Five Things

The third Sunday of every other month is neighbourhood cleanup day, a responsibility that every suburban home owner across much of Japan must participate in. The day itself may change from region to region, but the efforts are about the same. People in a neighbourhood block get together in front of the area leader's house at a pre-determined time, listen to some updates about coming changes or the comings and goings of residents1, then get to work cleaning the drainage gutters and tidying up around the houses. It's not at all a glamorous task, but there is some genuine good that comes from this tradition that, according to a neighbour of mine, goes back almost 400 years to Japan's Edo period.

Neighbours See Each Other

The first decade of living in Japan was done mostly in rented apartments where the practice of cleaning up the area is just not required. There are companies hired by the landlords that come around every so often to ensure the buildings are generally presentable. As a result, the only time I would see a neighbour was if they just happened to be outside when it was time to bring Nozomi for a walk. There was one neighbour who I regularly spoke to at the last apartment, but he moved out a couple of years before the boy was born. People generally kept to themselves.

Neighbourhood cleaning encourages people to go out and mingle with their neighbours while performing a common task. A lot of people generally talk to the people who live on properties that are immediately next to or behind them, but the neighbourhood is a long rectangle consisting of 22 houses. My house is on the north-eastern corner and it's very rare that I ever see the people who live in the south-west unless they're driving by. While I am not particularly proactive in meeting new people, I do generally enjoy chatting. Many people might feel the same way.

A Common Goal

The purpose of the neighbourhood cleanup is not just to ensure the roads and gutters are clear of debris, though this is a lovely byproduct of the habit. The goal is to enshrine a feeling of pride and responsibility. We're all responsible for the appearance and atmosphere of this little slice of the country so, if it is kept in good shape, everybody wins. Property values depreciate slower2, potential home-owners are more willing to move in, and people generally feel better about being at home. Nobody wants to live in a filthy area.

After the Cleanup

One thing that I found completely unsurprising about the neighbourhood cleanup was what happened afterwards. People would return to their homes and begin cleaning their yards3 or chat with neighbours. For me, I generally pick weeds just outside the fence to keep the area looking nice, given that this house is generally the first one that people see when returning to their own home. Being "only 40 years old", I'm occasionally asked to help with some heavy lifting nearby and this is a good opportunity to learn more about the people around here. Everybody knows about the boy, as he's the youngest person in the area4, and they love to ask questions about what he can and can't do just yet. This sort of neighbourly help was a common thing when I lived in rural Ontario, but was non-existent in the cities. All in all, it's a good excuse to help each other out.

A Critical Eye

Cleaning the neighbourhood gives a person some incentive to look at their own home and see what can be done about any shortcomings rather than ignore small problems in the present until they're bigger problems in the future. Going around my own home, I've found situations where part of my fence needed repair5, soil was eroding, and eavestroughs weren't catching enough rainwater as it slid off the roof. None of these things were serious when discovered, but they could have led to bigger issues down the road.

A Good Example

Kids in Japan are expected to clean their schools. Not just the classrooms, but the hallways and toilets as well. Non-executive employees in Japan are expected to clean their offices. Not just the desks, but the carpets and toilets as well. Children will see their parents going out on a Sunday to help keep the neighbourhood clean and recognize it as an important civic responsibility. By setting a good example, there's a greater chance that the tradition will continue into the future as kids become adults and buy their own homes one day. It's our responsibility to keep the places we use and enjoy in good working order, after all, and nobody is exempt6 from this social expectation.

These are some of the reasons that I enjoy and appreciate the neighbourhood cleanup day.


  1. This would involve hearing about who had recently given birth, who has moved into the neighbourhood, who has moved out, and who has passed away. In my neighbourhood, where the median age is somewhere north of 60, we generally hear about who has passed away two or three times per year.

  2. Land values depreciate so fast in this country it's a wonder anyone buys property. I've heard a number of people in real estate say that land is generally worth something until there is a house on it. Given the sticker price for the 70m² plot of land with my name on it was higher than the cost of the house by $20K, this doesn't bode well for the assessed value of the largest asset I'll ever own.

  3. Given that most people around here retired over a decade ago, the yards are already generally quite clean.

  4. There are a dozen or so kids under the age of 14 in the neighbourhood. This isn't a retirement village, but many of the residents did move here in the 70s with their own young children. People have grown up, moved out, and started families of their own. When people pass away, the children take over the home and generally have it torn down and the land put up for sale. This isn't always for financial reasons, either, as many people tend to move to other parts of the country for work or education in their 20s. It's just not realistic to leave a house abandoned for sentimental value, particularly when governments are now charging homeowners a 12% annual tax for leaving a house empty.

  5. Nothing serious, give the fence isn't yet a year old. One of the brick tiles had come loose and needed some better adhesive to stay on the post. Fortunately this was covered under warranty.

  6. Some people may choose to not do it, but this doesn't make them exempt.

Normal Hours

Today I managed to take three naps. None of them were planned. Instead the desire to sleep was just so great that I would close my eyes “just for a moment” and wake up 20 minutes later. The first nap was on a bench overlooking a nearby park. The second time was on the sofa while the boy was using me as a jungle gym. The third time was right before taking Nozomi for an evening walk. Again, none of these were planned; they just happened.

Next week, I’ll try to work normal hours and get to bed no later than 11:30pm. Sleep is very much a recurring topic in my writing, but for all the wrong reasons. Aside from a few years of solid rest before the boy came along, I’ve had some issue with sleep since the age of twenty.

In the early 2000s I would fall asleep rather quickly and enter into the same very long dream several nights a week. The dream felt as though it spanned years. I’d wake up completely disoriented to the point where I needed to have a calendar next to my bed with the days crossed off so that I’d know when I was. Returning to the waking world always left me wondering whether I was actually awake or stuck in another dream.

By 2006 the epic dreaming changed to bouts of insomnia that would span days, weeks, or an entire month. It was impossible to get more than 15 to 20 minutes of sleep at a time. The only thing that would allow a longer period of rest was alcohol, but this was something I did not want to rely on as I’d sworn off drinking a few years earlier.

Between 2013 and 2016 I slept like a log and would wake feeling mostly refreshed and ready to take on the day despite being a rather turbulent time in my life. It was around this time that my current sleeping pattern emerged, which is that I generally lose consciousness within 30 seconds of putting my head down. There was the occasional time where I’d be awake for hours on end because of worry or anxiety, but these nights were few and far between.

The last two years, though, have been weird. Inconsistent sleeping times and waking to take care of the boy has taken its toll. I’m falling asleep just about everywhere I sit if the last few nights have seen fewer than 4 hours of actual sleep. This is not cool and will only lead to some serious health issues. For this reason, I need to re-institute some of the old rules I followed between 2013 and 2016:

  1. No computers for an hour before sleeping
  2. Be in bed no later than midnight
  3. Always wake up by 7:30am

These three rules are incredibly simple, but rather difficult to implement given that I’m most productive between the hours of 10:00pm and 1:00am. That said, I’d rather suffer the consequences of not working at night over the consequences of not sleeping.

Autocomplete

For reasons I'm completely ignorant of, there seems to be a string of videos on YouTube and other places where celebrities hold up a cardboard printout of the Google Search Bar with the start of a question involving their name, and then a bunch of auto-complete options underneath. The auto-complete options are generally covered with some sort of tape to prevent viewers from seeing the questions ahead of time, and the general idea is that the person in the video will answer each item regardless of how silly they might be. For celebrities and other well-known people, this list is generally quite long. Can the same be said for a random nobody like me, though?

Google Autocomplete

Sadly, no. I've been online for almost a quarter century, been published in a handful of magazines, actively participated in various Linux and development groups, and either hosted or produced almost 1,000 podcasts … but Google has almost nothing on me. Heck, they don't even know the answer to the single autocomplete question they offered1

Google Page One

Mind you, this is to be expected. Many years ago when I used jasonirwin.ca as the URL for this blog, I tried quite hard to get up to the top of the Google rankings for my name. I don't remember my best result, but it was certainly in the top 4. There were two radio station DJs, a poet, and a repeat petty-thief that I would compete with at the time. Somewhere around 2015 this changed and I chose to remove myself from Google as much as possible. Cached results and links from other blogs kept my ranking rather high for a while but, as websites went dark and this blog moved to its current domain, the doppelgängers began to take over the first page. Then the second. Then the third. Currently I'm down near the bottom of the fourth page, which is still too high in the results for my liking.

Google Page Four

There's a pretty good chance that autocomplete will never show more than this when people type my name in the search bar, and this is a good thing. People who want to find me will know how to look. All it takes is one more word ….

One More Word


  1. I've twice published a blog post specifically about my marital status. The first was in August of 2007, soon after I moved to Japan. The second was after our ceremony the following May.

Distracted

There are a lot of things going on in the world, but who can keep up any more? There are other things to focus on until the next time the cell phone vibrates, demanding a glance from everyone in the vicinity to see what urgent matter requires attention. For the sake of this argument, it's a Slack notification. A colleague is asking a question about the big project. The document that's been sitting half-written on the notebook will have to wait while the phone gets treated to a pair of thumbs hammering out a reply. As the message goes out, there's a reminder notification on the notebook for a video call that begins in 5 minutes, which is just enough time to grab a cup of coffee.

Distractions

The water is boiling. People are chatting. Someone brought in a box of donuts. In the background a weather forecast is being reported on the local TV station. Rain today. Rain tomorrow. Probably rain the next day, too. So much for a weekend outdoors.

Three minutes later there's a fresh cup of coffee sitting on the desk along with a little snack. The headphones that regularly hang on the wall have a ridiculous tangle in the cord that couldn't have possibly happened through normal usage and needs addressing. Just as the cord is straightened out, a notification pops up to signal the start of the video call. The headphones are plugged in, the camera is properly pointed, the microphone is set, it's time to answer the call.

"Hey," the person on the other end starts. "Did you have a chance to finish that document? We'll need it for the second part of the meeting."

"Not yet. I've just been swamped all afternoon."

Digital Textbooks

Back in January 2010, when the iPad was first announced, I started thinking about what a digital textbook might look like. This was back at a time when I was still very much involved in classroom activities and delivering lessons in front of hundreds of people every week. The paper materials worked as well as ever, but a properly portable device with a decent sized screen that didn't require a keyboard and mouse to be attached all the time could open up a whole new set of opportunities. This was not at all a unique concept and, before the end of the year, several large companies had released early versions of their digital textbook platforms.

Unfortunately, what a lot of organizations did was release what was essentially a PDF viewer with some chrome around the edges to better enable search, allow for annotations to be typed — as pen entry was not going to be decently supported for a couple of years, and a hefty sticker price. Over time this got better. Companies started to offer versions of their materials that looked like websites rather than PDFs, enabling embedded video and interactive homework sessions. When the newer iPad Air devices started to ship the hardware had become powerful enough that some textbook publishers, such as National Geographic, started to include activities that made use of augmented reality so that a learner could better understand the contents. That was just a few years ago, and now textbook developers are really starting to take advantage of the raw processing power that people have available.

Yet despite the plethora of companies that have run with the technology, pushing the tools as far as they can go, a lot of educational institutions continue to be incredibly conservative with their use of digital textbooks. It is almost as if schools want to use the traditional paper books simply to save the time and hassle of students needing to borrow a charger or dealing with cracked screens. These aren't the only reasons schools have yet to make use of digital textbooks to a greater degree, of course. The bigger issue, I feel, comes down to the complexity that is introduced when something that has traditionally been analog gets sandwiched between silicon and glass.

Over the years I've worked on a couple of different textbook solutions in an attempt to find something decent that could be used at the day job. None have worked out very well, but the latest tool I'm working on is beginning to show promise in ways that the other five solutions1 never could. One of the things I've wanted to build for a little while now is an adaptive resource that evolves with the student, becoming simpler or more complex based on an individual person's needs. Core aspects of lessons would continue to exist, of course, otherwise teachers would be overwhelmed with a seemingly infinite number of textbook activity combinations. A resource that can adapt with a learner can make self-study and after-lesson practice lot more interesting.

This idea is also not at all new, as there have been tools that do this and integrate with various LMSes for years to send and receive new custom materials. What is new, is a window of opportunity to introduce the idea within the day job to people who might just welcome the ability to offer something of greater value to our students while making use of the plethora of idle lesson activity resources we've recently collated from around the world.

Another demo may be in the near future.


  1. Only one of these solutions has been used by teachers at the day job. The other four were simply not good enough.

Failing at Email

Over the last couple of months it's become rather apparent that I'm failing at email. The messages that matter the most are rarely answered in less than 24 hours, and the ones that consume more energy than they're worth tend to receive attention first. A different approach is needed.

Same Old Same Old

Many years ago, when I had a full head of brown hair1, the first hour of every day was dedicated for email and other forms of communication. This would ensure all the important messages were tended to before I would lose myself in the tasks of the day. The rule worked quite well, as it meant that people were not left waiting for too long and nobody felt ignored. This also made being awake important, as it's never a good idea to read messages until reading comprehension kicks in. Misunderstandings at the start of the day can ruin the rest of it.

Unfortunately, this started to change a year or so back when it seemed that every morning would bring a laundry list of incomplete complaints from colleagues. I'd read every message expecting to understand what it is that a person was having trouble with and only wind up getting confused, which would frustrate me enough to go onto the next incomplete complaint which just upset me further. In an attempt to not dismiss people's reports and ensure my responses were kept professional, emails were read at the end of the day. The problem with this is that people are left waiting an entire day to get a response that they won't see until the following morning, and I'm generally exhausted come midnight or one o'clock, which makes it harder to write proper messages back. To make matters worse, this rule wasn't just for work emails, but personal messages, too!

This is no way to stay in touch.

To this end, starting tomorrow morning, I'll ensure that messages are properly checked and responded to at least twice a day. First around 10:00am, and then again around 4:00pm. If there are any messages that need tending to afterwards, then they'll get attention before I sign off for the night. Colleagues who really need to get in touch know that I'm always on Teams and next to a phone, so this shouldn't be too much of an issue. While this plan is centred mostly around the day job, what I'm hoping to do is better manage the personal Inbox as well. Rarely will I receive more than 3 messages overnight, so there's really no reason to not respond in a timely fashion.

Now to set some reminders ….


  1. I still have a full head of hair, mind you. There's just more grey involved.

I Am I

This past weekend I’ve been exchanging emails with an activist1 who has taken offence to a number of blog posts on this very site. All in all, the emails have resulted in the following statistics: 4 messages from me totalling 6,317 words, and 6 messages from them totalling 297 words. Their final message was a polite “Just be glad you don’t live in Canada because you’d be swatted”.

This is to be expected, though, as a simple mind will resort to violence when words to adequately justify an ideology, opinion, or accusation fail to materialize.

The crux of the activists position was that, as a cisgendered Caucasian male, I should not be writing about anything that is not directly related to being a cisgendered Caucasian male. They took offence to some posts about Japanese working culture. They took offence to some posts about politically-charged topics. They even took offence to some posts about my house, saying that I used my privilege to own property, which is one of the dumbest fucking things anyone has said to me in quite some time2.

Doing a bit of research, I found this person has been attending McGill University for the last few years and, rather than apply their newly-honed skills in social psychology to the betterment of society, are so bored with their youth that it warrants visiting random blogs on the Internet and typing in all caps about why someone should be ashamed of themselves because, just like Hitler, they were born white. How terribly sad that this is the sort of activity that a university-educated person chooses to embark upon. Surely there are better things to do.

Interestingly, this twerp has given me a reason to reconsider my Canadian citizenship. Do I want to keep it? I’ve been in Japan long enough that I could begin the process of becoming a citizen here, which would grant me the luxury of being able to vote and surprise people when they see a Japanese passport. I continue to read a handful of Canadian news sites on a daily basis and do not recognize the country as the same place I grew up. Yes, there is media bias to account for, yet the country’s general vibe seems to be one of listless finger-pointing and public shaming. What’s left of the education system is a joke that I refuse to let my children experience. And the politically-charged atmosphere seems to have almost completely turned ideas into thought crimes.

Why in the world would I want to subject my family to such a hostile environment?

But maybe for them Canada would be much more welcoming. My wife is neither male nor Caucasian. My son, though male, looks more like his mother. It might just be me who would be unwelcome. If this is the case, there’s really no point in maintaining citizenship. What benefits do I enjoy as a Canadian in Japan aside from owning a .ca domain name? Having thought about it off and on over the last few years, I haven’t identified a single one.


  1. I know, I know. I said I wouldn’t do this anymore, but it’s hard to not respond to messages.

  2. If someone has a problem with me earning enough money to own a house in a country I wasn’t born in, yet claim to be pro-immigration, they need to seriously sit down and think about what it is they truly believe in, because it’s not what they think it is.

Five Things (to Accomplish One Goal)

Back in November of last year I started publishing Five Things posts on Sundays as a way to make use of some of the “mini blog posts” that have been accumulating in the various places I used to keep track of potential post subjects1. I like these as they are generally pretty easy to write and are a good place to assemble a collection of disparate ideas. The lists can also be used for a common theme, which is what I plan on doing today to outline something that I’ve been thinking about for a while with regard to “rich format” writing.

The problem that I have, if it can even be considered as such, is how to publish blog posts that have a custom layout for a single article. The majority of the things I write can be displayed as they are, in a single column with images being full-width and placed between paragraphs. However, for some of the longer-form content that I’ve been writing, this is suboptimal. What I would like to do is have something more akin to a magazine-style than a uni-column blog. Narrow devices would continue to see really long pages in a single column and wider devices would see two or three columns of text in a semi-dynamic manner across “pages” the height of the browser … assuming I can do such a thing without frustrating the reader.

There are some news sites that I used to read that would occasionally put out a special report or longer journalistic piece with a completely custom layout involving rich photography, layouts, backgrounds, and the like. These would look pretty good on a phone, interesting on a tablet, and unique on a notebook. Looking at the URL of the article, it was easy to see how a publisher accomplished the task of displaying a relatively one-of-a-kind site design: an alternative distribution engine or HTML flat-file. I'd like to do something smarter than this.

A New Post Type

A lot of the post types that are part of the 10Centuries system come from the IndieWeb. Notes are social posts, articles are blog posts, quotations are links elsewhere with a block quote containing something from the source URL and perhaps something written by the author, while bookmarks are essentially the same as quotations minus the author's remarks. There are other types in the system, such as Locations2, Places3, and Scribbles4, but there will need to be one more that acts as an extension of the article type: essay.

By using a different post type, it will be easier to allow people to filter out the really long posts from their viewing while also signifying that a post type should be handled a little differently if there is some applicable form of metadata, such as a completely customized page layout. Going this route will also make it possible for readers to subscribe to just essays via RSS or JSONfeed if they so choose, which may prove to be quite beneficial if people prefer the longer content over the day-to-day blurbs.

Support for HTML

At the moment, 10C is very much a Markdown-based blogging tool. While some forms of HTML can be typed into the editors and kept intact5, it's pretty much impossible for someone to truly customize a post for things like right-aligned images, tables, and even simple JavaScript tags. All of this stuff is stripped out for one reason or another. If an essay type is going to allow a completely unique layout, then raw HTML support will need to be accepted.

I will need to think about how to handle embedded JavaScript and links to external resources, though.

Summary Display

Summaries can be written for any object that exists, whether it's a social post containing a single emoji or a 25,000-word rant on the injustice of delicious food being high in calories, but the feature is generally not surfaced at this time. Given that it would not make sense to have a complete essay on the landing page (of a blog), a summary would need to be provided so that readers understand that they can read more of the long-form piece by following a link, which will then reveal the full HTML of the site.

This would probably be something that is made optional, as some writers might actually want their landing page to consist of 10 long-form essays in a single-column view.

A Writing Application

Not everyone can write HTML, nor should this be an expectation for people who just want to have creative liberty over the things they choose to publish. An application that allows people to write the content and customize it in a simple GUI that also previews exactly how something will look online will be key to making this sort of thing work. There are a number of rich blog editors that allow something close to what I'm looking for, so it may be possible to accomplish this goal with MarsEdit or something equally usable.

Time

When something is important, you make the time. I'll admit that the last few weeks I've been setting aside time to work on solving problems at the day job rather than 10C or even a freelance effort6 but, as things begin to slow down, it should be feasible to get back into the 10C feature updates. There are a couple of items that have passed testing but are waiting for other features before release, so I need to sit down and get this done. Time is something I eternally struggle with. Hopefully it will be possible to have all the basics in place before August so that work on an application can begin soon after. Both Windows and macOS will be targeted first, with the more mobile devices coming afterwards.


  1. These have all been consolidated back into Evernote since returning to macOS a couple of months back.

  2. Private Geolocation data, generally with a comment, photo, or other piece of information.

  3. Public Geolocation data that is shared across the network as part of the goal to contribute back to OpenStreetMap.

  4. An Evernote-like object that is used for note-taking with the ability to embed objects.

  5. The HTML is actually not kept intact. Acceptable tags are converted to Markdown before being stored in the database so that as HTML tags evolve over time, it's easier to ensure the newer standards are being followed.

  6. I really need to get back to this and release the updates. The client is generally quite patient, but I'm not comfortable leaving work undone for a month.

Nap Time

Almost every day, after lunch and around 1:30pm, the boy goes upstairs for his nap. When Reiko is home, I use the lull in parenthood responsibilities to head out for a short walk. This allows me to clear my head, listen to a podcast or two, and sit in the park for a short time. Today, despite the occasional bout of drizzle, I sat on the hill while listening to a podcast where a panel of intellectuals debated whether the large tech companies should be broken up or not. It’s an interesting topic to debate and I can certainly see why some groups believe that forcing a company to split up will resolve perceived injustices1. However, while listening to the conversation I managed to fall asleep.

Very rarely do I sleep during the day, but this nap seemed warranted. It lasted perhaps half an hour and, in that time, the mind could organize itself and rest a bit. I woke up feeling quite refreshed despite sitting on a concrete block at the top of a hill while leaning against a chain link fence. Sleeping in the park is generally frowned upon, but there was little chance of anyone seeing me from most of the walking paths. Anyone looking would certainly find me, but my preferred spot in the park is generally quite secluded in the summer.

Napping is something I try to avoid as it’s generally a poor use of my time. There is always something to learn, to create, to fix, or otherwise accomplish. That said, I may have overdone it this month with some of my efforts at the day job, much to the detriment of other objectives and responsibilities. That said, today’s nap was probably one of the better uses of personal time. I just need to try and avoid losing consciousness in the park.


  1. The perceived injustices will generally not be resolved with the imposed corporate breakup, either. It’s unrealistic.

Ghosts n' Stuff

According to the tracking application, I’ve managed to sleep just about fourteen hours in the last five days1. Insufficient sleep is nothing new for me as I will often forgo rest when I’m feeling particularly creative. More than this, there was a 12-year period in my life when insomnia was a very real issue that would come and go with such frequency that I generally kept two books next to my bed at all times; one to continue reading, and one to start reading after finishing the first. This week’s lack of rest is completely by choice, though, and the familiar consequences of self-imposed sleep deprivation are beginning to manifest.

Split-Second Lapses in Consciousness

The first sign that the body is running on empty is the ever-so-subtle lapses in consciousness. This can happen at any time, but happen generally when I'm sitting down or walking Nozomi in the park. The feeling is always the same, too. I'm doing something, then there's a tingle that runs up my spine, then a split second of darkness followed by some sort of chemical release in the brain that I generally feel when being startled awake. This might be adrenaline or something else, but the sensation is unmistakeable.

These ephemeral naps rarely last more than half a second, and I've yet to fall down as a result of one while walking the puppy. Sometimes I wonder if I actually lost consciousness for a split second or if the chemical rush temporarily interfered with my ability to remember.

Figments of the Imagination

If ghosts were real, the world would be full of them. That said, when I'm struggling to remain conscious, the mind will sometimes create things for me to see that simply do not exist. It could be a mosquito flying above my head. It could be a tall, purple humanoid standing under a tree while Nozomi and I walk past. It could be a predatory animal with its fangs bared and walking in my direction. These things disappear when I try to look directly at them, making them mere figments of an exhausted mind.

One of the things I often wonder by this point is whether the mind is so desperate for sleep that it's dreaming while also being awake. Not in a daydreaming sort of manner, but in a "let's split the hemispheres to survive this test of endurance" sort of way. Can a brain do this? I wonder ….

Unfortunately the most I'll be able to sleep tonight is a paltry 5 hours. However, being a long-weekend in Japan, there will be ample opportunity to enjoy 8 solid hours of unconsciousness on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday nights.


  1. This is for a number of reasons that have already been written about, so won’t rehash any of it here.