Wednesday, January 28, 2004


Preparing to roll up to Tahoe this weekend. I haven't looked at any houses in the area for a while (since my last trip) and Shelley's mom is coming to Tahoe for a short vacation. We haven't seen her mom for a while and I am sure Zeke is up for the road trip also.

I figure that we'll leave on Friday or Saturday and spend the night in either Placerville or South Lake Tahoe ( We've found several hotels that accept dogs and Zeke doesn't seem to get to freaked out by the rooms). Besides, there are several newly listed houses in the area that seem to be worth checking out. Their housing market appears to be cooling slightly, with many house prices being reduced. Most have a few acres of land and are pretty secluded from the neighbors. Hopefully, this will be a good time to buy.


My only concern is the weather right now: it looks like a high in the low 30's with a possibility of snow showers. While my car is 4WD, I am not sure that is up to the full rigors of the Sierra winter. I've taken it up into the mountains when it was snowing before, but it looks like they have a lot more snow pack now. I'll just play it by ear and see how far we get.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Back In The USA

As you can see from my "Where's Ken ?" box on the right column, I've made it back from Japan.

After 9 hours of flying back to the Bay Area, I hit the house and immediately fell into a deep coma. This wouldn't have been to bad, but flying home from Japan requires you to leave in the late afternoon and arrive back at SFO in early morning. As such, I slept away Saturday and emerged from my coma just in time to see the local stations retiring for the night.

Not that being up all night is bad. It has given me some time to catch up on some recorded shows (my HTPC rig has about 40 shows waiting for me), check on my finances (Sun's stock seems to have stalled) and update my weblog. I even got a chance to read some of my email.

I've got a few weeks before my next trip, so I hope we sell the the house and find a new one. Our last offer went south on us when the buyer got cold feet. We still have one waiting, but it is contingent on the buyer selling their property. Of course, this is somewhat good news for us as we have no idea where we want to live.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Shinjuku New Music Saturday

Got to fly today and my iPod has been feeling a little neglected lately, so I slinked down to central Shinjuku's shopping area to find a record store. I was in luck (I usually shop for CDs in Akaihabra or Shibuya) and found a Tower Records and HMV right off. I only had about one hour so I took the sure bet and headed into Tower. Skipping the J-Pop sections, I found two new CDs that I didn't even know where out: The Get Up Kids' "Wouldn't Believe It" and No Motiv's "Daylight Breaking." I snatched both and headed for the airport.

The Get Up Kids are one of my favorite bands for two reasons: they don't let Emo confine themselves to whiny ballads about some chick who might have screwed them over and they attended the University of Kansas when I was there. I actually saw them at the Bottleneck once or twice, but never knew they were going to get this good. "Wouldn't Believe It" is an EP with two preview songs from their coming album "Guilt Show": Wouldn't Believe It and Martyr Me. Both songs are quite good and signal a further maturation of their previous album, "On A Wire", sound. Martyr Me is definitely the better of the two songs. "Wouldn't Believe It" also contains two acoustic songs: Wish You Were Here (from "On A Wire") and I'll Catch You (orign unknown). Both songs are strong but the recording of both are a little weak - apparently he recorded these in his house. "Guilt Show" should be out in late February. I think this EP is a Japanese only issue.

I have been listening to No Motiv for a little while now. Some of their stuff has been really good, but other cuts are a little tedious. However, I am looking at a 9 hour flight so I took a flyer on this. "Daylight Breaking" has ten cuts which depart from their previous Pop-Punk / Emo blend. Both of these bands are on Vagrant Records, so I don't know if their shifts in sounds are a natural maturation of their songwriting or some marketing attempt to broaden their audience while decreasing their label's risk of financial ruin if the Emo market collapses. Either way, the album works on the strength of several strong songs: Life Goes On, Robot Eyes, Where Did You Go? and Into The Darkness (the first single). Not any standout hits, but a solid listenable album overall.

To round out my flight playlist, I snagged a few songs from iTunes:
  • White Stripes "Seven Nation Army"
  • R.E.M. "Imitation of Life (Live From Trafalgar Square)"
  • Saves The Day "Firefly"
With all seventeen songs burned and fed into my iPod, I donned my noise cancelling headphones and settled back into my seat for the long ride home.

Friday, January 23, 2004

Chance Encounter

Got a surprise today: Mark is here in Tokyo. Turns out his company sent him over to work with his Japanese distributor and give some kind of seminar. Even better, he's staying in a hotel just across the street from my hotel in Shinjuku. The odds of two guys who play fantasy baseball together travelling 8,000 miles from home ending up across the street from each other in one of the largest cities on earth is astounding.

I caught up with him Thursday night, just after he had learned that most of his efforts to land a huge deal had gone sideways on him. We went out to a nearby Ginza Lion (local chain of Japanese pubs) and drowned his sorrows with his Japanese mate. After a few beers and snacks, we parted ways with Mark's colleague and met up with Jim at my hotel. Jim was feeling like more food so we wandered over to I-Land and had a more formal dinner of Yakiniku (meat similar to Korean BBQ). It turned out that Jim and Mark had a few things in common (Russians, work colleagues, etc.) so the entire evening was cool.

Didn't catch up with Mark again this week -- He fixed his client problems so I am sure he is hip deep in work. I think he's back to Boston sometime later this weekend.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Shiny Toys

Arrived in Tokyo on Monday morning after my week in China. Usually, I kind of dread Tokyo. While a wonderful place with friendly people, Tokyo is a very large city with endless delays and strange rules. One of the most vexing rules involves mobile phones. The Japanese use a unique mobile system (GSM is outlawed there) which is incompatible with any one elses in the world. As I really need a mobile phone, it appeared that the simple solution would be to buy a Japanese model and just use prepaid cards. However, Japan used to have a rule that only Japan resident could buy a handset, to cut down on crime.

I said "HAD", because apparently they have relented on this restriction. On arrival, my concierge told me that I can now purchase a mobile and use pre-paid cards. I thought that this was extremely cool, so I wandered down the block to my local Vodafone store. They had pretty limited selection, and I had even more limited Japanese, so I settled on the default handset for their pre-paid service: Mitsubishi V101D. The phone itself is fairly lightweight (by American standards) and seem to have a bevy of features. I say seems, because unlike most other Japanese mobiles, it appears that the V101D doesn't have English menus. Needless to say this has led to a number of problems, but has increased my Katakana comprehension.

I will keep you updated on my Katakana and mobile learning.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

Beijing Nights

Chinese New Year is next week (the Year of the Monkey) and it seems like half of Beijing gone on vacation to visit their rural relatives. The hotel is so empty that they are even working with a skeleton staff, making for a really creepy THE SHINING feel. They have even started cutting back on the number of entrees on their lunch buffet.

It's Saturday; I finished all my meetings and work here in Beijing, so my colleagues and I thought we might see some of the city before we fly to Tokyo on Monday. The city has changed considerably since I started coming here in 1998, mostly for the better. Back then, you could always see your Red Army "handler" somewhere down the street from you, everyone quieted when you entered restaurants and nightlife was absolutely non-existent as everything closed around 9 PM. Today, I could see Beijing rivaling many of the cities in Asia for cultural events and nightlife in a few years.

To sample some Chinese culture on our trip, we started out at the Red Gate Gallery. The Gallery sits in the restored remains of the east gate to the city dating back to the Ming Dynasty.

It's a really cool space, atop a wall, that now backs to the Beijing State Railway line. The Gallery has an usual relationship with the government, as the space is actually a historical site, but they run a commercial business in it. The Gallery specializes in young avant-garde Chinese artist and I liked most of what I saw. Oil or acrilyc paintings seemed to be the most popular choice covering a wide variety of styles and subjects. Take a look on the website, they have pictures of many of
the pieces.

As the night went on, the weather turned nasty with snow and high winds. After a brief talk with our guide, we decided to call off our Wild Great Wall trip. Our guide thought the possibility of getting injured on the wall (due to slippery snow and unseen hazards) was simply to high. Maybe I'll get back here in the Spring and try it again.

With our wall trip called off, we decided to stay out a little late and sample some nightlife. Although many of the supposed "hot spots" were a little disappointing, we finally found a club called MIX which had a acceptable amount of hip-hop that made us feel like we might be home. Who says that engagement doesn't work ?

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Courtyard Restaurant

Went to a cool restaurant in Beijing tonight called The Courtyard (95 Donghuamen Ave., Beijing, P.R.C., +86 6526 8883) which is “perched on the Moat overlooking the Forbidden City.” The Courtyard is actually a combination art gallery, cigar divan and restaurant.

The restaurant major draw is its location: right next to one gate of the Forbidden City in an exclusive neighborhood. It’s architecture was also cool, mixing old world outside with a modern interior. As you would expect, inside the restaurant is filled with art -- some traditional, but much of it fairly modern, mostly paintings. Cool light fixtures and wall coverings abound. They must have spent a great deal importing a lot of that.

The menu was varied but quite nice. I had the U.S. Kobe Beef (China must not have banned our stuff yet) which was incredible, while most of my colleagues had scallops, which they liked. Portions were small but adequate. Deserts were stellar -- I skipped to have a espresso. Total meal came out to about $40 per person. Expensive for Beijing but a deal considering we went through three bottles of wine.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Back To Gray

Finally finished the long journey to Beijing last night: Twelve hours from San Francisco to Narita (Tokyo) Airport, a three hour layover then a four hour flight into Beijing. This usually isn't so bad (it's twenty-two hours to India), but my SFO -> NRT flight was in coach and ANA has THE SMALLEST economy seats in the world. I would complain but the ANA stewardess are pretty stern - Not good to get on their bad side at the start of a ordeal.

Actually saw some new things at my layover in Tokyo. They have finally upgraded and expanded Narita, adding several gates to the International terminal and rearranging the airline lounges. Not that there is anything new to do; While Tokyo is a wonderful and fascinating metropolis, it has one of the boringest airports anywhere in the world (especially compared with Singapore or Kuala Lumpur). You sometimes feel that you could change the signs at Narita and it would look at lot like John Wayne in Orange County (Not to be confused with the return of Opus and Bloom County).

Finally arrived into Beijing late on Sunday and was greeted by Beijing's bleak winter. If you ever think that Columbus or Detroit is grey and cold in the wintertime, you need to come to Beijing. Between the communist-era architecture, expansive use of polished marble and perchance for oversized marching grounds, it is hard to separate the sky from the ground at times. Adding 10 degree temperatures and strong winds, doesn't help either. At least I got a decent limo from the hotel to pick me up; Beijing taxis are incredibly dangerous. The driver actually spoke a little english, so I got him to give me a tour of the some of the renovations that the Chinese government is undertaking to prepare for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

I am here for the week and we are still arranging our Great Wall trip. I'll have more on that later.

Saturday, January 10, 2004


After five grueling days of repairing, cleaning and showing my house, we accepted an offer tonight. We decided on a pretty solid offer from the two that were made - some dot com type guy who wanted to live by the ocean. Not bad for only being on the market for 6 days. As both offers came in over asking, I can't complain at all. As I have been complaining about Bay Area real estate for the last seven years, it is really nice to see it actually used to my advantage for once.

Better start stepping up my house-hunting in Placerville. If everything goes well, it should close in 45 days which means I might be up country by spring.

Field Trip: Beijing

Off to Beijing, China for the week to attend some business meetings and climb the great wall.

Of course, I am only actually being paid to talk about computers this week, but since I am there, I decided to join a few friends and see some of the more remote sections of the Wall. Supposedly there is some guy there that conducts tours of the sections that aren't "tourist-friendly" (i.e. over-run with 10 million Chinese and every t-shirt vendor on earth). The last time I went to the Wall, there was everything but a StarBucks. If this is really a secluded area, it should be interesting but COLD.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Enhancing The HTPC

Been screwing with my HTPC (Home Theatre PC) rig over the last few days and decided that I need more than just my Beyond TV software and games. I really wanted to use the machine for a lot more like music playing and basic Internet browsing. However, even at the largest Windows XP font sizes, it is impossible to read the interface from across the room. After a quick Google search, I found a program that helped me along -- My HTPC.

My HTPC puts a 10' Foot User Interface (10UI) on top of Windows that allows me to:
  • Launch arbitary programs (like games)
  • View weather forecasts from
  • Listen to MP3s
  • View DVDs
  • View pictures through a slideshow

There are also some other plug-ins that interface to DVR software packages -- I just use a little program launcher for my Beyond TV. Even better, all this works with the same remote that I already use.

So far this is working out well. And the weather forecast (especially the RADAR picture) is very cool. I would certainly like to see more plug-ins and Internet integration (maybe a RSS viewer ?), it seems to be the best thing out there today.

Thursday, January 01, 2004

The Search Begins . . .

Spent the entire weekend searching for a new house and trying to sell my current house.

The searching part of the weekend went well. We have seen quite a few places in El Dorado Hills, which is just east of Sacramento on the way to Lake Tahoe. El Dorado Hills borders on Folsom Lake and boasts miles of trails for biking and rivers for kayaking. Kelly and I liked this one best, but I don't think Shelley agreed. Crap, after living in the Bay Area for seven years, the sight of "real" houses under $750,000 has almost brought tears to my eyes.

The selling part of the weekend also seemed to go well. Our realtor created a virtual tour for our house, which turned out better than the house actually looks. Along with the virtual tour, she had a open house today which attracted about 15 people. Maybe something comes of that. Either way, we finally have the house in "selling" shape so things actually look decent.

Banish Your Tivo

I've finally had enough of my Tivo. I still love it, but the cute interface and proprietary design has started to grate on me. But the $12.95 monthly tax for something I can get free over the Internet sealed it. So, with a tinge of sadness, I have relegated my Tivo to the bedroom and installed a shiny new rig upstairs to handle my home theatre needs.

Configuring my new rig was easy enough. J&N Computer Services helped me outfit a Shuttle SS51G small form factor PC with a sweet Intel P4 2.6 Ghz processor, 512 MB RAM, 160Gb hard disk, USB 802.11G wireless adapter, Sony DVD+-RW burner, Hauppauge PV250 TV tuner card and nVidia 5200 graphics card. The graphics card includes TV out so that I can see all this on my television. To round out the configuration, I installed Windows XP and Snapstream's Beyond TV. There is a ton of really useful information on the web about building these - I thought Brad Larson's tutorial was the most helpful.

The results were nothing less than outstanding. The Hauppauge card has an onboard MPEG processor that handles the TV analog to digital conversion, so the processor only handles the decoding the signal and housekeeping chores. Most times, the machine averages only 4% busy while recording and the quality (MPEG-2 just like DVDs) is better than Tivo. Beyond TV's interface isn't as slick as Tivo's but it is gaining quickly. And it has no monthly fee. Add in cool extra features like web scheduling and DVD archiving, and you can see the Tivo isn't coming back upstairs anytime soon.

That isn't to say that Tivo has some edges over Beyond TV. Beyond TV doesn't implement Tivo Suggestions, Showcases nor all the features of Tivo's season-passes. However, it does offer some advantages:
  • Standard based file format: MPEG-2, WMV and DivX
  • Automatic recompression of files (I capture in MPEG-2 then recompress to DivX and save 80% space)
  • Any size hard drive that you want. Unlimited number of hard drives
  • File sharing in the house across the 802.11G network
  • Remote recording (I can choose what to record from any web browser)
  • Multi-use (I can also play games on my PC)

Just like Tivo, Beyond TV can alter the recording quality. Normal MPEG-2 recordings take about 1 GB per half hour or so. Compressing the files with really good DivX quality takes the files down to about 300 MB per half hour. Beyond TV schedules the recompression jobs in overnight (adjustable). If you are willing to recompress the files into Windows Media format, you can even stream them across your network or the Internet.

The cost of the system was rather high. The computer weighed in around $900 but with the add-in Hauppauge card and Beyond TV, it crossed the $1100 mark. This could certainly be much lower -- replace the Shuttle SS51G box with a regular enclosure, cut the DVD burner and reduce the RAM / CPU / HD specs. I figure you could make this same solution for about $650 if you went Intel Celeron 1.8 Ghz, 256 MB RAM and 80 GB hard drive. Of course, that wouldn't be any fun whatsoever.

I'll keep you updated on my rig as I add more features to it.