Saturday, 30 January 2010

back to an ol' post

I say ol'; it's actually young (youn'?) - I posted it today. "Back to an actually young (youn'?) post" just doesn't have the same ring to it though.

It's fun paraphrasing myself. It's also not in vain: the reference to an earlier post in the title / introduction is an introduction in itself to a progress update on the "to do" list I posted earlier, which follows:
  • eat a kiwi - I had two
  • grab a can of Coke - I grabbed two too, and drank them
  • get ma smarts on (smart clothes?)
  • walk to the shop
  • top up Oyster card
  • head into town
  • drop CV off at some agencies
  • go to the library to get the next of my books
  • head home to pick up some stuff
  • head back here
    • the above 7 points were obscured by me waiting for a phone call for most of the day
  • catch up with some stuff - vague, yes: I tidied a bit, ate and played more Wii
  • write another blog - you're reading it
  • do my Wii Sports fitness test - 57! Down from 61.

Doesn't seem hugely productive from that list, does it. Luckily however, it was. The seven things I didn't get to do I can do tomorrow (the phone call arrived in the end), and instead of arsing around doing nothing, I constructed another to do list and did all the things on it.

Can't think of anything else to write. So bye.

book review - "The Lost Symbol"

This is the third review of my "book per fortnight for 2010" series. It is, however, a review of the fourth book in the series, and both #3 and #4 have been read way ahead of schedule; I should be 2.07 books in by now, given the date, but I finished #3 today (hence this review) and will be finished with #4 tomorrow.

The reason I'm reviewing #4 before #3 is that I started #4 when I was only pages from the end of #3, thinking that I'd finish #3 before #4. This was of course incorrect: I instead got tangled in Brown's incessant web of cliffhangers, twists, factoids and conspiracies, as has happened the past four times I've read anything by him.

'The Lost Symbol' follows Robert Langdon, the fictitious, claustrophobic, eidetic and semiotically gifted Harvard professor who we met in 'Angels and Demons', and again in the phenomenally popular 'The Da Vinci Code', as he is plunged into the middle of a chain of events that threaten to change the world as we know it.

If you'd like, you can imagine Robert as portrayed by Tom Hanks in the film adaptation of 'The Da Vinci Code' for the purpose of this review:

Now I know it may sound cynical, but it needs to be said. If you understand the adjectives in the paragraph describing Robert (claustrophobic, eidetic and semiotically gifted), it becomes incredibly clear why Brown gave him these attributes: each forms the basis of large (and often vital) amounts of the plot line. I'm not sure whether this criticism is valid, or even if it is actually a criticism, really, it just seems sometimes like otherwise unsolvable problems / inescapable situations are consistently and conveniently resolved instantly by Robert and his gifts. I think I'm probably just being sensitive: claustrophobia isn't a gift, and doesn't benefit Langdon at all throughout the book (or the two prequels) - it does however, contribute around 8 pages of "Robert felt scared as he walked through the small dark tunnels" or similar. An eidetic memory, though rare, is entirely possible. For those unfamiliar with the term, it is the 'smart' name for a photographic memory, and those of you who have seen aforementioned film will know that Langdon solves a huge chunk of the plot by 'remembering' a statue he had seen earlier that provided the answer - a similar thing happens in this book, and the eidetic memory is put to another use that seems highly convenient. The semiotic gift Langdon possesses is just me wanting to give 3 examples of these characteristics: his knowledge in symbology and iconography is entirely learned, and he is an active professor in the field so it is only natural he would know his stuff.


A synopsis. I don't want to provide ANY spoilers whatsoever, because this book relies largely on twists and cliffhangers as I mentioned (hopefully that disclosure doesn't count as a spoiler...). For this reason the synopsis will be incredibly brief:

Robert Langdon is swimming -> he receives a phone call and a request -> he attempts to honour the request -> he travels to a famous city -> things are not as they seem when he arrives -> a government intelligence agency become involved -> Robert gets hold of an important object -> him and accomplice then flee the involved agency -> they seek refuge -> they attempt to discover the meaning of the object -> the antagonist wants the same, and is committing nefarious deeds to try and get his way -> Robert gets upset by these deeds -> Robert gets involved in these deeds -> Robert gets hurt by these deeds -> all looks bleak -> the object changes hands -> SOMETHING COOL HAPPENS -> the book ends.

The crude "SOMETHING COOL HAPPENS" refers to a key part of the book that I could not summarise without ruining it for potential readers. Other than that I'm quite proud of my synopsis! No important names, groups, items or places are named, and no part of the plot is ruined.

With that, though, it is incredibly hard to give my opinions of the book beyond this: I liked it. Aside from the sometimes over-convenient character development I mentioned, and the CONSTANT cliffhangers (seriously; every 2 or 3 pages), it was a good book. And I guess the cliffhangers just make you want to keep reading; they aren't necessarily a bad thing. Brown is able to provoke interest in ancient secrets, rituals, groups and whatever else through his engaging writing, and I have the intention of following some of these interests up later on in my readings. I won't say this is better than 'The Da Vinci Code', but I won't say it's worse either. It lived up to expectations (mine at least), and was a good, quick read.

Friday, 29 January 2010

back in the ol' country

I say country; it's actually a ward within the London Borough of Greenwich. "Back in the ol' ward within the London Borough of Greenwich" just doesn't have the same ring to it though.

But anyway, here I am. I'm staying a short walk from my old house, a short bus ride from my old school, and a lawng way from home (around 30 minutes!). Why, you ask? My Grandparents have gone on holiday to Borneo and I'm looking after the pets!

I have a list of vital information: how the dishwasher works, what the pets eat, what days the recycling goes out, and most importantly - the details of Sky and Shiloh's medication. (Sky and Shiloh will be referred to henceforth as "Skyloh".)

- a side note: as I write this Bella (their cat) is licking the BACK OF MY HEAD.

It's odd being in the house without family around - I'm not sure it's ever happened before. It's peaceful though, and there's a Wii and a fridge full of food to keep me alive / sane. Also the solitude helps me focus on my current job hunting and stuff doing rampage.

Progress on the above is good by the way! I got accepted into my university of choice for single honours music, which I will be studying from 2nd year level in September! I found out yesterday and it provided me with a healthy dose of motivation; one which I am going to act on now and do the following:

  • eat a kiwi
  • grab a can of Coke
  • get ma smarts on (smart clothes?)
  • walk to the shop
  • top up Oyster card
  • head into town
  • drop CV off at some agencies
  • go to the library to get the next of my books
  • head home to pick up some stuff
  • head back here
  • catch up with some stuff
  • write another blog
  • do my Wii Sports fitness test
It's gonna be a busy (and productive day)! So bye.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

welcome to the real world

Warning: Heavy post ahead! Let me lighten the mood with this picture of me dancing with Jorge:

Now, this blog might take a turn for the boring in the near future. Instead of the travel based posts of the last 6 or so months, I'll most likely be posting about jobs, looking for a job, working my job, earning money from my job and various other adult responsibilities that have been thrust my way.

I say thrust, it was my decision really.

A decision that I don't regret making, either.

Despite possible appearances, I have a plan, and I plan to execute it. I am hoping that the next 8 months (to the day) will allow me to develop as a person on different levels than I have recently, and spit me out as a stronger, more rounded individual. Although I say hope because it feels like there is a very real possibility that it could all go wrong and leave me in this exact same position (or possibly even regressed) at the end.

It's not unusual for me to be tentative, however. I had the exact same apprehensiveness about going to Toronto, and that turned out to be one of the best things I've ever done. Best because I made amazing friends there. Best because it fuelled my interest to see the world and allowed me to realise what I want to do with my life. Best because it allowed me to begin making the changes that are distressing me so much right now.


Considering the things that have happened recently, it would be worse if I wasn't slightly cautious of what could go wrong. The fact that I'm aware of it is a good thing in my opinion, but I can't (and WON'T) let my doubts consume me: I will succeed.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

positive reinforcement

I've been sceptical of my blogging ability recently, mainly wondering whether I write too much / too infrequently / too eclectically.

'Too much' refers to word count of posts, which is sometimes shockingly high; my most recent review, for example, was 1,830 words - a frustrating figure considering I wrote it in just under 2 hours and it usually takes me ~10 times longer to write the same amount for academic purposes.

'Too infrequently' refers not to time between posts, as it initially suggests, but instead to my habit of posting loads of posts at once, and backdating them to fit correctly into my blog archive. This isn't the best habit, but maintaining a constant pace is unrealistic I think because sometimes I just don't feel like writing...

'Too eclectically' covers all my other doubts. At the moment my blog is a dump for anything I want to write about, although I try to limit content to travel, books and interesting events that take place. In moments of ponderance I ask myself if this is too much? Would it be better to separate them into different blogs? Would it be better to make and host myself a website with different sections in which I could file content accordingly?

Who knows.

I've also wondered whether I should include more / less / any images. As I write this blog mainly to develop my writing skills, I usually lean towards the less / any end of the decision, but I appreciate that huge blocks of text are rather daunting for the reader and that pictures may help to negate this.

Looking for answers, I read over all my previous posts. This was useful in two ways - it reminded me that I've managed to keep a fairly coherent and interesting blog for just over 8 months now, and also gave me the answers to above questions / musings: the word count of my posts varies hugely, it's just coincidental that so many recent posts have been epic; my post archive, when viewed retrospectively, is never hugely irregular, so any issues with infrequency are only in the short term, and the eclecticism of subject matters seems to work in retrospect as well.

As for the pictures, I'm just going to go with it and see how I feel for each post from now on.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

dreams of soda jerks

Didn't get out of bed 'til just after 15:00 today, which isn't good. I feel like much more of a student here at Keele than I did at Toronto: less sleep, more time between showers and no studying so far.

But I'd like to tell you about a dream I had last night. It was one of the most vivid I can recall, which seems unjust considering the subject matter: for the duration I was at the counter of a generic coffee shop deciding upon and placing my order. I can remember the cashier's face (no one I recognise), the design of the menu, most of the verbal exchange, and a couple of other arbitrary details; none of which interest me.

The order I settled on was a hot chocolate (large) with cream and cocoa sprinkles, a very small bottle of Coca-Cola (I remember asking the waitress for a "shot of Coke" to which she replied "that's illegal" (hilarious)) and a packet of Haribo Halloween jellies. I mean Yakult bottle sized (65ml) Coke when I say "mini", by the way.

I'm not really sure what to think of the dream. If it's a premonition; it's a crap one. If it's to be interpreted, I think the high specificity of things involved would limit the accuracy of interpretations. The only conclusion I can come to is that in-dream advertisement (as seen in Futurama) has become a reality, and this was one of Coca-Cola's prototypes. Although I searched around to see if any mini-Coke products are to be launched soon, but from what I can see they aren't.

Now for an interesting end note: I discovered the existence of the World of Coca-Cola while researching content for this post (the picture, really). It's in Atlanta, and is now on my list of things to do. You can taste 64 Coca-Cola products, see adverts and packaging from through the years, and receive a Coca-Cola bottle unique to the museum. Fun, eh.

Monday, 18 January 2010

book review - "A Short History of Nearly Everything"

I finished the second book from my "book per fortnight for 2010" series today. The contrast in genre from #1 can be attributed to two things: the pressing intrigue of a non-travel orientated Bill Bryson book, and an inspirational quote of Terry Pratchett's, stating that "to write, you must read extensively, both inside and outside your chosen genre and to the point of 'overflow'". I averaged 114.8 pages per day whilst reading this book too, which may contribute to the overflow element of the quote.

Before starting I was warned of the book's intensity, and so started early to allow myself extra time in case I required it later. A combination of more free time than usual and outstanding writing from Mr Bryson, however, resulted me zooming through the book at record pace, despite the accuracy of the warning. Incidentally, I've made a flowchart to sum up the book, a measure designed to save you the expense of reading an enormous synopsis (and me the expense of writing one):

Now a note about flowcharts - the shapes of the cells represent their meaning: a hexagon signifies preparation; a half-squiggly rectangle signifies a document, three half-squiggly rectangles signify many documents; a square in a rectangle signifies a predetermined process; a parallelogram signifies data; a part-rounded hexagon signifies a display; a trapezoid signifies a manual operation; adiamond signifies a decision; a rectangle signifies a process, and an oval signifies a terminator (start or finish).

The flowchart above represents the book, and outlines the book beginning, the prologue, the body (composed of 6 sections and 30 chapters) and the subject matter therein (and the inclusion of data and 'display' (images) within the chapters to evoke interest and inspire further research (manual input)), the predetermined process of enjoyment (because of Bill Bryson's writing ability), the decision to read more Bill Bryson, and the end (or, if you didn't decide to read more, the re-reading of this book until you appreciate it fully and decide to do so).

I'm thinking now that maybe it would have been quicker and easier for everyone concerned if I'd just written a synopsis, but ah well. It's nice to try something new once in a while. Just omit the paragraph above if it didn't make sense.

In the interest of keeping this review as short as possible (to reduce strain on the reader and keep the average interest level as high as possible), I selected only a few of the topics covered within to follow up in this review. The pictures at the top highlight these areas: space, and man's experiences therein; the delicate balance of life, and man's interference therein, and diving suits. I also intend to enlighten you as to a philosophical realisation I had while reading (HA!), and introduce you to Bill Bryson's writing style.

Let us begin with space. Space is a big place: a point that is stressed relentlessly in the text. The biggest thing in existence, the universe, is described as "10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times bigger" than "something you could hold in your hand", and as being "a million million million million (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) miles across". However both are descriptions which hold little relevance because the human mind is unable to comprehend such enormity. Even our solar system, which is considered relatively 'small' is "really quite enormous". No diagram of it that we possess is to scale, the main cause for peoples' misconception as to its sheer vastness. My favourite illustration of the scale is this (paraphrased from the book): "On a diagram of the solar system to scale, with the Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea, Jupiter would be over 300 metres away and Pluto would be two and a half kilometres distant (and about the size of a bacterium...)". I think the latter goes some way to putting things into comprehensible perspective, but even so, as Bryson repeatedly emphasises, it is all "enormous - just enormous".

When you consider the above, and more specifically the amount of other galaxy clusters, galaxies, solar systems and planets out there, it really does seem quite remarkable that we're here at all. The almost infinitely long chain of events that bought us into being is examined, analysed, and for the most part explained by Bryson in this book; a fact for which I am deeply grateful. Knowing that we wouldn't be here if billions of things hadn't happened exactly as they did, from our atmosphere composing itself correctly, to the Earth being a safe distance from the Sun (an 'unsafe' distance is estimated at no more than 5% nearer to or further from it), to the Earth's orbit being largely uninterrupted, to our ancestors pairing at the EXACT moment they chose to do so, puts a lot of our 'problems' into perspective.

Life itself is then addressed, both in terms of the chemical interactions and evolutions that bought it about, and the hostile, unforgiving and ultimately dangerous planet that supports it. This is another example of how damn lucky we are to be here; that "bags of chemicals" decided all those years ago to spring to life is not only EXTREMELY unlikely (and unexplainable), but also initiated such a delicate and easily nullified process that it seems remarkable that any intelligent lifeforms arose from it to be here today. The planet we live on hardly nurtures life either, with the countless natural disasters, treacherous terrains, hostile climates, and whatever else. Yet life seems adamant that it can survive in almost any condition, and for the most part it is right (take creatures who live in sulphur vents at the bottom of the ocean, for example, or worms who live in such varying underwater environments that the temperature at one end of their body can be as far as 50 degrees away from the other - it's amazing).

One of the most distressing parts of the book for me however, aside from the potentially imminent disasters (to be addressed later) and our seemingly inconsequential existence (merely from a statistical standpoint), was the adverse impact we (humans) have on the planet that nurtured life, and against all odds, gave rise to humanity. It seems that everything we do hurts the Earth in some way: whether it is depletion of resources, introduction of harmful substances into the atmosphere and oceans, or even the hunting to extinction of innocent animals (for reasons ranging from sustenance and clothing, to fun and idiocy), we seem to be a pretty ungrateful race. Bryson uses statistics to illustrate this, as well: it is estimated that between six hundred and one thousand extinctions occur PER WEEK because of human activity, across all types of life. I am sure I'm not alone in thinking this is unacceptable.

The potentially imminent disasters I mentioned before acted to put things further into perspective for me: when considering that the Yellowstone super volcano is way overdue for an eruption that could engulf the planet in thick dust clouds, block sunlight, alter weather patterns detrimentally, and take out a large portion of North America, or that our planet is way overdue for an ice age that could cover the northern hemisphere in thick ice and plunge the temperature to almost unbearable ranges, it hardly seems worth worrying about the trivial things. Other potentialities include hugely destructive earthquakes that could occur and wreak havoc anywhere (yes, anywhere) and at any time (yes, any time), a meteorite/comet collision that we most likely that wouldn't know about it until it was inside the atmosphere (seconds after which it would hit, and kill most of the Earth's population), or even infection by a bacteria commonly found in the human throat that can inexplicably decide to cause necrotizing fasciitis, a horrific infection that eats the body from the inside out (and causes around 1,000 cases per year in America).

With those bombshells, I think now would be a good time to introduce another point: the jovial tone Bryson regularly uses in his writing. It is quite inspiring how he can make even the most distressing subject matters seem funny with careful word choice and sentence structure. From the 574 pages available, I have chosen the following two examples to demonstrate this point, as both made me laugh out loud whilst reading: firstly, when referring to the subjectively unfortunate chemist Benjamin Thompson, Bryson states that "facing arrest [...] he abandoned his wife and child and fled just ahead of a mob [...] armed with buckets of hot tar, bags of feathers, and an earnest desire to adorn him with both." He later refers to physicist Alber Michelson's "delicate and exhausting" work, which was "suspended for a time to permit [him] a brief but comprehensive nervous breakdown". I'm not sure whether it's the formal nature of the words, the subtlety with which they are employed, or some other factor that is beyond my current literary understanding that makes them funny, but they get me every time.

The worst case of this I experienced, both in terms of subject matter and explosiveness of resultant laughter outburst, was a (rather grim) description of a diving phenomenon known as 'the squeeze'. I'd like to point out now that I DON'T find the phenomenon itself funny, just the way Bryson introduces it, and concludes the paragraph. He begins by pointing out that "the experience of having your internal organs rudely deformed is thought exhilerating" - completely unfunny of course, but for some reason the combination "rudely deformed" tickled me and caused me to burst out laughing on the bus. I collected myself, then read on and came across this on the next page: "[the squeeze] occured when the surface pumps failed, leading to catastrophic loss of pressure in the suit. The air would leave the suit with such violence that the hapless diver would be, all to literally, sucked up into the helmet and hosepipe" - again this is COMPLETELY unfunny, and I realise that, but the words used, and the order in which they are presented, tickled me again. It wasn't helped by the previous page's outburst, and once again I was helpless.

He then adds "for the benefit of doubters", and as if to enforce my guilt, that "this has happened". I'd like to learn how to use words to the degree that I can make people laugh as helplessly as I did whilst reading this, but at the same time also learn the line between what is and what isn't acceptable to find funny!

But anyway, I'll end now. In short, this book was amazing. It presented a depth of information about a plethora of topics, in a logical and consistently interesting sequence punctuated by gripping side stories that never deviated too far from the story. It was able to provoke a genuine desire to learn, fits of uncontrollable laughter, and profound philosophical realisations, often within pages of each other. And without sounding like a tw*t, I genuinely feel like I've come away from this book as a (slightly) better person.

Friday, 15 January 2010

book review - "Jingo"

Now, 'Jingo' is the 21st novel of Terry Pratchett's phenomenally popular and successful Discworld series. It is also the 4th City Watch story - my favourite of the 4 or 5 recurring central characters/organisations. As part of my "book per fortnight throughout 2010" idea, it's not technically welcome as I started reading it in 2009, but I don't really care.

My own basic plot summary is this: A land mass suddenly appears between Ankh-Morpork and Al Kali (the capital of Klatch). (These names will mean nothing if you haven't read Discworld before by the way, so please just disregard them if this is the case.) The aforementioned land mass, named Leshp, causes intense debate over its ownership between two fisherman: one from Ankh-Morpork and one from Al Kali, a debate that quickly becomes 'political' (again: if you haven't read Discworld, disregard the inverted commas). This exasperation of circumstances is not helped by an attempted assassination on Al Kali's prince, who is visiting Ankh-Morpork, nor by a string of attacks on Klatchian residents of Ankh-Morpork.

Vetinari, Ankh-Morpork's patrician, resigns and is replaced by Lord Rust. Lord Rust demands that Commander Vimes stands down as commander of the watch, which he does. At this point an anomaly in time creates two separate time lines: in a brief summary, one results in the diffusion of the conflict between the two countries, and one results in a war and the death of all officers in the watch. The former is given prominence in the novel.

Vetinari takes Leonard of Quirm (a parody of Leonardo Da Vinci), Corporal Nobbs, and Sergeant Colon to Klatch in a "Going-Under-The-Water-Safely-Device" (despite being a prolific inventor, Leonard possesses almost no talent in naming his inventions). At the same time, Vimes and most of the ex-watch take a boat to Klatch, in pursuit of Sergeant Angua (who was captured by 71-hour Ahmed whilst in werewolf form (71-hour Ahmed is Vimes' main suspect for the assassination attempt, although he is a ultimately a red-herring)). Ankh-Morpork's hapless military plan a wildly insufficient attack on Al Kali's main military outpost, while Al Kalian forces are planning brutally efficient attacks on Ankh-Morpork. Luckily though, Vimes and Vetinari's combined (yet completely independent) efforts results in a diffusion of conflict through the arrest of Al Kali's prince by Vimes, and a complete and unconditional surrender by Vetinari, accompanied by a large payment of compensation.

For this surrender, Vetinari is ostracised by Lord Rust, who believes war was the necessary option. The compensation payment also looks like it will have to be honoured, until Vetinari explains that it was to be completed on Leshp, which has since mysteriously disappeared (possibly aided by Leonard of Quirm's inventions?), and so is void.

Obviously the 4 paragraph summary above is intensely brief, but it gives enough idea of the story for my evaluation of the book, which for some reason I expected less of than others in the series. (It sounds ridiculous, but I think it was subconsciously because of the cover illustration...) Despite my expectations I enjoyed the book. A lot. As I do with almost all of Terry Pratchett's.

He is an awesome writer, in terms of plot development, character development (both often between novels as well as within them) and style. His use of humour is intelligent and often subtle, and has me laughing out loud regularly. The example I will give from this book however, is neither intelligent nor subtle: In a tactical discussion between Lord Rust and his men, Corporal Nobbs (a character who has been strongly developed throughout the whole Discworld series) is referred to as "an absolute tit". For some reason, the context and bluntness of this quote (and the italics (?)) had me laughing audibly for about 10 minutes, and internally for a long time afterwards. (There are countless other examples of both types of humour, but it would ruin the book (and probably this review) if I included them all.)

This is the first Discworld novel where I really saw strong representations of real world events and concepts (although each contains them in some respect). In Jingo, the themes are racism and xenophobia, as well as Jingoism (which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "extreme patriotism in the form of aggressive foreign policy"). That Terry Pratchett is able to raise these issues, explore them in detail, and ultimately demonstrate how pointless such discrimination is, while still constructing an intelligent, witty and entertaining story amazes me.

So that's it. For anyone who hasn't read the book, I'd recommend it. And for anyone who is a virgin to the Discworld series, I would STRONGLY advise you to change this fact.

I leave you with this; 5 of Terry Pratchett's short stories that I only found existed when researching material for this review:

Enjoy! And thanks for reading!

Sunday, 10 January 2010

freshening up in a tiny booth

Not being one to let my personal hygiene suffer from less-than-ideal accommodation, I found a practical workaround to the showerless and sinkless (apart from the one in the bog) environment I was destined to live in for the night.

I am posting this not to brag, but as an advisory to any other traveller who finds themselves in a similar predicament: hygienic satisfaction can be achieved with the most basic of equipment, as long as you are willing to think outside the box and be a bit unorthodox (that rhymes!!!).

The first issue I identified was the unsmellly (a term I just coined based on the word unsightly, which, when broken down, is 'un-name of sense-ly': un-smell-ly) state of my shoes. Two weeks of consistent walking around, often with heavy luggage, combined with a growing period of time since my last shower was the cause of this problem, and luckily, two weeks of gaining experience in the travellers mindset, combined with my pre-existing genius, led to the solution.

I first looked at the resources I had available to me:

  • Ice cream
  • Ice cream cones
  • A selection of cold beverages
  • A selection of hot beverages
  • Soup
  • Hand sanitizer wipes
  • Spoons
  • Stirrers
  • Flavoured teabags
  • Water: boiled
  • Water: cold
  • Paper cups
  • A selection of magazines
  • A selection of DVDs
  • A selection of manga
  • Foam slippers
I then took 1 hand sanitizer and 1 flavoured teabag per shoe (hence, 2 of each), opened the hand sanitizer packaging, placed the flavoured teabag inside, and placed 1 newly-crafted shoe deodorizer in each of my shoes. The logic was that the sanitizer would act as a sponge and soak up any unsmellly smells, while the flavoured teabag (strawberry flavour, for the record) would replace the unsmellly smells with more un-unsmellly ones.

I'm glad to say it worked: it would be a lot more embarrassing to explain if it hadn't!

The second issue identified was the declining condition of the skin on my face. This, unfortunately, was caused by my travelling diet, which had recently consisted largely of McDonalds (oops...). The solution to this problem was a lot less creative, so I'll keep it short: I got a couple of hand sanitizer wipes and rubbed them all over my face, then put them in the bin.


The third and final issue was the fact that I needed to clean my teeth (twice a day keeps the horrific gum diseases away!). Now admittedly I could have just walked to the bathroom with my toothpaste and toothbrush, but I didn't want to extinguish my hygienic creativity, and so searched desperately for a more blog-friendly alternative. From the inventory above, I took 2 paper cups, and filled one with water. I then took these cups to my booth, placed them on the desk, and brushed. The empty cup was the receptacle for toothpastey saliva, and the water in the other cup provided the means by which I rinsed my mouth. Rinse residue was then added to the toothpastey saliva receptacle, and I drank the rest of the clean water, then placed the receptacle cup inside the now empty water cup (in order to reduce the space taken up by waste).

Clean as a whistle.

Also, this was all done in a booth no bigger than 3x6', which had in it a chair, a desk, a computer and all my luggage.

Gran Cyber Cafe inventory, night #2

Coke, x1
Coke smuggled outside in bottle, x2
Iced cocoa, x2
Water, x2

Onion soup, x1

Contraband Ritz Crackers (smuggled in from outside), ~x12

Chocolate ice cream and yogurt milk (I thought it was banana), x1
Chocolate ice cream and banana milk, x1
Breakfast strawberry ice cream milkshake, x1

Flavoured teabags for bag, x2
Hand sanitizer towels, x2

Hours of internet, x2
Hours of sleep, x5

Gran Cyber Cafe inventory, night #1

Coke, x2
Fanta Melon float, x1
Calpis Soda, x1
Water, x2
Green Tea latte, x1 (sucked)
Vitamin Lemon drink, x1 (sucked)

Onion soup, x2

Medium McDonald's cup full of ice cream, x1
Cup of Vanilla + 3 pots of honey, x1
Strawberry milk with vanilla ice cream, x1
Chocolate cone, x1
Vanilla cone, x1

Flavoured teabags for bag, x6
Hand sanitizer towels, x5

Hours of internet, x6
Hours of sleep, x2

Fine for leaving late (¥100/15 minutes), ¥600

Saturday, 9 January 2010

day #13 in Japan, point 5

I'm still in my internet cafe booth. So far I've replied to a couple of emails, confirmed my continued existence on Facebook, researched some arbitrary things, gorged myself with complimentary confectionery, and attempted to top the lot off by sleeping (it's what we're here for, after all). Unfortunately, it isn't easy.

I'm not usually particularly fussy with sleep; so far on this trip I've slept in airports, airplanes, trains, kitchens, and even restaurants (and those are just the ones I remember). My sleeping "equipment" currently consists of whatever I happen to be wearing when I'm tired, a buff (multi-purpose tube of fabric) over my face to prevent any gormless sleep-photographs, and my "creatively acquired" Lufthansa blanket.

By the way: If you read the last post you'll notice I used the term "creatively acquired" there too. Contrary to (probably) common belief, it doesn't imply theft; rather taking something you wouldn't usually take, although it doesn't say anywhere that you aren't allowed to do so. The aforementioned blanket, for example, is comfortable, warm and lightweight, and nowhere on the flight did it say that they weren't to be removed from the aircraft.

End of disclaimer.

Anyway, I can't sleep here. Maybe it's the caffeine? Maybe it's the fact that the トイレ (toilet) is being cleaned and I REALLY need to go? Maybe it's the fact that there's a strong likelihood that some Japanese salarymen are beating off to hentai in the nearby booths?

Maybe it's all of the above.

but whatever it is, it isn't practical! I have 5 hours 24 minutes until I need to be out of this place, or I'm going to have to pay a semi-hefty fine. During that time I have to fall asleep (usually takes me around 20 minutes; it would be reduced because I'm tired but irritatingly, the environment has increased it beyond the normal amount), get up (alarm is set half an hour before we're supposed to get out), and go. Those figures give me 4 hours 34 minutes sleep maximum, and tomorrow is going to be even worse (same sleeping arrangements, but we have to make a flight in the morning so I'll be too paranoid to sleep probably).

The above, combined with potential delays flying caused by heavy snow at home, combined with backtracking across several timezones, is going to play havoc with my sleep pattern when I get home. I don't mind too much, it's one of the less enjoyable aspects of traveling I admit but you might as well experience the whole package. I'd rather pay ¥1,700 for a night of crap sleep and free ice cream in an internet cafe than >¥5,000 for a night of crap sleep and a free towel in a hotel, and anyway, I can employ my usual tactic for combating jet lag and spend 17 hours in bed when I get home.

I'm waffling now.

The point I intended to make with this post, the thesis statement if you will, is "how the fuck does this place make money?!". At a rough estimate, there are 60 booths here. Each has a respectable computer (I don't know any proper stats, but they have Windows XP and run fast), 2 sets of headphones (good ones), and a PS2 with 2 controllers. That's probably around £1,200 of equipment per booth, which gives £72,000 for all of them. On top of that is the 24 hour body of staff; I can see 6 staff members at a quick glance and although I don't know the minimum wage in Japan, it probably adds up. Add to that the DVD, manga and magazine library (manga are usually a minimum of £6 each, and there must be over 15,000 here? (my original estimate of 1,000 was shattered when I counted the shelves)), the free drinks (!) and ice cream (!!!), the internet access, and all other costs that I'm too tired / clueless to consider, combined with the more than reasonable rates, and that seems to me like a giant financial black hole.

Yet the Gran Cyber Cafe chain is spread across Tokyo like some kind of horrific disease. Each branch has mutated in its own special way, yet they all seem to be making enough money to spread even more (one down the road, for example, offers showers for ¥500/20 minutes, but being (poor) students, we chose free ice cream (!!!) over showers (a choice I feel any self-respecting person would also make).

It boggles my mind.

Even when I'm not in a tiredness induced vegetative state.

p.s. 3 hours 50 minutes to sleep now.

day #13 in Japan

We've just checked into an internet cafe in Shibuya, Tokyo. We paid ¥1,700 (~£11.90) for the ナイト。パク (Night Pack), which aside from being awesome value accommodation in Tokyo, entitles us to unlimited internet use, access to the manga, DVD and magazine libraries, and most importantly FREE DRINKS AND ICE CREAM. Currently, 18 minutes in, I have a "creatively acquired" マクドナルド (McDonalds) cup full of ice cream (chocolate and vanilla) and a complementary Coke. I plan to try at least 8 different drinks from the machine during my time here - hopefully the subsequent caffeine boost will help me wake up on time and avoid the ¥100 (~70p) per15 minute late fee that will take effect at

Our time in Japan so far has been awesome in many respects, but I'll save elaborating for the posts I plan to post later detailing each day. For now all you need to know is that we spent the first 12.5 days in the Kansai region, and are now in the Kanto region.

The .5 of today that was spent in Kansai was fairly uneventful - we woke up, washed, packed, ate (I cycled to 7/11 for food on a bike that felt as if it were going to disintegrate beneath me at any moment - luckily it didn't!), said goodbye to Alex, and left. We left in a bit of a rush because our unofficial landlady invited herself round to talk to Alex shortly before, and she didn't know about us so we had to flee as not to get anyone in trouble.


We planned to walk to Kyoto station, but failed to take into account the necessary stops, delays and setbacks, and so ended up getting a bus. The bus timetables here have little indicators as to how far away each bus is, but unfortunately we couldn't read what they were saying in any detail so the effect was lost.

Upon arrival at Kyoto station, Aaron and I each parted with ¥12,710 (~£89) for a 新幹線 (Shinkansen) ticket to Tokyo. For those of you who don't know, Shinkansen is a series of high speed trains that run across Japan. We got the のそみ (Nozomi) service, the fastest of the 3, and it made the journey between Kyoto and Toyko (around 500 miles) in just under 3 hours. It was like a plane inside too, the seats were super comfortable, there was more than enough legroom, and they even had a snack cart (although the prices were a bit steep).

Unfortunately, however, the shaking of the train made it a bit nauseating to walk around on it. I tried and thought I was drunk, then went to the toilet out of curiosity and saw it was a Japanese style "squatter". I wonder if anyone thinks that attempting a squatting crap at 300 miles per hour on a shaky train is a good idea? Luckily JR (the operator) had thought ahead and installed handlebars, which users were advised to hold.

Just over halfway between Kyoto and Tokyo, 富士山 (Mt. Fuji) appeared on the horizon. In Japan, mountains occupy the horizon ~95% of the time, so I wasn't really sure what to expect, but in "person" (they refer to the mountain as Fuji San after all), it was spectacular. I tried to take pictures but the speed didn't make it too easy. I'll upload some later anywho.

After seeing Mt. Fuji I decided to nap for the remainder of the journey, and so awoke in Tokyo shortly after. As soon as we alighted the train we could see the difference between Kansai and Kanto: everything is so much more "hustly bustly" here (if that term even exists), which is an interesting change, although slightly hard to adapt to after the relative peacefulness of our trip so far.

We asked around Tokyo station for directions to HSBC and information on the Narita Airport Express so we could get everything in order for the next couple of days (MONEY!), then got a train to Shibuya to find the famed internet cafe that Alex and Chris had told us about previously.

The view from Shibuya station was intense: one of (or maybe the?) Japan's biggest pedestrian crossings is just outside the station, and as soon as the lights change, around 2,000 people at a time scramble into the roads and shoot off in every direction. It's overwhelming to watch! Luckily for us, we got to participate in the chaos shortly after, as McDonalds (my intended destination) was over the road.

It feels weird having to watch your pockets so much after the aforementioned relative peacefulness of Kyoto, but you realise why you have to here. Everyone is in such a hurry, and it seems like the perfect environment for people to take advantage of that fact. Lugging around 2 weeks worth of bags doesn't help any, either.

After a brief stop off at McDonalds, and a browse through a couple of hugely overpriced shops (£2100 Hello Kitty merchandise, anyone?), we headed down the road to Gran Cyber Cafe.

Now at first I was expecting a total sleazefest. I envisioned the DVD, manga and magazine library as a massive porn stash, and that each booth would be filled by a pervert taking advantage of the free access. Luckily however, I was pleasently surprised to find a series of booths of varying sizes, each comfortably containing a chair and a computer, as well as vending machines full of free ice cream and drinks (I know I've said this already, but it deserves to be said again!), and an impressive (and unsmutty) collection of DVDs, manga and magazines. The guy in the booth next to Aaron is looking at AV Idol pictures, though.

Logistically, the next couple of days are going to be intense. It's 21:46, January 9th 2010 at the moment, at we're flying back at 11:05 on the 11th. We have to be at the airport at 8 LATEST, and the train we need to be there safely leaves at 6am. This means we have to get up at 5, and luckily if we check into the internet cafe at 21:00 tomorrow as well we'll have to be up and out in order to avoid any fines. But 8 hours maximum each night for sleep, which considering the distractions (noise, free ice cream, etc) is an unlikely amount, leads me to think we'll be underslept, irritable, and hugely jetlagged when we get home.

Ah well, best not to think about it I guess.

I'll just enjoy the free ice cream.


Friday, 1 January 2010

day #4 in Japan

[Note - my camera died before I got the opportunity to take many pictures on this day, so the pictures used are not all mine (credit is given etc)]

Yesterday's intended but cancelled trip to Osaka and Kobe took place today, although we still managed to be horrendously late despite having an extra day to get ready. We got up at 8.30 instead of 8, and were ready to leave by 10.30. Unfortunately we were supposed to be in Osaka by 11, however, and it was about an hour and a half away.

After getting breakfast at the 7/11, Jay phoned and told us his 母さん (Okaa San ((host) mother)) had invited us for dinner, so we had to return home to collect the present we bought in case such an opportunity presented itself. This added another 45 minutes onto the journey.

In the end we were 2 hours and 45 minutes late.

Apologies were said, and we then began looking around. First on our list of places to go was マクドナルド (McDonalds), for some cheap sustenance, then we made our way to Hep Five (shown below (courtesy of Wikipedia)). Hep Five is a large shopping centre with a ferris wheel on top, as you would expect. We didn't have time to look around the shops and so headed straight up to the wheel.

As we reached the top, I began thinking "what would happen if there was an earthquake now?"... Not a great thought to have at 106 metres, I assure you. Luckily that didn't happen, and instead we had a smooth rotation which provided some rather striking views of Osaka and the surrounding areas.

At the bottom of the ferris wheel was the entrance to JOYPOLIS, Osaka's delightfully named video game filled equivalent of the Trocadero. Jay encouraged us to go inside, and recommended "Living Dolls", a disturbing attraction about a woman who needs organs to help her daughter survive. She tries to harvest the organs of the visitors, but something goes wrong and instead she ends up killing herself or something - I don't quite remember because it was all in Japanese! There was a lot of pitch black darkness, shaky chairs, and creepy noises though. All fun!

Next on our schedule was ペリクラ (Perikura), something I'd been looking forward to for quite a while. The concept is simple - take a photo booth, make it slightly more camp and girly, and allow the user to decorate their pictures afterwards. We went for one of the least girly machines (traditionally Japanese high school girls use Perikura but it is a touristy thing as well so I feel no shame!), chose the least girly backgrounds, and decorated our pictures in a purely comical sense:

I particularly like the one on the right :)

After we'd had our fun in JOYPOLIS, we headed to the station to get a train towards 大坂城 (Osaka-Jo (Osaka Castle)). The woman in the shop in the train station noticed the Canada badges on my bag, and began talking to me. Jay jumped in as translator and she explained how she'd been to Canada before and enjoyed it, and asked how we were finding Japan. How lovely.

The grounds of the castle were nice, and we got to see more of them than we needed to because of a failed shortcut. On the way we tested a water fountain for it's strength, as there seems to be no cap on how powerful the water jets are - this one managed to easily shoot water above my head for example. Dusk began to settle as we approached the castle, and the full moon provided the perfect atmosphere. I think I took a photo on Jay's camera but I haven't been able to retrieve it yet if I did. Look at this photo from Wikipedia instead:

Beautiful, eh? Those perimeter walls are around 40 feet high I'd say.

By this time we were risking being late for dinner at Jay's, and so we had to leave and make haste to the nearest station. On the train(s) we ran over ground rules for visiting Japanese houses again to make sure no faux pas were made, and we managed to arrive only 20 minutes late.

Introductions were carried out, interpreted by Jay, and we took our seats at the table. I say took our seats - we actually sat on the floor as is traditional in Japan. The meal was already on the table, and was exquisite: sashimi (raw fish), a selection of vegetables, rice, and numerous other delicious dishes were there for us to enjoy. Jay's host family were also incredibly generous with alcohol, and gave us a plentiful amount of beer, sake and whisky. It is customary to top up others' drinks when they run low, and considered bad practice to top up your own (one of the ground rules we covered on the train!).

Jay's 父さん (Otou San ((host) father)) was very friendly, and encouraged us to drink with him quite a lot. He told us stories and showed us photos of Jay's time in Japan, then asked us about how we were finding it and other similar things. He was a great guy!

I think one of my favourite things about the meal was the fact that guests were welcome to nap in another room when they felt the need. It created a really relaxed atmosphere which was nice, and gave us the opportunity to talk to everyone at least a little bit. After the meal I detailed above, なべ (nabe (a Japanese "one-pot" dish)) was served.

It was delicious.

Boiling water is placed in a pot which is heated from below, and noodles, vegetables, meat, and whatever else is placed in the water to cook. The resulting soupy broth is really tasty, and all the things that have been put in it make it even better. We also had the traditional new year's mochi in the nabe (pronounced nar-bay) broth, although it absorbed the flavours of everything that had been in there beforehand and tasted quite different to the sweet mochi we were used to.

After the amazing meal, we gave our present to Jay's host family. We thought a prestigious British product would be good, as it would be something of a novelty whilst not being cheap and tacky at the same time. We decided upon Harrod's English Tea and some Clotted Cream Fudge of the same brand. We said つまらない もの ですか (tsumaranai mono desuka) when we presented it which translates roughly to "what a boring thing". This is considered extremely polite, and caused them to laugh at us (not in a mean way). They thanked us profusely and we sat back down. They then presented us with traditional New Year envelopes containing gifts which was amazing.

As is traditional on New Year's Eve in Japan, we went to a nearby temple with some of Jayson's host family (his uncle and aunt I think). They paid our cab fare, and showed us around the temple grounds. There were food stalls EVERYWHERE, and a massive queue to say the New Year's prayer. We joined the queue, and waited for around 15 minutes during which time I decided what I would say. Once we reached the front of the queue I threw ¥5 into the donation box and said my prayer.

The prayer replaced any New Year's resolutions I would have usually made.

By this point it was around 2am, so we headed back. On the way out of the temple grounds we got our fortune, and mine was 半幸 (half happy). Apparently this the "second best" fortune you can get; the order goes something like happy, half happy, a bit happy, not happy, unhappy, very unhappy. I was happy about this, although I was unable to translate any of the other information on the fortune sheet! I am still attempting to do so ha.

We walked to the nearest train station, thanked Jay's host aunt and uncle, then waited for a train home. It was 4.30 when we arrived back in Kyoto, and we were glad to get to bed when the time finally came.