blog technology


I don’t own a TV.

However, two months ago I bought a Dell XPS 420 desktop and a 30-inch monitor (3007WFP-HC). The machine is spec’d with 4GB RAM and the least inexpensive quad processor in Intel’s lineup, with a basic dedicated graphics card. All up, slightly less than $2.5K. This is a box for processing photos, surfing the web, playing the occasional game, and occasional work (IntelliJ at 2560 x 1600 = productivity).

What I didn’t expect to be doing was watching movies on demand. I joined Netflix last week, and discovered their all-you-can-eat movies-on-demand, which comes with all but their most basic plans. I signed up for the $8.99 1-disc at-a-time plan.

I remember what a buzz there was when Netflix first came out with its DVD rentals via mail plan. I can see what the fuss is about, having just got my first DVD in the mail, but online streaming movies are amazing. Sure, the online selection doesn’t approach that of the mail-out collection (it’s growing everyday), but that would be to miss the selling point, which is huge – if I find something I like, I wait all of 20 seconds before I start watching. Quality is on par with DVD, perhaps a little less, but eminently watchable on a 30-inch screen from my couch. I’ve been watching mostly foreign movies, and if my tastes ever ran into 80’s television sitcoms and series, or B-grade movies (they don’t, but if they did), I’d be all set too. $9 a month is simply a no-brainer.

Looking online, the major free-to-air stations like ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox are making available full episodes (some in HD) of most of their series (together with ads) as well. For music, I use Pandora or Slacker, and more and more radio stations are streaming their broadcasts online (which I listen to through this sidebar gadget). I’m typing this post listening to KQED and glancing at the Windows sidebar where I have the weekend weather, latest exchange rates, and time in Australia and Asia where friends and family are.

What I do miss TV for is broadcasts of live events (basically NBA games). Then again, that’s what friends with cable, sports bars, and HDTV, another amazing technology, are for.


Favorite Tokyo stores

What’s a blog without lists? Here are some of my favorite stores in Tokyo, grouped by shopping district. Many of the foreign stores represented here also carry Japan-only products you won’t see elsewhere, which tend to push the boundaries of style and fashion a little bit more.

A shop assistant told me that most of these foreign brands will bring the same styles from overseas, but have them recut and shaped in Japan for Japanese sizes (typically one size smaller than the US, and cut slimmer) – a pleasant surprise for visitors who have a slender build.


  • Uniqlo: The so-called Gap of Japan – but sized perfectly for the Asian body, good for every clothing need you could possibly think of, at prices which are the epitome of reason. Spread over five floors in the center of the main Ginza shopping area, space to browse with ample fitting rooms, and one hour clothing alterations (just 300yen for original trouser hems).
  • Ginza Hands: Four floors in the newly opened Marrioner Gate building near Yurakucho station – the same Tokyu Hands we’re familiar with, but more high-end and Ginza-style. Not as a large range as the Shinjuku or Shibuya stores (where you’ll be able to get furniture as well), but a great setting to browse in.
  • BEAMS: A well-known boutique name that has a great selection (including the more stylish slim-fits) of business shirts on the second floor. On a side street off Chuo Dori.
  • Itoya: Stationery and accessories for every budget – I really like the leather goods (folios, notebooks, etc.) on the higher floors.
  • BIC Camera Yurakucho: Might be the biggest BIC Camera store in Tokyo, opposite the Yurakucho station.
  • Muji Yurakucho: I guess you’d have to call this the Ikea of Japan, this is the Tokyo flagship store – check out the display house on the first floor. There are branches at most major stations, and they’ve recently become more serious with their clothing range, including some nice pants and denim – the Yurakucho store will perform alterations for free or minimal cost, even on clothing purchased at other branches.
  • Marui Yurakucho: Opened recently, one of my favorite department stores – excellent selection of men’s clothing, both business and casual, though prepare to open your wallet. Great for just browsing as well – other big branches in Shinjuku, Shibuya and Ikebukuro.
  • Maruzen: Bookstore with a nice foreign section at the top – Marunouchi exit of Tokyo station.


  • Odakyu: This department store at the west exit has an outdoor and sports clothes section next to and beneath Bic Camera, including Lacoste and Aigle – more importantly, its sales are more frequent than you might expect for a department store.
  • L-Breath: At the south exit, this outdoor store regularly has discounted items outside its entrance. Seven floors covering your every outdoor need, with a point card too. It has a great selection of Columbia (among other brands) clothing in Asian sizes. I got my Eagle Creek carry-on roller backpack here. Currently, they’re the only place I know of that carries the Montbell coin pouch I use (I can’t even find them at Montbell stores).
  • Eddie Bauer: On the southern terrace – the American outdoor clothing company in Asian sizes, functional, solid and stylish. Has a points card.
  • Kinokuniya: Nice foreign books section at the top.


  • United Arrows Blue Label: Stylish shirts on the Beauty and Youth label at this well-known Tokyo boutique, occasionally discounted. There are two Blue Label stores on either end of Meiji Dori.
  • Oshmans: an alternative to L-Breath (though with fewer sizing options) just across the road from the Omotesando exit. Carries a points card too.
  • AssistOn: design store at the west end of Meiji Dori, with an intriguing selection of items from all over.
  • Omotesando Hills: Not a store, but a complex containing several high-end stores which opened last year – the interesting feature about the building is that it’s designed in a helical shape; if you walk in a straight line, you will eventually hit every shop in the building, and finish at the top. I’ve eaten at two restaurants there, an organic and an Italian restaurant – both were excellent.
  • Uniqlo UT: Designer T-shirts, but being Uniqlo, on the cheap at 1500 yen each (compare that with Design T-shirts Graniph). They’ve also recently started branching into tracksuit jackets.


  • The Suit Company: There are a number of inexpensive suit store franchises in Tokyo (think 20,000 and 30,000 yen price ranges) with branches (and different stock) across the major stations – think Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro. This is my favorite, found in the basement of the 109 Part 2 building, just across the road from the station. They stock suits down to 160 cm (height – the others typically go down to 165), and have a great range of Japanese-sized casual and business shirts at 5,000 yen each. The points card is a barscan code you download onto your keitai, which is scanned at each purchase; if you don’t read Japanese, you may need the help of a store assistant to set this up.
  • Suit Select 21: Has the slimmest cuts of the suit stores I’ve been to, and I preferred their styling and range over the others – and so ended up getting my suits here. Also has a nice range of odd jackets and outerwear, and like the others, a points card.
  • Perfect Suit Factory: Another suit franchise, with some interesting pieces in their Collection range (less than 30,000 yen). I bought a shawl lapel one-button business suit – it seems to me the Shibuya store (in the Tokyu Plaza building, which is next to Mark City and opposite the south exit) stocks more of these types of pieces than other locations. A nice selection of inexpensive skinny ties.
  • Franc Franc: Furniture store, a little cheaper when compared to Bo-Concept – they carry some Mogu (or Mogu-styled) sofa cushions.
  • Gap: There’s also another big branch in Harajuku – Asian-friendly sizing, though designs tend to be more adventurous than the US store.
  • fcuk: Flagship store in the Cocoti building (the other one is in Omotesando). There are some nice jackets here, though clothes are styled to a more European sizing. Has a points card.
  • Tower Records: Very good classical selection, and a number of listening stations.
  • Book First: Another bookstore with a good foreign section.
  • Yamaha: The music store has a good selection of scores (the flagship store is in Ginza), the music school has a few soundproofed rooms with grand pianos you can rent for a very reasonable 750 yen per 30 minutes.

Factory Outlets

There are three factory outlets around Tokyo that are easily reachable via train. They tend to have roughly the same stores (with some notable exceptions), are styled after the factory outlet malls found in the US and elsewhere, and are perfect for a lazy Saturday or Sunday. Discounts vary, though be prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

  • Yokohama Bayside Marina: My favorite – large number of stores, including Marui, Birkenstock, JCrew, Lacoste and Osh Kosh B’Gosh. Probably the most complicated to get to though, involving three train changes and a 5-10 minute walk.
  • Garden Walk: At Keihin Makuhari station from the JR Keiyo line. The smallest of the three.
  • Grandberry Mall: Also quite convenient, at Minami Machida on the Denentoshi line.

Firefox and Adobe Reader replacements

I’ve been using Firefox for web browsing for the last year or so, but it has become a bit of a memory and resource hog for my slightly underpowered laptop (a Dell X1/Samsung Q30 ultraportable), which has only 512 MB of RAM – it doesn’t take that much to ratchet up its memory usage to 100 MB and beyond. Googling “lightweight browser”, two which came highly recommended were Opera and Kmeleon. Opera has a lot of the functionality of Firefox without having the need to download a bunch of plugins at the start, but I found it only slightly less memory-intensive than Firefox. Kmeleon on the other hand is small, and very, very fast (it’s built on the native Windows API) – it shares the same rendering engine (and same standards compliance) as Firefox, has fewer frills and conveniences, but just about everything I need when I’m surfing at home. For my laptop, it’s perfect – it’s free, offers incredibly speedy browsing, and gives me enough space to run other apps such as Word or iTunes.

In a similar vein, I looked for an Adobe Reader replacement, and found the free and open source Sumatra PDF – it runs as a standalone EXE without the need for installation, and is tiny – 800K is all the disk space it takes. Again, blazingly fast relative to its predecessor, simple and minimalist, while still meeting my rather modest needs.

mobile technology

Mobile bookmarks

My new cell phone has a 320 by 240 landscape 1.9″ screen, sharp and bright, that actually makes for a decent experience viewing web and WAP pages (or at least as decent as it can get on a sub-2″ screen). The landscape orientation is a real boon when it comes to writing messages and viewing photos as well. Since my mobile plan currently offers me unlimited web access, I’ve been looking at various websites that offer mobile versions of their content over the last couple of weeks – whenever I’ve had time to kill on the train, walking from place to place, and even in the office. This new-found ubiquity of access has actually changed the way I view and use the web – I can’t imagine having a phone without this feature in the future.

Some compromises are, of course, necessary to make reading a full news article for example, possible on a cell phone.


Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit

The Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art is holding a retrospective of the French photographer’s work until August. They have a large collection of photographs on display, and while I don’t know a lot about street photography or photo-journalism, I was impressed by many of them. If I were to try to describe what I see, they:

  • are exclusively about people
    • often interacting with their environment, and vice versa
    • often interacting with each other
    • often reacting to a situation, or expressing a clear point of view
  • often have a strong sense of space and shape, that relates directly to the human subject(s)
  • often exquisitely, perfectly timed, freezing the decisive action or moment of the scene being played out
  • sometimes remind me of a Norman Rockwell painting, in the way humor is found through incongruity and juxtaposition (the word humanity also springs to mind)

Or if I were to put it another way, what he does for me, is capture succintly, people simply being people. Even in his commissioned portraits, his subjects rarely look directly at the camera, so that the final result feels more like one of his street shoots.

photography technology

DAM software

Digital Asset Management is becoming a big deal for many photographers, professionals and occasional shooters alike. I hadn’t really thought much about it before, but my recent acquisition and subsequent digitizing of historical family photographs brought home to me the need for a tool that would allow me to treat the collection as a library – complete with cataloging, search and organization functionality. A comprehensive survey of the DAM software market can be found here.

My basic requirements were:

  • Flexible labeling of photos – multiple labels, and ability to specify a label hierarchy
  • XML export of the catalog – including labels and their hierarchy
  • Support of open standards (IPTC, XMP) to avoid vendor lock-in
  • Ability to write these tags to the image files (or sidecar files), for the same reason
photography technology

Digicam deal

I popped into Bic Camera on the weekend, and got what I think is a bargain on a digital camera. Bic is selling the Fujifilm F31fd compact digicam, if you take into account their loyalty points and current campaign, for roughly USD170 – that’s about $50 cheaper than I can find on pricegrabber, and it’s probably worth noting that it’s initial release MSRP was USD399. Widely considered the best camera by far for low-light/no-flash pictures (and best-in-class battery life, at a rated 580 shots per charge), at the price it was hard to resist. With the current emphasis on megapixels by camera makers (it offers a “paltry” 6 megapixels worth of resolution), it’s hard to imagine another camera like this being introduced in the market again, at least for the time being. I really missed having a compact camera around on a recent trip to Malaysia – this one fits the bill nicely.

photography technology

Scanning prints

I have about 4-500 old family photographs from about 50 years ago that I thought would be great to digitize and distribute among relatives that are spread around the world – considering my paternal grandmother came from a family of thirteen, that’s a lot of interrelated history there.

So I got a Canoscan Lide 600F scanner from BIC Camera last night (178,000Â¥ – including 10% back in points, about USD135) – the salesman told me that the warranty and software were only good for Japan, but that I could download the drivers online. Sure enough, they were there on the Canon website, and I didn’t even bother opening the packaged CD. The device itself is relatively slim, and wonder of wonders, doesn’t need its own power supply, running off USB bus power (you need to use the provided USB cable though). The software was rather painless to install and get going – a machine restart was necessary for me, but not mentioned in the install guide.

I used Canon’s CanoScan Toolbox downloaded online, and for batch scanning of prints, it’s a breeze. Simply layout up to ten photos on the platen, and the software automatically straightens and crops correctly, provided you follow its guidelines of 1 cm between the platen edge and other photos – in this it does a great job. You need to set the correct orientation in a preview screen after scanning, and before saving – some way to automate this would’ve been nice. Perhaps the interface could have been a little cleaner, there’s a memory leak problem if you attempt to scan a number of times in the same session, so you need to restart sessions each time – not a big deal as I mapped one of the scanner buttons to bring up the Multi-Scan mode. Anyway, testament to how efficient the workflow was – I started last night and was done this evening getting through 478 photos, 4 x 6 and smaller.

Quality-wise, nothing to quibble over – scanning at 600 dpi, a 100% crop is shown below (without any sharpening). I’m very impressed with the technology and the whole experience.

Sample Crop

Now to start mailing those CDs out…

blogging technology

Making a start

Well, I spent a little time over the last couple of days evaluating blogging options for the website, and eventually settled on WordPress (what a great name for a blogging platform!).

Some of its pluses:

  • It runs off PHP, which means it runs on my current web host (which also provides MySql instances on the same plan). The learning opportunity was a big part of going with WordPress, as opposed to being hosted on or
  • XML-export of posts.
  • Wide user base, established community, theme and plugin availability.
  • Open source.

MovableType (another great moniker) was another option, but dependency on Perl, a much larger installation, a seemingly more powerful but less user-friendly dashboard put it behind WordPress (it’s also not open source, but for me that’s not a big deal). I did like its ability to publish multiple blogs from a single installation.

I was able to FTP-publish to my site from, and liked its simplicity, but in the end wanted something that I could tweak under the covers a bit more.

After that, it was a matter of hacking away at the default theme to get it looking the way I wanted (a lot of inspiration coming from this great WordPress site), which took actually much longer than I expected. It’s been a good experience though, as it’s given me exposure to working with stylesheets, server-side includes, PHP, and inter-browser differences (the theme looks much better in Firefox than it does in IE). And it’s been just the impetus I needed to bring better organization to the site.

The site does seem slower with SSI, as do the blog pages in general, and in particular the admin pages. Looking around, this wp-cache plugin might be an option for better performance.