The 28th day of every month is considered "payday" at the day job. Money is transferred from the corporate account to our own, and we're sent emails with links to outdated websites showing how much to expect in the bank. My colleagues tend to be pretty happy on this day, as it means bills can be paid and overtime efforts can be rewarded. Unfortunately, I do not share this same level of happiness. For most of the last three weeks, I've been able to get very little work done at the office due to various political battles, software battles, and network insecurity battles. More than this, the money I'm paid every month, which is a good deal more than I earned in the classroom, feels dirty.

Japanese Money — Not From My Actual Paycheque

Over the last few weeks I've written about my desire to escape the day to day, the summertime blahs, feeling blasé, and even working myself stupid. Heck, it's been a recurring theme on this site for nearly a decade! But these ideas are seldom far from my thoughts. Why is this?

I've been reading a number of books on psychology and motivation this year and a common, unspoken theme in just about every book is the fact that we are all ultimately in control of our emotional state. If we want to be happy, then we'll be happy. If we don't, then we won't. More than this is the idea that happiness is ultimately manufactured as a form of self-delusion to override our constant desire for "more". The people around us who are often smiling have learned this incredible skill, and the people who seem to frown incessantly have not. This second group is most certainly the category that I would fall into.

So what's the solution?

The more I read about how our mind apparently works, the more I'm surprised it works at all. We seem to build up an illusionary world around us in order to make sense of the universe and our place in it, but these convenient views are little more than smoke and mirrors. The people we surround ourselves with need to use similar illusions in order to maintain the grand ideas that we tell ourselves. One other crucial element is the verbal reinforcement of the illusion. Without this, doubt can begin to manifest itself in dangerous ways. Is this what I'm missing? Or is it something more fundamental, like physical community?

When I try to convey these questions to others, I'm often met with the "Buck up and grow a pair!" response that inspires so much nothingness. Just charging through something accomplishes nothing, and grow a pair of what? Testicles? Why would I want four of the things? Testosterone (or lack thereof) is not the reason for my disinterest in work or the asininity surrounding the various fiefdoms within corporate offices. Just the suggestion that one should do whatever this sentence is supposed to mean also goes to show that the listener is not at all empathetic with the speaker, or plain not listening. Either way, they are not the people we should be talking to.

And there are so many people like this ...

So what is it that I think would make me happy? Even for a little while? A small list. Nothing crazy. I do live in a relatively safe part of the country and am doing the job I tried hard for 8 years to get. I have a lovely puppy and some good friends who live less than an hour away. But what I'm looking for is this:

  1. a comfortable home life
  2. self-agency at the day job
  3. a bit of pocket money every month

The work will be determining how to go about making these three things possible.

1.142 Billion Reasons

In its first year of operation, the European Space Agency's Gaia satellite has identified just over 1.1-billion stars in our local galactic space, including stars in two smaller galaxies that orbit the Milky Way. Although this number is certainly large, Gaia has four more years left in its first mission and there are still lots to discover.

Gaia View of the Milky Way

When I look at pictures like the one above, it's hard not to wonder why we're not doing more to go out and explore. Research organizations the world over are helping us better understand the universe as best as human minds and technology will allow, but where has humanity's pioneering spirit gone? Is the hostile expanse of space — even within our own solar system — just too great a challenge for us to deem it worthwhile? Intrepid explorers and naive fools throughout history have often tried to cross uncharted seas and oceans in craft of dubious worthiness in the name of adventure. Can we not do the same?

Is it just a matter of ROI? Am I simply impatient for a time when we are able to visit other worlds, other cultures, and other species?

With over a billion stars in our own galaxy, and a good portion most likely containing planets of some sort, I can't help but wonder when we'll encounter another intelligence. Unlike what we see in most science fiction, it's unlikely that any truly alien intelligence will be anywhere close to our level of technology. They could be thousands or millions of years more advanced. They could be thousands or millions of years less advanced, too. They might welcome us with open arms1. They might ask us to go away. They might see us as easy prey and conquer us whole. There's no way to know. What I would like to know, though, is what it will take for us to come together as a world and cross the unforgiving void that exists beyond our planet's thin atmosphere.

Will it be faster-than-light travel? Will it be artificial wormholes? Will it be centuries-long journeys in made possible by reliable cryo-stasis?

How will we take our next step?

  1. a figure of speech, given that there's no guarantee that life elsewhere in the galaxy even has arms.

The Tragedy of Routine

The Absurdity Bottled Water Prices

While shopping for groceries this past weekend I took a shortcut down an aisle that was half dedicated to self-proclaimed health drinks1, and half dedicated to bottled water from sources all across the northern hemisphere of the planet. H²O from Italy, France, Canada, Switzerland, and right here in Japan were all available, selling for anywhere between 55 and 118 Yen per 500mL depending on the brand and size of bottle. As one would expect, the domestic water was selling for the lowest amount, but even at 110 Yen a litre2, it's far more than people should be expected to pay given it's little more than tap water in a plastic container.

This resource, be it bottled or otherwise, should be practically free in quantities smaller than a litre.

Water — From Bottle to Glass

Water prices in my city are relatively expensive for Japan, coming in at 0.13 Yen3 per litre. As in many developed nations, the water that comes out of the tap is perfectly safe to drink and even tastes pretty darn good. Apparently it's so good in the area I live that two large beverage companies, Asahi and Suntory, both have bottling plants within 10km of my home that draw on the same water source I shower with. If this isn't a vote of confidence, then I don't know what is. That said, a 500mL bottle of plain water from either of these companies will cost roughly 90 Yen at the supermarket, and more at a convenience store or vending machine. Why? Even at consumer rates, 500mL of water shouldn't cost more than 0.65 Yen. Are plastic bottles and distribution costs really that expensive?

I understand that companies set prices based on what the market will bear, but the market is ultimately wrong when it comes to this particular product. Even in times of drought, clean drinking water — more than anything else we might consume — is something that should be readily available to just about anyone for a pittance. How would one go about gaining enough momentum to make this happen, though?

Penny Fountains?

One idea I've been rolling around in my head is something I've lazily called a "penny fountain", and it's something that is probably instantly understood upon hearing the name. Fountains would be set up around a city or community and people would be permitted to drink from a spout for free, or fill a plastic bottle or thermos for a single penny. Finally a use for those tiniest of monetary units! One cent would be good for up to 8 litres of water if filling a bottle. Any uncollected water — which would probably be most of it — would be passed forward to whoever wanted to get a quick drink. Because people could use their own bottle, there'd be more recycling of existing bottles or cups. It sounds like a win-win, particularly in this country where there are so few public water fountains.

Would something like this appeal to a city government to implement, though? Would something like this appeal to thirsty citizens who are price gouged by beverage companies on hot days? Would something like this make any sense at all?

  1. Technically, anything that doesn't kill us can be labelled a health drink.
  2. Domestically bottled water in Japan typically sells for a little more per litre than gasoline refined from Iranian oil.
  3. 0.13円 is $0.00128 USD as of this writing.

505 Billion Pages and Counting

The Internet Archive's Wayback Machine is a wonderful resource, making some of the Internet's long-gone content available again when people want to access it at some point in the future. It's because of the Wayback Machine that I've been able to (slowly) piece together all of the show notes for the long-deleted Enough Podcast1, and it's been an important tool when looking back at content that people have deleted from their website to mask past statements. There's just one little problem with the service, though: it doesn't archive everything.

The Internet Archive

As of this writing, The Wayback Machine has roughly 505-billion pages archived. This is absolutely amazing. People will thank the team responsible for keeping this service alive for generations to come as there is still no good way for websites to be accessed after they've vanished from the public Internet. Given all the good that this service does, I'd like to encourage anybody who uses the service to make a donation every now and again to keep it going. Like 10Centuries, Archive.org is a non-profit organization that doesn't try to turn other people's content into gold. However, unlike 10Centuries, the service does not specifically ask permission to maintain a copy of a site nor does it make it easy to post an update of an article or site we do want preserved.

Which brings me to the crux of this blog post2, should 10Centuries have an opt-in feature that auto-submits content to Archive.org on the creator's behalf?

People are free to add pages to the Wayback Machine by manually submitting a URL, but this is another step that people need to do on their own, which can be a bit cumbersome for authors who future-date posts for later releases. There is a way for a web service such as 10Centuries to auto-submit new, public posts to the service by sending a simple GET request like http://web.archive.org/save/matigo.ca. So why not do it for everybody that wants it?

10Centuries has the goal to keep people's content online and in a safe, central location for a thousand years. Crazy as it may seem, it should be perfectly plausible to do so given the direction of the Internet and how certain systems are evolving. That said, it doesn't hurt to have a backup, and Archive.org's mission is very much aligned with that of 10Centuries. Will people want the feature, though?

  1. I still have about 90 episodes to find show notes for. I have the entire audio archive, but it's these pesky show notes that seem to have completely vanished from the Internet. Maybe Dan Benjamin has a copy from his 70Decibels acquisition. I should ask ...
  2. This post should probably have been written on 10Forward (blog.10centuries.org), the "official" blog for 10Centuries, but here is good enough.

Typhoon Season

The autumn typhoon season has long been one of my favourite times of year since moving to Japan. The summer heat and humidity is broken by walls of water falling from the sky and vicious winds that send the dirt, dust, and loose debris from around the country on a one-way trip to North Korea. Today's slow-moving storm is a wonderful sight to behold ... despite the havoc it plays on the public transit systems.

Typhoons Nearing Japan

I strongly feel that people need to have a deep appreciation for just how powerless humans are when confronted with the raw forces of nature. This is one of the reasons I enjoy storms so much. Sure, our buildings are built pretty strong and we can enjoy the protection afforded by brick and concrete structures, but looking outside offers us a profound spectacle that proves just how weak we are. It's with tools that we overcome this frailty, and it's with charity that we share protection with others.

I wouldn't want to be a dog stuck outside on a leash.

How Many Klicks?

Typhoons are on the way and the summer heat has finally started to become a little more tolerable as autumn makes itself known. Of the many things I've looked forward to with this change of season, getting outside and just walking is one item I've wanted to do for months. Walking may not be the fastest way to get from place to place, but it's certainly one of the more enjoyable ways. Not only do we get a little fresh air and exercise, but something that I feel is missing from our lives: an appreciation for details.

Walking in Rural Chiba

When I talk to people who drive everywhere about various elements of a city, I'm often surprised by how little people seem to know about the area. Someone might say "I wish there was a bakery close by" and I'd respond with "Oh, there's one right beside the pharmacy not two blocks from here" only to hear "There's a pharmacy around here?" It seems that when people are behind the wheel of a vehicle their attention is elsewhere1 and a lot of the little gems of a place are completely missed. This is to be expected, of course.

On weekends I like to get out of the house for a few hours to walk somewhere new and travel down unfamiliar roads. This can sometimes lead to some dead ends and awkward moments as people wonder why a foreign guy is heading towards a building at the end of a dirt path, but it's a great opportunity to see things that many local residents simply don't. I used to do the same when living in Canada, too, travelling by foot when time permitted so that I could better appreciate an area. Over the last few years I've met some friendly people who love nothing more than to talk about their neighbourhood, and I've brought Nozomi to a few of these places as well so that she could enjoy some time outside in a new location. I hope to do this again this year before the winter chill makes the ground too cold for her paws.

But as for me, I hope to get back into my daily walking pattern. The pedometer should read 10,000 steps every night during the week, and almost double on the weekends. Depending on the weather and lighting, some of the pictures I take while on the journey may even wind up here ... which is something I should do more often.

  1. Hopefully on the road.

Fifteen Years Ago ...

Fifteen years and one minute ago, most of the people around me figured the world was a pretty safe place. Then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed.

The Twin Towers on Fire

It's hard to believe how much has happened in the decade and a half since I first heard of the Taliban, their leader, and their unrealistic desire to see America wiped off the face of the planet. People in the free world are not so free anymore. Sure, we can go about our day mostly the way we'd like but, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, intelligence agencies, police forces, and their governments have taken advantage of the opportunity to greatly expand their powers and blanket citizens in a near constant series of surveillance measures. Ambitious people with incredible minds work on algorithms that try to extract meanings and patterns from the abundance of data they are collecting from every one of us, and ordinary people try to go about their business, leaving matters such as national security and the never-ending wars on vague ideas to people who are better informed on the matters.

We, for the most part, wish to move on and keep our heads down.

In 2001 I was working at an appliance repair store in Southern Ontario, striving to earn a living while also feeding my desire to have the latest and greatest computer system at all times. Although I did do quite a bit of coding back then, I would spend most of my evenings playing Age of Empires II, a realtime strategy game where you start with a group of villagers and build an empire that eventually takes over the entire map. Even though I enjoyed the game immensely, I lost the heart to play after the events of 9/11.

I was mid-way through a game with a number of players around the globe and, after crossing an ocean with an incredible amount of naval firepower and a well-timed landing party, I decimated an opponent in minutes. Their territory was annexed, I fortified the structures, and started building support buildings that could act as a place to launch new attacks or a secondary base of operations should the home territories be lost. We were already over an hour into the game, but I wiped out everything that person had accomplished in just a few minutes with a blitzkrieg they were ill equipped to handle. Then they called me "Osama".

At that moment I thought about what I was doing. The objective of the game is to conquer the planet by obliterating every other group of people, and maybe converting some of their troops and villagers to your civilization's religion. The very same goals — I thought — that the Taliban had. I apologized to the defeated player and quit the game. I didn't have the heart to wipe out the remaining nations, digital creations or no. Since then I've not played any video game that involves conquering territories or wiping out nations1.

I sometimes wonder what life today would be like had 9/11 never happened. We would still have a lot of the tools and technology that we take for granted, but I wonder whether data encryption would have as much an impact. Would people be more concerned with online companies that earn their money by watching our every move online and selling that data to the highest bidder? Do we not worry about how much Google, Facebook, and a bunch of other organizations know about us because our own governments have so much information about us? Is the data collection less of an issue for people outside the US because they know that, in addition to their own government having information on them, the intelligence agencies in America also have information about them?

Maybe I'm the only person who thinks about this stuff.

On September 11th, 2001, some time around 8:50am, I received a phone call from one of my colleagues. He asked if I had heard the news, and I hadn't. So he told me. My exact words were "Shut the fuck up. No way." I didn't believe that a plane would ever slam into a building such as the World Trade Centre. There were rules, regulations, guidelines ... all these things to ensure fast-moving flying vehicles stayed away from tall buildings. But, sure enough, he was right.

My boss and I fired up the 56Kbps modem that was in our fastest computer and tried to get some news. We managed to connect and get a video feed of the towers just a few seconds before another plane hit the second tower. We were in shock. The video feed deteriorated and we couldn't reconnect for the rest of the day. We went about our business, listening to the reports on the radio. Despite the seriousness of the attacks, people were still calling to get their washing machines and ovens fixed, and we had a job to do. And that's pretty much how we operated for the next month. We listened to every news report. We brought newspapers in and discussed the information that we had available to us. In the evenings I'd go home and, instead of playing games to conquer the world, I'd communicate with people on IRC. I'd write software. I'd draw. I'd paint. I'd create.

Because even though I was 21 and still very naive about the world, I knew that the fallout of those attacks would colour the rest of my adult life, and the lives of everyone I would meet from that day on.

  1. I will admit that I've enjoyed a lot of games of Risk with friends.

Ochiai Pond

Sometimes when the stresses of everyday life get to you, it's important to get away from it all — even if temporarily. On weekends I like to head out to a place called Ochiai Park which is about three kilometres northeast of my home and is easily accessed by following the long park that bisects the city. With typhoons on their way, the weather is finally starting to get comfortable enough to allow such a trek without risk of heat exhaustion. For those fortunate enough to go on a nice, summer's day, this is what they can expect to see:

Ochiai Pond.jpg

The pond doesn't have any fish, and it's almost completely empty during the winter months, but the calm waves in September and October are absolutely wonderful to watch. I like coming out this way and just sitting next to the water, watching the people, insects, and clouds roll by.

The Amazon Tax

Web hosting in Asia is quite a different experience from what many people have when buying services from providers in Europe and North America. Aside from the obvious language and interface barriers that may be in place, it seems the Asian services offer more processing power for the money, and bandwidth is completely free1. Earlier this year, when the majority of my web services were running in Japan, I rarely had to monitor a server's load or its throughput as I knew the machines could handle just about anything (reasonable) that was thrown at them. More than this, if there was a rush of traffic to a website or if a particular podcast file was downloaded a few thousand times, I never had to worry about big charges coming back to me at the end of the month. This sort of peace of mind was great, as it meant I could expand my services and organically grow the platforms while intentionally spending the money required to make it happen.

Since moving my 10Centuries platform over to Amazon's Web Services, though, I've been consistently nervous about the popularity of the tool. Will I wake up one day to discover that a machine was set up to copy the same mp3 files again and again and again, racking up hundreds of dollars in fees? Will I receive an email letting me know that the auto-scaling has reached its maximum and the servers are being inundated with traffic that I need to pay for? Will some other unexpected occurrence take place that could bankrupt the project at any given moment?

I really hope not.

The Amazon Tax

The reasons for moving 10Centuries from my Japanese provider to Amazon came down to factors such as auto-scaling, easy storage solutions, response times for the primary audience, and fewer geographic blockades2. Was it the right decision, though? When the platform was running on Japanese servers, I needed roughly 18 people to sign up for subscription packages in order to break even and have a little left over for things like new theme designs or domain names. On Amazon I need 68 people to sign up for subscription packages in order to break even ... and that's not taking into account any costs that will be incurred should the service receive interest from a larger group of the population. With every measure of success, the Amazon Tax will need to be considered.

This makes me nervous3

In January I had set this year's 10Centuries budget at 90,000円, which is about $900 USD. This would cover the cost of two servers, a bunch of domain names, a handful of theme templates that I would convert, plus some unforeseen expenditures. That amount was gone by May as various costs quickly added up and drained the bank account. The existing subscriptions are helping a lot, but I can't shake the feeling I've made a terrible mistake moving the service to Amazon. Unless I can get the costs way down in the next 45 days, the service will need to return to Asia where services are cheaper ... even though this will come with a number of very clear disadvantages to development going forward.

Using Amazon's infrastructure comes with a lot of benefits. There's no denying this. The amount of risk people leave themselves open to, though, can be quite scary.

  1. Bandwidth is often free or so cheap it may as well be free.
  2. The Great Firewall of China will occasionally refuse to allow traffic from Japanese servers through. Traffic from American servers, however, appears to be largely unaffected.
  3. Very nervous ... especially considering how some people have no problem wasting other people's money "for the lulz".

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