it's time to finish whatever tasks are remaining for the day." However, I haven't heard of anybody staying until 8:00pm or 9:00pm like I've read online when researching the Japanese workplace. I usually leave work sometime between 6:00pm and 6:30pm, and the latest I left work was at 7:15pm. My coworker does the same; in fact, most days I don't leave until my coworker is finished, although on certain days where I'm really exhausted and can't read any more papers or source code, I leave just a few minutes after the melody plays, and there are no problems with that.

Another difference is the work environment. Now, because my lab (which has cubicles) is currently being renovated, some of my coworkers and I work in the main building on the Kawasaki campus, which is 20 stories high. (As an aside, on a clear day, you can see Mt. Fuji from the higher floors of the office). On the floor that we work on, there are no cubicles. Instead, there are long tables with computers and office chairs. Managers sit at individual desks that are at the end of a set of rows; there seems to be one manager for every two or three rows of connected desks that resemble long tables. Secretaries sit at the ends of a row (my work area has three secretaries and span four or five rows); they pass out fliers and other information to the other employees, communicate with HR representatives, and manage the office supplies; in order to request supplies such as paperclips or PostIt notes, I have to ask a secretary for it. One nice thing about this work environment is that I have immediate access to my coworkers; it's like working in a computer lab, except with a desk and cabinets. This makes collaboration very easy; there is no concept of separation in this environment. This also makes the manager's job a bit easier, since he is in clear sight of his subordinates.

I haven't had to use much Japanese on the job, since all of the academic papers that I've read are in English, and the Linux source code is written in C (programming languages are the same no matter where you are). My computer runs the Japanese version of Windows XP, but the Linux virtual machine that I do my work in has an English-language configuration. My main coworker, who is also my boss in some respects, speaks English fluently and has lived in America for two years. However, most other employees' English skills vary from functional to non-existent, and so I attempt to speak to them in Japanese. My weekly lab meetings are conducted entirely in Japanese, which is an interesting experience; there's something about attending a meeting and not understanding a lot from it. However, by being exposed to the language more and more, I get to learn more about how the language sounds (I personally think the language sounds beautiful and it flows very well), and I'm picking up more words each week. I converse (as best as I can) in Japanese with the secretaries, the staff at the conbini, and with other people at work. My coworkers and I hope that I will give my final presentation in late July or early August in Japanese. We'll see....

Fujitsu is very close to food. One perk that Fujitsu has is that it has a conbini (コンビニ, convenience store) located on one of the floors of the main building. It has many of the same items that off-campus convenience stores have, and it's easy to access. I go there during my lunch break to purchase snacks for the afternoon stretch of work. Fujitsu also has a cafeteria located on the same floor. The cafeteria's food prices are low, and the food tastes really good; it's not fancy restaurant quality (unlike Google's cafeteria in Mountain View, California; I had the pleasure of dining there back in July 2006 on a field trip and it's been my best cafeteria experience in my entire life; those employees are quite privileged! And it was free!), but it's still really good food. Across the street from Fujitsu is the Musashi-Nakahara train station. The train station has a shopping center called the "arukaado" (アルカード; I don't know what it means, since I never heard of an "alcade" before, and there is a different word for arcade), which is home to McDonalds, Japanese restaurants, two Chinese restaurants, plenty of food courts, a French-inspired bakery, dessert shops, a grocery store, and a drug store. I buy cheap and somewhat cold bento lunch boxes from the grocery store there, which cost ¥298. When I'm in the mood for something warm and something made-to-order, I have many choices available, all for less than ¥700.

Overall, my first month with Fujitsu Labs has been great. I'm making progress with the research part of my project, and I'm learning more about the Japanese workplace and about Fujitsu's work culture. Hopefully I will be speaking more Japanese as time goes by here.

Friday, January 15, 2010

My Flight to Japan with All Nippon Airlines

It all started when I arrived at the San Francisco International Airport. I had a two-and-a-half hour train journey using Amtrak from Sacramento and BART from Richmond to get to the airport, and I was now ready to fly to Japan. My flight was with All Nippon Airlines. I heard a lot of great things about the airline, including its safety record and its excellent service reputation, and I was really looking forward to the flight. I arrived at the airport at about 7:05am, which was nearly four hours before my flight to Japan was scheduled to depart (10:50am). When I got to the ANA ticketing counter, the staff told me that they were not ready yet and that I needed to wait until 7:50 when they opened. Fair enough; arriving to the airport four hours in advance is quite early, after all. I called my parents to let them know that I safely arrived at SFO with no problems at all, and then waited until more passengers started arriving and lining up at the ticketing counter.

At the line (it was 7:35 or so when I lined up), I noticed a few things already about ANA's service. In many ways, ANA's service is a perfect representation of service in Japan; it felt like my journey in Japan started at the ANA ticketing counter at SFO, not at the Narita International Airport. The workers at the ticketing counter were all women, and they were well-dressed. By well-dressed, I mean *well-dressed*. I also noticed how the workers were setting up the ticketing booth area. At most airlines, a ticket booth has a very minimal amount of decorations, minus advertisements about the airline and flight information. I saw the ANA workers place a small pot of flowers by each receptionist. Talk about attention to detail!

Once the ticketing area opened, one of the workers went to the line and gave everybody baggage tags. The baggage tags had blank spaces for us passengers to fill in our identification information on. I had a hard time trying to write the information on the tags and handling my luggage at the same time. A minute later, it was my time to walk up to the ticketing counter. The worker then asked if she can carry my bags to the ticketing counter for me. I initially refused the offer, but she insisted, and she proceeded to carry my bags to the counter. Talk about service! Check-in went smoothly, and I was pleased to learn that my bags did not exceed their free baggage weight allowance! Yes! Saved me a big headache.

The flight itself was very nice. I sat in economy class (I'm living on a shoestring at this point; I couldn't afford their luxurious business class flights), but it felt like a first-class flight based on the amenities and the quality of the service. We were all given blankets and pillows, which made the long flight more comfortable. I enjoyed the in-flight entertainment system, which contained video games, American and Japanese TV shows, movies, and music. I watched a documentary about Michael Jackson's career, saw the movie "Surrogates," and played Gomoku and the hardest version of the game Brickout that I've played in my life thus far. The in-flight entertainment system also had an option where you can see where the airplane is currently at. I watched it occasionally when I was tired of playing a game; whenever I'm on a trip of any sort, I always like knowing my current location. The food was also surprisingly good. I heard a lot of bad things about airplane meals, but ANA's meals were very good. They wouldn't edge out a four- or five-star Japanese restaurant, but they tasted great and did not look like frozen TV dinners. After the end of my first meal, they even served Haägen-Dazs ice cream for dessert! They offered free drinks, including beer and wine (I've never seen free alcohol on a plane before), but I declined the alcohol and went for fruit juices instead. Finally, the cabin attendants were the best ones that I've ever encountered on a plane thus far. They were sweet, kind, patient, and, I have to say (I'm blushing), 美しいですね! Between the food, the entertainment options, and the service, it was almost the perfect flight experience.

Almost perfect, because there was only one flaw with my entire flight. ANA 's economy class seating offers very little legroom; this was the most cramped flight that I've ever been on, although, to be fair, my experience with flying had been relegated to domestic flights in America using domestic airlines; my flight to Japan was my first international flight. The lack of legroom was not a problem during the first half of my flight, but it became uncomfortable for me during the latter half of the flight. It's not an issue for somebody of average weight and height, but for somebody like me who is 6'3" and is a little heavy but not fat, it is a problem. And for somebody who is big, flying ANA economy class may be a serious problem. (Note that this is not a problem for those flying business- and first-class; they have plenty of legroom). At one point halfway, I decided to get up from my seat and walk around to avoid the possibility of developing blood clots, which is a real risk when sitting still for prolonged periods of time and can even be fatal. I also had to carry a few things, including a cup of orange juice and some cards that I had to fill out on the airplane related to immigration and customs declaration. Unfortunately, my cup of orange juice fell on the seat and got onto my cards! Nooooo! I then called one of the cabin attendants over to bring the issue to her attention. She then grabbed an extra blanket and placed it on the orange juice spill to clean it up and to have it dry during the rest of the flight. I apologized, but she told me not to worry about it, without any attitude at all, and even asked me if I'd like a refill of the orange juice that was spilled! Wow, talk about service!

Despite the cramped conditions and the orange juice incident, my flight was excellent. I would definitely fly with ANA any chance that I get. They score a 4.999 out of 5 in my book; the service makes up for the legroom issue, since I'd rather deal with some cramped conditions than with bad food, bad entertainment, and bad service. They deserve the Michael McThrow Award of Excellence™. And I pray that one day I'll be able to afford a business-class flight (or, even better, first-class flight) on ANA to enjoy the perfect flight experience. A brother can dream....

The flight finally arrived at the Narita International Airport at about 2:45pm Tokyo Time. I gave my thanks to the cabin attendants as I left the plane, and then I proceeded to start my life in Japan.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

My Journey To Japan

My Journey to Japan

Note: Due to current connection difficulties, pictures will be uploaded at a later date. I apologize for this.

It was a very long journey from Sacramento, California to Kawasaki, Japan. I left my house at about 3:45am Pacific Time on Monday, January 11 and arrived at the Musashi-Nakahara station in Kawasaki, Japan on Tuesday, January 12 at about 6:30pm Japan time. To use city planning terminology, my trip was an excellent example of multimodal transportation in action, utilizing a carpool (my dad dropped me off at the Amtrak station in Sacramento), trains, urban rapid transit, and a plane! I think I made seven transfers during my journey (carpool->Amtrak, Amtrak->BART, BART->BART, BART->airplane, airplane->Narita Express, Narita Express->Tohoku Line, and Tohoku Line->Nambu Line). Here was my itinerary:

3:45am (California) -- I finished saying my "see-you-laters" to my siblings and my parents (we don't say "goodbye" in our house); I do not plan to be back in America until August, unless the graduate schools that I'm currently waiting to hear back from invite me to their campuses if they accept me. My dad gave me a ride from my house in South Sacramento to the Amtrak station in Downtown Sacramento. Interstate 5 was pretty empty during this time of the day; there aren't too many people on the road at 3:50am on a Monday. It does get somewhat congested during the morning and afternoon rush hours, but nothing too crazy compared to the Bay Area or Los Angeles (or even Highway 99 in Sacramento, which receives much more traffic than Interstate 5 does).

4:00am -- Arrived at the Amtrak station. My dad accompanied me while I bought my ticket and boarded the train. We exchanged "see-you-laters" and temporarily parted ways.

4:30am -- The Capitol Corridor train left Sacramento, headed toward the Bay Area. I bought a discounted BART ticket at the food court on the train (just $8 for a $10 ticket); this was used for the next leg of my trip.

5:55am -- Train arrived in Richmond; this is the transfer point for Amtrak passengers using BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit; a rail system in the San Francisco Bay Area that goes from San Francisco and vicinity to the suburbs east of the San Francisco Bay) to enter other parts of the Bay Area.

6:00am -- I took a train that headed to my transfer point: the MacArthur station in Oakland. This train was not crowded at all; I was able to sit down with all of my luggage. Mostly uneventful except for the fact that this is the first time I have ever used BART. I like the ease of use of BART, although this usability is rivaled by that of the Tokyo-area trains.

6:23am -- I transferred to the train headed toward the San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Unlike the last train that I was on, this train was very crowded; I believe the reason was because this train originated from Pittsburg and traverses the northeastern suburbs of the outer East Bay, such as Concord and Walnut Creek. I had to stand with my luggage until the train made its first stop; then I was able to get a seat, but the area was still pretty crowded. The train remained crowded until it reached the last station in downtown San Francisco. After leaving San Francisco, there was plenty of room left on the train.

7:05am -- I arrived at SFO. The train stops at the international terminal. I boarded the plane at 10:25am and left San Francisco at 10:50am. I will talk about my flight with ANA (All Nippon Airlines) in a separate blog page; to sum it up, it was mostly awesome and I look forward to flying with them again!

2:45pm (Tuesday, Japan) -- After a very long flight, I finally arrived in Japan. After dreaming about traveling to Japan for over ten years, I was finally there! To be honest with you, it did not feel that I was in a foreign country; it felt like I entered a time warp, fell asleep, and woke up in some part of California that I did not know existed. Yes, the signs were in Japanese, and there were lots of Japanese people (well, duh, I'm in Japan), but there was English subtitles on all of the signs, and I was used to going to predominately Asian areas in California throughout my life and being the only black person there, so I wasn't shocked by the homogeneousness of the population and by seeing kanji (Chinese characters) everywhere. In fact, nothing highlighted my feelings more than the first advertisement that I saw after leaving the plane. It was from Coca-Cola, and it said, in English, "Welcome to Japan!" There's nothing that says Japan like Coca-Cola!

Anyway, going through immigration and customs was smooth. I then exchanged my traveler's cheques into Japanese yen (unfortunately they did not exchange my $2 in quarters; at least I will have change when I return to America XD), phoned my coworker at Fujitsu to schedule a meetup at the Musashi-Nakahara station (my final destination), and bought a ticket for the Narita Express train, a fast train that goes from the Narita International Airport to Tokyo, Shinagawa, Yokohama, and other main stations in the greater Tokyo area.

One nice thing is that for foreigners (i.e., people without Japanese passports), the railroad sells the Narita Express ticket and a Suica card for ¥3500, which costs about ¥5000 or more, depending on the destination using the Narita Express. Suica is a card system used in the Tokyo metro area for paying train fare in Japan. All you have to do is to place your card on top of the receptor before entering the boarding area, and then place your card on top of the receptor after departing from the train and going into the terminal; the fare will be deducted from this point. When you purchase a Suica card with this deal, it comes with ¥1500 on the card. The card's value can be added at convenience stores and at train stations throughout the Tokyo metro area.

4:15pm -- I boarded the Narita Express, heading to the Tokyo station. I got to see a glimpse of Japan outside of my train's window. The area around Narita is mostly rural; not all of the Tokyo area is developed. However, when the train entered Chiba, the rural setting disappears and is quickly replaced with a more and more urban setting. This urban setting became more dense as the train got closer and closer to Tokyo. Finally, at about 5:15pm, the train stopped at the Tokyo station.

5:15pm -- I arrived at the Tokyo station, arguably the busiest train station in Tokyo and perhaps Japan. I had a very difficult time trying to find the tracks for the Keihin-Tohoku and the Tokaido lines; both of those trains stop at the Kawasaki station. The directional signs were not very clear about where these train tracks were located; the signs would include all of the lines, but would lead to only a few tracks where only a few of those lines stop. After walking in large circles around the Tokyo station for what seemed to had been ten minutes or two, two young ladies saw my confusion and my poor handling of my luggage (at this point I was very tired from traveling and the plane ride) and asked how they can help me. I told them that I was looking for the Tokaido or the Tohoku lines. They then directed me to where those lines were, and then walked with me. During our walk to those tracks, we chatted about our journeys. They, Mami and Emily, were headed home to Chiba. I introduced myself and told them about my long flight from San Francisco and my stay in Japan. They were impressed with my attempts to speak Japanese (「日本語が上手ですね!」), even though my Japanese is still quite limited at this time XD. I was worried about making a correct transfer to the local trains. The Narita Express train uses its own ticket, while the local trains use the Suica system. However, I did not see a place for Narita Express users to swipe their Suica cards, and I was worried about being fined for fare evasion or something like that. Mami and Emily reassured me that I will be just fine, but I was still worried. When the Tokaido train came (trains run very frequently in Japan, so this wasn't much time), they continued to reassure me. I then stepped on the train, praying in my head for the best. Mami and Emily both waved in a synchronous, almost choreographed, manner as my train left the Tokyo station. I was hoping that they were correct about the Suica card.

5:30pm -- I was on the Tokaido train, headed to the Kawasaki station. Everything that you've heard about crowded Japanese trains is true. And I thought BART was crowded! This train was standing room only; I had to stand with my luggage during the entire 25-30 minute trip to Kawasaki. Worse, unlike American rush hours, where rush hour traffic seems to thin out as one gets further and further away from the core of a big city, on this train, the amount of people leaving the train was about the same (or a tad lower than) as the amount of people entering the train, which did not help matters. At about 6:00pm or so, the train stopped at the Kawasaki station. Time for my last transfer of the trip!

6:00pm -- I was on the Nambu Line, headed toward the Musashi-Nakahara station, my final destination. This train was also jammed-packed with commuters and was also standing room only, although the congestion was not as bad as the Tokaido line train. Other than that, the trip was mostly uneventful until I arrived at the Musashi-Nakahara station. Right beside the ticketing gates, I saw my coworker, Yoshihiro Tsuchiya (who I'll refer to as Tsuchiya-san throughout my blog), from Fujitsu Labs waiting for me. Remember the Suica card thing? As expected, when I placed my Suica card on the receptor, it beeped and a red light appeared on the machine. Luckily my coworker was there. We then went to a JR Railways worker and spoke about what happened; I explained the situation as my coworker translated it. Luckily it turned out to have not been a problem; the worker charged the card as normal. My coworker and I ended up taking a taxi to my dorm room not too far from the station; my dorm life will be covered in a future blog post.

The rest of the night was mostly an introduction to my neighborhood. After checking into my dormitory and dropping off my luggage in my room, Tsuchiya-san and I walked around the neighborhood. We ended up having dinner at Sukiya, a Japanese fast-food restaurant that is famous for its cheap (at only ¥280 for a nice-sized bowl) and delicious gyudon, amongst other dishes. After being shown around the neighborhood, Tsuchiya-san headed toward his home near the Yokohama area, and I walked back to my room. There was not much I can do from that point; I had no Internet access, and I discovered that my AT&T cell phone from home was not working, even though it was supposed to had worked.

Stay tuned for details about my mostly fabulous experience flying All Nippon Airlines, my first week of work, dorm life, and my difficulties getting around!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


For over ten years, I have dreamed of going to Japan to visit and to learn more about the Japanese language and culture. On Monday, January 11, 2010, this dream will finally be realized. I will be going to Kawasaki, Japan to start a seven-month internship with Fujitsu Labs.

My interest in the Japanese language and culture started in late 1999. Pokémon was very popular at the time, and like most ten-year old boys, I was hooked on Pokémon. My interests in Pokémon grew into an interest in the culture that developed so many of the games and TV shows that I was interested in. I started learning Japanese in December 1999 independently through books and websites. During my last two years of high school, I also attended a Japanese language school named Sakura Gakuen, which offered language courses every Saturday morning. During my undergraduate career at Cal Poly, I became involved with Japanese Cultural Exchange, the university's Japanese club. My passion for the Japanese language and culture, combined with my dedication to the club and its mission to showcase Japanese culture to Cal Poly and to San Luis Obispo, led to becoming vice-president and ultimately president of the club. After a lucky break that I received after meeting two researchers from Fujitsu Labs at a file and storage systems conference and inquiring about internship opportunities, I finally have the opportunity to go and work in Japan.

I am very excited about this internship opportunity for a few reasons. For one, I will have the opportunity to experience Japanese culture first-hand. It's one thing to read about the world's diverse cultures, but it's another thing to actually experience them. I am also very interested in finally being able to use the Japanese that I learned over the past decade and to learn more of the language. Languages are a "use-it-or-lose-it" type of proposition; when I am placed in an environment where not knowing Japanese may mean not eating, my language skills will improve dramatically. Finally, I am very interested in the internship itself. I am very interested in pursuing a career in computer science research, and I am glad that I have the opportunity to work in a research lab in an area that I am very interested in: computer storage systems. My internship affords me the opportunity to see how research is done in industry and how research careers are in Japan.

I am very excited about this internship opportunity! I will be there from January 12 to the beginning of August. I will keep you all posted about my time in Japan!