Edit: Though this post was started while in Japan, and much of it written in Japan, I didn’t finish it till recently so have decided to move the publishing date. Originally this was going to be in multiple posts, but I decided to put my 4 days in Tokyo in one post – a tall order, I know! Hope you stick through to the end, sorry this is so delayed, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed all the experiences. =)
Being the geeks that we are, our first order of business in Tokyo was Akihabara, home of the electronic flea market.
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This place had everything electronic you could think of. Really, everything.
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If I weren’t a starving grad student, I’d have gone to town here. And of course where you find nerds you’ll find anime and manga fans, so….
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My newest project is playing with LEGO's - every child's dream! Or at least mine. I find it really satisfying to come in every day and work with LEGO's. I want to properly document my progress, so I'll update this from time to time with little things I've figured out, videos, etc. For example, as soon as I find a satisfying way to use NXC on a Mac, it'll be here on this blog.

For now, here is a picture of my little robot - I-Bug. It is a differential drive robot with two touch sensors and a light sensor. I'm currently working on boundary following, and as soon as that's up and running, I'll do a video.

If any of you know of a good solution to NXC + Mac OS X, let me know!
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I have a bit of puzzler. If there's a book I really think I'll enjoy,I generally read it before watching the movie/mini series. I have violated this recently, watching the miniseries of Desmond Deronda without reading the George Elliott novel, but to be fair I wasn't aware of the novel before watching the miniseries. I also watched Atonement and The English Patient without reading the novels. On the other hand, I recently finally read The Lord of the Rings, and feel pleased that I can watch the movies without a sense of guilt. So question: should I watch the much lauded mini series Little Dorrit, which just won 7 out 11 Emmy's and is available for free legally on http://video.pbs.org/? Or should I wait and read Little Dorrit, considering it's one of the few Charles Dickens novels I haven't read and Dickens is one of my favorite authors. It's such a dilemma. Any opinions?
Why? Why would anyone even think of ruining two wonderful foods like bacon and chocolate by combining them?

Edit: I don't think there's enough anger I can express about the thought of inventing bacon chocolate. The worst part is that the back of the chocolate bar said the woman had been trying to combine bacon chocolate since she was 5 years old. Why did growing up, getting a bachelor's degree and going to cooking school in France not stop her?
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What's summer without movies? I don't tend to shell out money to see a movie in the theatres without being very motivated. I watched many movies that I rented/borrowed from the library - but that's for another post. This summer boasted two movies I was dying to see - Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and Star Trek - and two movies that I just happened to see - Up and District 9. How did they pan out? I'll list them, from my least favorite to the cream of the crop.

As a side note, I do plan on getting the dvd's of at least Up, Half Blood Prince and Star Trek.

3. District 9

Don't get me wrong, it's not that District 9 was a bad movie. It was just a little bit too gory for my personal taste. The only thing that kept me from disliking the movie was the wonderful philosophical question it raised. There always seems to be some sort of superiority complex in the Original Star Trek. I mean if there are aliens out there, what does the phrase human rights, or calling actions humane imply? District 9 really highlights these issues. If aliens landed on Earth who looked nothing like us, who completely repulsed us and who seemed to be savage creatures, what would we do? Is it right for us to perform experiments on them and keep them in Apartheid like concentration camps? And at what point will we get over our greed for better weapons? I really loved that the film asked all this and more. I just didn't love the pain a character was going through being reinforced over and over again. Why on Earth (if you'll pardon the phrase) would I want to watch someone pulling off their fingernails or their skin? It was just a little bit too much for me.

2. Up

Pixar is magical. For a while, I felt that Disney had lost the magic of the summer movie. As a child I couldn't wait to see the decorations put up at Sovereign Centre that would indicate what Disney's big summer movie would be. I memorised the songs from Lion King as my best friend and I listend to soundtrack on cassette. I ran around singing the songs of Pocahontas. We waddled like the ducks in the Aristocats. And now I can safely say, after several summers of solid hits (Ratatouille, Wall-E) that Pixar is really on a roll and has totally reimagined the magic of a Disney movie. Up was poignant, almost brought me to tears within the first 20 minutes. That was completely unexpected! And then it had me laughing for the remainder of the movie. I can't really say much without spoiling the plot, which was completely unexpected for me. It's just pure pleasure. Loved it.

1. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Speaking of magic...I start with a disclaimer. I am a Harry Potter geek. I've lost count of how many times I've re-read the books. I could probably enter competitions on Harry Potter trivia. And now, finally, I've gone to a Harry Potter movie, been completely sucked into the world, and left the theatre wanting to watch it again.

The above picture is from what I'd say is the second of the 3 opening scenes, that all seemlessly run into each other. I couldn't find an image of Dumbledore hugging Harry, but I have to mention it because that was the instant I knew I'd love the movie. It's not a long moment, and it's letting the audience in on a moment from the end of the previous film. This serves two functions. It ties this movie in with the previous one, and it gives us a glimpse of how much Dumbledore cares for Harry, protecting him at this harrowing time from the media and from the sorrow which must be sinking in. It's brilliantly done, because even though the books let us know how much Dumbledore cares for Harry, it hasn't been quite as apparent in the films (let's not forget the shouting/shaking scene in GoF). It also let us see how Daniel Radcliffe has improved by leaps and bounds in his acting skills.

HBP was full of these little moments. It had lots of laughs - Harry on Felix Felicis, why didn't I realise it would be like he's high? We kinda stormed into Harry and Ginny are attracted to each other, but it had to be done since Ginny's attraction to him wasn't set up enough in the previous films and Harry's realisation in the book is all internal. The cinematography was amazing; just look at that shot of Hogwarts.

And then there's Michael Gambon. One day he'll accidentally read one of the HP books and realise that the Dumbledore he almost faithfully portrayed in this movie is the Dumbledore he should have been portraying all along. Still, he did a wonderful job, and the cave scene at the end looks just like the British book cover. I was upset about his beginning of year speech and one of the things he said in reaction to Slughorn's memory but I suppose that's the script writer Steve Kloves' fault.

I of course commend everyone else's performances. Tom Felton had his best performance yet as Malfoy, very memorable. Emma Watson has improved a lot I think, along with the other younger cast members (Rupert Grint, Bonnie Wright). Lavender Brown, played by Jessie Cave, was absolutely perfect!

I'm aware that people exist who haven't read the books, and of course not everyone watched the film in the theatres so I won't say much more. I do wholeheartedly recommend that you watch this movie though, even if you're an HP newbie. I'd say that you should probably start with movie 4 or 5, movie 3 prefferably, before getting to this one, since there isn't much introduction to the world.

Final thought: I'm counting down the days to Deathly Hallows Parts 1 and 2!

1. Star Trek

Tying for first place was the 11th Star Trek film. Another disclaimer - I'm on my way to becoming a Star Trek geek. I watched the entire original series (TOS) in preparation for this movie and I watched the first 6 movies (technically 5 1/2, didn't finish movie 6 in time) before. It was a wonderful decision because as much as this movie was skillfully made to be enjoyed by non Star Trek fans, it was made to be even more enjoyed by anyone who knows the original series.

My favorite thing about this movie may have been the casting. Uhura finally seemed to have a real job, Kirk wasn't getting every woman who walked in his path, and Spock's human side was visibly struggling with his Vulcan side. I'm not sure if I prefer Zachary Quinto's Spock to Leonard Nimoy's Spock yet, but I most certainly prefer Chris Pine's Kirk to William Shatner's. The others (Scotty, Bones, Chekov, and Sulu), who we were all waiting to see, played their roles well.

I can't say much about the plot without giving it away. Suffice it to say that I think it was a brilliant move and it gives them lots of leg room to make sequels. You can just see from the image below that this duo has lots of movies ahead of them.

Sometimes I get annoyed at the end of a movie when I can see their setting it up for sequels. In this case I say bring it on!
Purely for selfish reasons I'm compiling a list of programs I add when setting up a windows machine. I say selfish because this is the second time in a month or so that I've had to set one up from scratch and i don't want to have remember again. I have so many programs that I need to survive, and I figure others may be interested, so it may not be so selfish. Here is the list, in roughly the order of importance and order they should be installed in. In case you're wondering, I have a different list for setting up Mac's and Linux machines and will try to get out posts with those lists.
  1. Google Chrome
  2. Firefox
  3. Java
  4. Open Office
  5. JDK (If you use Netbeans, I recommend getting this distribution, which includes Netbeans and is much easier to set up)
  6. Netbeans
  7. MiKTeX (or whatever LaTeX distribution you prefer)
  8. Xemacs (or whater text editor you prefer for LaTeX, right now I'm actually trying out TeXMaker)
  9. Adobe Acrobat Reader
  10. SSH Client
  11. AVG Free
  12. Dropbox
  13. logmein
  14. iTunes (I know it's heavy but if you have an iPod it's still the best way to go, and even without an iPod I've found it to be one of the easiest ways to make an mp3 cd)
  15. Windows Live Writer (The only Microsoft product on this list, it's the best blogging software I've found so far for Windows, very useful for updating your blog when you're not near the internet, which is often the case when you're travelling)
  16. VLC (Plays pretty much any kind of file you can imagine)
  17. Skype
  18. Inkscape (Wonderful for making diagrams, definitely comparable to Adobe Illustrator, and it's free!)
  19. Audacity
  20. Google Gears
  21. eMusic
  22. Amazon mp3 store installer
  23. last.fm scrobbler (I'm maybe a bit too obssessed with analysing my music listening patterns)
  24. Handbrake
I think this is just about everything I installed. Is there something you think I've overlooked? Let me know!
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There's something delightfully fairy-ish about calling these toadstools isn't there?
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How dare you eMusic?

I'm trying very hard to be calm.

So I'm browsing around the internet, looking up articles on Napster's 10 year anniversary, when I stumble across this story about eMusic. Now as a customer of eMusic for 1 1/2 years, my first reaction was eMusic couldn't have changed their prices, that must be for new customers. Then I stopped and thought about it. My two out of my three interactions with eMusic's customer service have not been pleasant. So I rushed to my eMusic software, only to notice a nice little notice on the homepage: "In July, we'll be rolling out a major expansion to our music catalog. Please read the announcement for details on how this change affects your account."

Lets pause for a second and think about this. You may not be aware for this, but eMusic is a subscription based service. I give them $15 every month for 50 downloads. I'm a subscriber, going on 2 years now. Maybe I'm expecting too much, but WHY THE HELL HAVE THEY NOT EMAILED ME? They change my plan and they don't even have the decency to inform me?

Ok, still trying to remain calm. So, I go to their announcement. Guess what I see? Starting July 24th, I will recieve 37 downloads instead of 50. Yup, they reduced the number of downloads and didn't have the ******* decency to tell me. Sure the announcement was full of "Oh, we got Sony on board" and "Our catalog will be expanding" but the number of downloads are decreasing and they DID NOT TELL ME. And look at this nice little blog post from the CEO. Guess what he doesn't mention? The price hike. And lets not forget that was dated May 31st, a Sunday. They knew fully well they were having this price hike, and I was on eMusic on Friday and Saturday and got no notice.

So I'm pissed. This is unforgiveable. It is not cool for you eMusic to change your customer's plans without telling them because guess what - without customers, you don't exists. Furthermore, you've just lost out. I've been considering increasing my download plan to 75 for a while, but there is no way in hell that I'm giving you any money, and if I start to feel to restricted by you 37 downloads a month, I'm leaving. You will never get more than $15 a month from me, and considering how tight my finances have been, don't count on that for too long. And guess what - I'm not the only one. Oh yea. The message boards have been so bad that they had to respond themselves - what a mistake. Maybe Cathy thought that this message would soothe us -

Hi Everyone: 
We're here, and we're reading every word. We feel as passionately about eMusic as you do and would not have made this decision if we did not feel strongly that it will be beneficial to everyone involved. 

We've given it a lot of thought, and we're confident that we can integrate Sony music in a way that does justice to eMusic -- and not just eMusic as a business, but eMusic as those of us who use it every day know and love it. 

Obviously, a lot of comments have been about the pricing. The Great Recession of 2009 is not the best time to be doing this. We own up to that. However, we - and our labels - simply cannot sustain some of the lowest cost plans that many of you currently have. The price increase is not just about Sony, it is for all of our labels, including the ones that have left over the years and those we have yet to sign. 

We appreciate you, our most loyal customers, and we understand that people have naturally reacted strongly to yesterday's news. All that we can ask is that you show some patience, that you see how we go about handling this catalogue. We have a lot to offer real music fans. We have since 1998, we do today, and we will once Sony launches. That will not change. 

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. We will continue to check back. 

Cathy Halgas Nevins 

- but she was mistaken. Even more mistaken was dear Yancey.

A few things to note: 

The new pricing benefits everyone. Existing indie labels, future labels (indie and major), etc. It's not just for Sony. 

Regarding the grandfathering plans, it definitely sucks to see your downloads cut. But this isn't out of a lack of loyalty: this is because those plans, which we have grandfathered for a few years, would now be priced at a loss. We changed what some of you spend per-track so that it was equal to what everyone else spends. Whether Sony happened or not, this was an eventuality. An eventuality that stinks, yes, but one all the same. 

The majority of folks saw very few to no changes in their plan. The plans that did see changes were the ones whose pricing was far below what we pay out. We just couldn't continue subsidizing those accounts. It's more math than anything else. 

The broader question of how Sony incorporates into eMusic is one that I have been thinking about quite a bit. And I'll be honest: there are some definite challenges and we'll be figuring them out as we go along. But as I said in the 17 Dots post, our taste and our values -- and here I'm talking about me, Joe, Alex, Maris, Jayson, our writers and the tone of the site that you help define -- is the same. All of you regulars in particular I hope will recognize how deeply we hold our beliefs, and how much we love indie music. The idea that any of us would ever abandon that... just not going to happen. 

The last 36 hours have sucked. I went quiet as I waited for tempers to cool a bit. I've been getting a lot of emails from folks saying that yesterday was a range of emotions, and that while they still aren't sure how they feel about this move, they're going to see how things shake out. And that's a completely rational way to approach this, and I can't argue with it at all. I'm crossing my fingers that that's what can happen this week. 

I'm going to be posting a new arrivals on 17 Dots soon. God knows what will happen in the comments, but there are great new records to talk about and I don't want us to overlook them over our inside-baseball stuff. So if you read this and are feeling like talking about music, I'd appreciate a comment or two. If you don't feel like it, totally cool. 


PS: I am going on vacation on Thursday and will be gone about two weeks. Completely unrelated to all of this. 

PPS: It seems a meme has developed around this "slight" word. The NY Times wrote that, not us. 

PPPS: With album pricing and all of that: this will not just be Sony titles. All labels will be able to opt in (and we will introduce it to the UK, EU and Canada later on). I don't have many more details yet, but when we do we will share them. This will be a good thing for everyone.

Admitedly, I wasn't amused by either of those posts. Still, you live and you learn. Or you go out of business.
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I didn’t know a city could be so colorful. We arrived in Tokyo by the Shinkansen, then went took the train to Uiguisudani, where our hotel is. The train was packed, I think we were in the tail end of rush hour. Anyway, after we put our luggage up, we left to see Shibuya at night and got off from the train station at the biggest intersection I’ve ever seen.

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I can now say I’ve seen Mount Fuji – we sped past it on the Shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo. Of course we bought a bento – a box lunch. This is a requirement for riding the shinkansen.
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Before leaving for Tokyo, we spent the morning sightseeing, at the Golden Pavilion and the Zen Garden.  Rokuon-ji Temple is known as the Golden Pavilion, or Kinkaku, because it has a Pavilion which is golden. Not fake gold either, some shogun went all out when designing his retirement home, and used actual thin sheets of gold on the outer walls.
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Kyoto is very different from Kobe and Nara. It has the history of Nara, but is much bigger and has more temples, but has less charm somehow. It’s also not as pristine as Kobe…I could see myself living in Kobe, at last for a little while, but Kyoto was different…I can’t put my finger on it. Still, it has amazing stuff, we were only able to walk through a castle and a temple in one day, they were both so huge and took so much time to walk through.
We first went to Nijo-jo, Nijo Castle. This is from 1603 though it’s been through at least 2 fires (lightning and a big Kyoto fire). It’s surrounded by a huge moat.
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Then it of course has a super huge gate with some beautiful gold details.
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The first Nara post was becoming unwieldy so I decided to break it into two posts. Incidentally, I took 357 pictures/videos during our Nara sightseeing day, so it’s understandable that I have to break this day into two posts.
After seeing Todai-ji, things start to blur together…I know we saw a really big bell, but I’m not sure what it was attached to. It’s definitely the biggest bell I’ve ever seen though.
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Nara is without competition one of the most peaceful tranquil beautiful places I’ve ever seen. We got there around 6 pm and went down this really cool street, Sanjo-dori, which is apparently the center of Nara.
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Our Ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) was actually on this street (so we were happy with Lars for at least one night). We stayed at the Ryokan Hakuho –
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- a place which seemed absolutely amazing and charming…until our second night, when Lars and Kristen found a roach in their suitcase. Needless to say, we packed up and switched hotels, to the Super Hotel close to the Nara JR Train Station. Luckily I hadn’t written up this post yet, so I don’t have to take back all the nice things I was going to say, and will instead warn people against going to this place, since their only reaction to finding a roach in Lars and Kristen’s suitcase was to spray some roach spray. Then they disappeared and went to take a shower or something.
This doesn’t spoil the amazing time I had in Nara. There were all these school children, from the very young to the very old, all out on field trips -
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ICRA has begun and ended. Here are my highlights from the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, 2009. Located in Kobe, Japan, there were definitely perks to being able to present at this year’s ICRA.
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Before heading to Nara, we made a detour to see Himeji-jo, a castle about 30 minutes by train from Kobe. So we had breakfast and bid farewell to Kobe. It’s really quite a lovely city.
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The day was persistently rainy, but we still had fun. The castle is really beautiful. You can see it from a distance, almost as soon as you leave the train station.
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