Archive for the 'EverythingElse' Category

Journey to Beng Mealea

Saturday, April 16th, 2011 by Steph

When someone invites you to join them on an epic journey to see a temple half-devoured by forest there is only one correct answer: When are we leaving?

I recently undertook such a trip with three fellow housemates and co-workers. I steeled myself for a long and arduous ride; I’m unaccustomed to biking 80 km at a stretch, and I had no idea what terrain was in store for me, or how well I would hold up under the increasingly warm Cambodian sun. All I knew was that it was supposed to be a 7-hour ride. Let the adventure begin.

We left early in the morning, to avoid the punishing heat of midday. As we cycled outside of the periphery of Siem Reap, highway gave way to side streets gave way to red dusty roads which wound through a maze of markets and villages. We were thankful to follow the lead of our Khmer friend, Chor (or Joe, if you like). As the kilometers sped by, he expounded on whatever facets of Cambodian culture came to mind, from the proper storage of rice, to the prevalence of bald old ladies, to the long white flags which indicate a funeral.

About an hour in to our ride, Joe made a sharp right turn, pulled up short and invited himself into a stranger’s yard. He beckoned to us – come see how rice noodles are made.

Our unexpected presence was warmly welcomed, and we witnessed an elegantly simple process, to which we were immediately initiated:
Step 1: Mash rice into a sticky paste.
Step 2: Fill sieve with paste, and use plunger to extrude long strings of the stuff into boiling water.
Step 3: Remove noodles when they begin to float. Season simply with chili and salt.

The ladies pushed fresh noodles upon us and wouldn’t take no for an answer. We happily sat in our new friend’s front yard, mouths full of happiness and hearts full of gratitude.

After this quick pit stop, we continued on through villages, weaving back and forth amongst the steady stream of traffic: trucks loaded up with improbably large pigs. Motos piled high with more mattresses than physics would seem to allow. Pickups packed with young women heading to and from work.

Monks were out in abundance, speeding by on motos, passing by on foot with containers for rice. We passed many a wat decorated for Magha Puja. Perhaps this holiday also explained the prevalence of households making rice noodles, a phenomenon we continued to see along our route with startling regularity. A few front yards even sported a see-saw type contraption, each one loaded up with 3 or 4 children eager to mix play with mashing rice.

At the cashew tree with a clutch of piglets underneath (the cutest I’ve ever seen), we hung a right onto an unforgiving road with little shade and a red washboard surface. The roadside houses had disappeared, replaced by parched shrubbery eagerly awaiting the rainy season. The journey at this point was between us, the road, and the sun. Infrequent stops for sugarcane juice (with a delicate hint of citrus and rust) provided just enough energy to propel us forward.

And then before I knew it: we had arrived. After only 4 hours, we had reached our destination, Beng Mealea. We celebrated our good fortune with more sugarcane juice (whyever not?) and sat for a spell to catch our breath. We proceeded to our homestay, a modest abode perched on long cement legs to accommodate the rainy season. Water buffalo munched single-mindedly in the front yard. Dogs surrendered to the heat of the afternoon, belly up in a sea of dust.

We retired to a small room with a wooden floor, an annex of the larger room where our hosts sleep. We were shown the shower: a full water basin upon which floats a small bowl in a cement room with a single hole in the corner for drainage. This met my needs. I began to scour the layers of red dirt from my knees and down my shins, and it was at that precise moment that the sky opened up to dump bucketfuls of water upon us all. This was the first rain of the season, which we chose to interpret as a good omen. While the rain would have been a welcome relief to a pack of hot and tired bikers, we were just as glad to have arrived before the downpour, and took comfort in hearing it crash and bang against the tin roof over our heads.

After a late lunch and sucking down the contents of a cold coconut, we retired to lazily wait out the heat of the afternoon. I made a passing attempt at sleep, but instead lay down, closed my eyes and took in the sounds of the neighborhood. A saw mill was running next door. Dogs punctuated the calm of the afternoon with a ruckus now and again. Chickens generated a farmy hum.

The rest of the evening passed without much consequence. Our hosts kindly fed us a savory porridge which served quite nicely for dinner. They told us about their children, who have mostly left home to start their own families. The father of the house is the only one left from his generation. He never had a chance to pursue education: the Khmer Rouge had required him to plant rice to the exclusion of all else. He now enthusiastically encourages his children to pursue what he could not. With this sober history in mind, we ascended to the balcony at dusk, candles in hand, set up mosquito nets, and passed the rest of the evening discussing Cambodia’s recent past while the nearby pagoda incongruously blared dance music late into the night.

I fell asleep on the wooden floor, only to be woken by chanting at 5am. This suited me just fine, as the plan was to be at Beng Mealea at the crack of dawn, before the tour buses started to swarm the place. We made it to the temple around 7am, the first ones on the scene. I soon found myself alone in the midst of strewn rocks and collapsed arches, listening to the jungle wake up and come to life. I enjoyed 30 minutes of this glorious solitude, where I could imagine that I was the first person to have stumbled upon this temple (Indiana Jane, as my Dad would say), until the tourists started trickling in.

Beng Mealea looks like some forgotten world out of a fairy tale. Unlike its close cousin Angkor Wat, you can climb all over the temple grounds. There are no risers for pictures. There are no guide ropes which dictate where you can and cannot go. Swallowed by forest, rediscovered only 10 years ago, it still retains a bit of wildness and mystery. The grounds are littered with broken naga, the 7-headed snake from Cambodian mythology. I tried not to imagine how many landmines may or may not be lingering just outside of the temple periphery, and sent a silent and heartfelt thank you to the CMAC for making it possible for me to clamber safely around the rocks.

After a morning of enraptured exploration, it was time to start thinking about the long ride home. We thanked our hosts, and began to retrace our steps: we said goodbye to the nearby wat and headed towards Siem Reap, fighting our way against the steady stream of tour buses. Asphalt gave way again to red dust and rocks.

Halfway through our afternoon, we stopped at a snackstall to refuel, where we rested, roadside. An executive decision was made, and we decided to pretty much try one of everything. On offer were crunchy sweet pastries which inexplicably also had chives. Veg slaw with peanuts and chili sauce. Shaved ice with sugar syrup, condensed milk, and what looked like black-eyed peas.

And just when we were getting ready to hit the road, almost as a nonchalant afterthought, it was mentioned that a temple existed nearby, only 2 kilometers away. Anyone with an inkling about my disposition knows that the word “temple” is like catnip to me; I am incapable of turning down a visit such a place, especially if it’s within a 5 km radius. The shopkeeper pointed us in the right direction, and we were off.

The detour immediately turned from dust to sand, which meant a strenuous ride. As we struggled to stay upright, we came across old ladies pushing several carts piled high with wood, who were having a difficult time navigating the terrain with their cumbersome baggage. We dismounted and gave each cart a bit of a push, sending the ladies on their way. A gaggle of boys watched the whole production, hanging out and wiling the afternoon away.

It was then that I saw one of the boys casually fling something through the air to his friend. The distinct silhouette caught my attention. Limbs splayed, arcing languidly through the air. Did he just throw a mouse?? I took a closer look, and yes, each boy had 3 or 4 mice clenched tightly in his hands. I inquired. The rodents were going to be dinner.

After a few more minutes of stubbornly pushing through the sand, I still saw nothing. It was hard to imagine finding anything out here in the middle of nowhere. Hot and tired, we started questioning our directional capabilities. I began to make mental calculations: how much more energy and time will it take to get home, and do I have enough of both in reserve?… when we came across a puddle bisecting our path. And by puddle, I mean small pond. We pulled up short. I was thinking leeches. I was thinking tetanus. I was thinking I don’t know how deep this sinkhole goes, and who else might be living in there. Which is when our fearless leader gamely plunged in tire first, not giving the matter a second thought.

The top of his pedals were nearly submerged before the resistance of the water unseated him. We watched him dismount his bike and escort it through, forging ahead knee-deep in murky swampishness. In seconds, he was across, no big deal. The rest of us threw caution to the wind and followed suit. If Joe can do it, I’ll be damned if I’m being left behind. Sometimes peer-pressure is the only way to conquer a mental roadblock.

We pushed on for a few minutes, when we found our destination. All this time I had been on the lookout for a Buddhist wat: Bright. Ostentatious. Ornamental. Imagine my surprise when we found another Angkor-style ruin, the muted stones barely visible through the trees. This monument was smaller than Beng Mealea, but this forgotten pile of stones certainly wasn’t in any guidebook. Incredulous at our good fortune, we peeked in and clambered about on the stones (again, I sent out a nervous and silent thanks to the CMAC). In our serendipitous surroundings, we frolicked. We climbed. We played.

It was tempting to while away the rest of the afternoon lost in daydreams of Kampuchea, but the sinking sun was a reminder to hit the road. We retraced our tired steps until we reached the outskirts of Siem Reap - happy to have gone, happy to be home, our bodies spent, our minds already racing with ideas for the Next Big Adventure.ИкониikoniПодаръциикониикони

Rant from a six-hour drive

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009 by Chris

Today we drove from Los Angeles to Davis, California, a six-hour drive along mostly open highway. This gave me a lot of time to think while the car zoomed along on cruise control and many opportunities to curse the dumb design of cruise control interfaces on just about every car out there.

Cruise Control

Who designed the “standard” cruise control interface? It’s a horrible overcomplicated mishmash of awkward abbreviations and mysteriously organized functions. I can’t decide if it was put together by an over-precise engineering team or a feature-obsessed middle manager.


  • Why is the on/off switch separate from the others?1 Setting the speed requires two button presses when it should only take one.
  • What on earth is the practical difference between “off” and “cancel”?2
  • Do we really need two extra buttons to make the car go faster or slower? Cars, after all, are already graced with eminently effective and much-used speed controls. Having “accel” and “coast” buttons is like adding a joystick down on the floor so that you can steer using the feet that are left sadly idle by the operation of the cruise control.

Imagine what the cruise control UI would look like as implemented by Apple. It would be like the iPhone without the fancy screen: one button labeled ON. You hit the button, the car keeps going the current speed. Hit it again and it turns off. I can’t believe nobody has done this yet.

Cancel rant. Rant off.

1As a computer guy, I can kind of see the logic in having a separate on/off control. After all, the system is managed by a computer that needs to know whether it should be listening for commands at any given moment. Maybe, back in the dark ages of computers when cruise control was first implemented, the system may have had significant startup time, requiring a few seconds of warning to get everything in order for the “set” command. But that’s certainly not necessary today the whole car is essentially managed by computers nowadays.

2I understand the technical difference, but it’s a stupid thing to bother the user with.

What Can I Say?

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009 by Steph

Dad’s always asking me how my Japanese language skills are coming along, and I never know how to answer this question. (3.2? C+? 78%?) While my Japanese ability has progressed a great deal in the last 3 years, those of you who understand Japanese and have heard me speak know that I have a long way to go before I achieve fluency. However, should the rest of you be mildly curious about my ability to communicate, here are some small victories from the past week:

*Successfully explaining the rules of Sharks and Minnows to a group of elementary school kids, each of whom has the attention span of a small kitten surrounded by fluff and balls of string.

*Figuring out who that random guy at the pool was. I had one of those awkward moments where I was greeted warmly by some dude I swear I’d never met before. After a brief conspiratorial conference with the poolside manager, I was able to divine that he was in fact my old salsa teacher (who’s also, incidentally, the nation-wide champion of Japan. And a hair dresser.) In my defense, I haven’t been to class for about a year, and he was wearing a swim cap.

*Conversing with a saleschick. Mildly curious about the GAP that materialized recently in Akita, I cautiously entered this new store but was skeptical about trying anything on. As I explained to the overly-eager sales staff, I’d been through this masochistic pas-de-deux with Japan-based GAPs before in Tokyo. Theoretically, the GAP is supposed to carry western sizes that don’t exist in the boondocks of Akita, but instead I found to my dismay clothing that had been tailored to fit the Japanese frame, and thus, not my own. After hearing my tale of woe and betrayal, I was assured that THIS store (GAP*USA!) was different, because everything is directly imported from America, and as such I was encouraged to approach shopping with renewed optimism and vigor.

I don’t know if any of that’s going to be on the JLPT, but it’s nice to know that I can increasingly say what I want to say on the spur of the mo’.

Status Quo

Saturday, January 31st, 2009 by Steph

Stephanie is waiting for the other shoe to drop. She is pondering the illusion of free will. She’s ambivalent about being good today and is loving her lack of obligation. Stephanie is trying to curb her self-destructive impulses. She hurts in too many exciting places. She seems to prefer it this way… when life is complicated, uncertain, and intense. Stephanie has always preferred savory to sweet. Her bloodstream is chock full of ukon no chikara. She’s feelin’ pretty damn good. Or maybe that’s the beer talking.

Stephanie is having second thoughts…

She’s totally not taking a test today. Stephanie is dealing with reality by pickling her brain in television. She deserves a break from her rich emotional life, thank you very much. Stephanie will be impersonating a cat for the remainder of the afternoon, until she rediscovers her genki.

Stephanie is wondering if you are one of the balls she has dropped… Unfortunately, she can only obsess about one thing at a time. She cannot simultaneously study Japanese AND keep up with world events AND plan her future. Something’s got to give. At least she didn’t break anything while snowboarding. She swam a mile. She made one too many bear jokes. She chased waterfalls. She reluctantly harvested the persimmons off of her staircase.

Stephanie is more rest after death. Slowly, slowly, it will come to you.

Stephanie stopped and smelled the roses on the way to work today. And by “smelled” she means “pet” and by “roses” she means “cats”. Stephanie doesn’t care how much her vice-principal’s new car costs, but he likes to tell her anyway. He also likes to tell the other English teachers, “You are fat. Like a pig!” She’s not sure what to say when her teachers tell her that they’re hung over right before class. And she still doesn’t know what the plan is for second period.

Stephanie taught her students to squawk like a chicken when calling someone a coward. She will also totally scare the crap out of you in class to get rid of your hiccups.

Stephanie only made three 6-year-olds cry today.

Stephanie does push ups at school when she thinks no one is watching. Stephanie was just asked out on a date by a gaggle of 15-year old girls. She is amused to be ferrying love letters from school to school for her starry-eyed students. Stephanie is thinking she should have been a journalist. Or an anthropologist. Or maybe a ninja.

Stephanie can’t get any work done because her emotions are holding her hostage. Instead, she is anesthetizing herself with the Olympics and alcohol. She is having a hard time with closure. She’d rather leave than be left. She is practicing detachment. She’s learning when to be silent.

Stephanie rather enjoyed her last Onagori under the glow of the full moon. She had the beach to herself last night. There are plenty of cuts and bruises which prove she had a great time just trying to float there for awhile. Stephanie carped that diem.

Stephanie’s enthusiasm for kanji is waning.
She was hoping against hope for a beer in the fridge.
Stephanie misses PV=nRT.
She needs something to change.

Stephanie is high tension, scheming, and full of anticip………..ation. Stephanie is fierce. She thought she wasn’t pissed anymore, but no. Stephanie turned down alcohol in favor of explosives. She’s about to blow this popsicle stand.

Stephanie is walking the path. She has dotted her おs and crossed her ちs. Stephanie is going to try her best not to take anything or anyone for granted for the next 10 days. Or the next 6 months. Or the next 50 years.

Unlike you, I blog about ASCII art

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008 by Chris

Several people have noticed that it’s been some time since we last wrote. Well, I’m here to end that drought. But I’m not going to write about a fascinating cultural experience or deep personal realization. I’m going to write about my own particular brand of font-tinged geekiness.

That being said, this is going to sound like a non sequitur.

As you may or may not know, a few weeks ago Japan’s Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda resigned, out of the blue, with no hint he was thinking of doing so. (This is becoming something of a tradition, as the previous Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did the same thing almost exactly a year before.) Fukuda has been, I think, a good prime minister. He’s a moderate politician and has toned down the nationalist rhetoric of his predecessors, and is exactly the kind of “boring guy” you would expect to be a Japanese Prime Minister.

Fukuda’s popularity was in the dumps for his entire term, just like most of the the world’s leaders at the moment, and in part this was because his mild-mannered ways didn’t provide a lot of juice for the media to latch onto for their nightly newscasts. When he held a news conference to announce his resignation, a reporter apparently dropped the last straw by asking Fukuda if he had really put his whole effort into his job. (This is something that is definitely not kosher to ask a Japanese person “Do your best!” is essentially the national creed.) Fukuda responded with a delightfully snippy comment: “Unlike you, I’m able to see myself objectively.”

That comment basically ended up being the sign-off for Fukuda’s entire career, and it was pure gold for the news media. But the phrase that really inspired the Internet community was the “unlike you” bit, which in Japanese grammar comes at the end as a finishing punch-line flourish. The actual phrase is “あなたとは違うんです” which literally translates as, “I am different than you.”

This, naturally, brings us to ASCII art.

(ASCII stands for “American Standard Code for Information Interchange” and is one of the earliest definitions of a computer character set, covering the English alphabet, numbers, and basic punctuation characters. “ASCII art” is an ancient term referring to a graphical image composed on a computer using only textual characters.)

Japanese nerds are second to none, and an anonymous someone immediately hit the Internets with an anime-themed ASCII-art take on Fukuda’s parting press-conference shot, complete with guns blazing.


Click on the image above to go to Flickr, where you can see my annotations noting where Japanese characters have been used to great effect in the final image. As you may imagine, the characters 彡 and ミ are indispensable in representing politicians’ hairlines.

My favorite part of this Japanese “ASCII” art (and this is where I get really nerdy) is that it’s not really ASCII at all. ASCII is an extremely narrow standard, covering only the English alphabet. It’s not even useful for Western European languages since it doesn’t have any accented characters for French, Spanish, German, etc. So this Japanese “ASCII art” is really “Unicode art” (although I guess technically it’s Shift_JIS art).

This whole situtation was brought to my attention by a Japan Times article talking about this T-shirt that was brought to market within days of Fukuda’s resignation, and is still selling off the shelves. I am now the proud owner of one of these shirts (after waiting a week and a half for it to come back into stock). And that means you have the Japan Times to thank for waking up to a blog entry about two of the most entertaining subjects imaginable: Japanese politics and computer character sets.


Thursday, July 24th, 2008 by Chris

I literally just returned from my two-week trip to Boston and Buffalo, and moments after sitting down at the computer… another earthquake! The epicenter was in the same prefecture, Iwate, as the previous big one about a month ago. Poor Iwate.

This one was a little scary because this time, Stephanie wasn’t here in Akita. She and our friend Andy took a road trip to Aomori, and were located much closer to the epicenter than Noshiro. (They are in the armpit of the large axe-shaped peninsula at the top of the island.) Not to worry though; Steph called and assured me everything is all right.

I should also mention that there was a big one in the same region, but a ways off shore, just last week! That makes three in just over a month, all about the same 7-ish magnitude. Definitely some major correction going on in the earth’s crust around eastern Tohoku.

Japan’s new earthquake alert system

Saturday, June 14th, 2008 by Chris

Earthquake Early Warnings, originally uploaded by miyagawa.

This (not my photo; thanks, Flickr!) is what appeared on the TV screen several seconds before the earthquake arrived in Noshiro this morning. Note that the blue overlay is not part of the newscast, but pops up over whatever show is currently on. This particular warning is from an aftershock about half an hour after the main quake, so at this point everybody was already watching the news.

Seismic sensors are placed all over the country, and immediately upon the occurrence of the first shock, the epicenter is calculated and warnings go up on TV stations immediately. Since the shock waves take time to spread from the epicenter through the ground, the warning will hit the TV before the quake arrives in most places. Impressive stuff.

Bagpipes and Applecores

Friday, April 18th, 2008 by Steph

I have a fascination this one question, and lately I’ve been asking everyone within earshot: What was your first job? Sometimes this leads to cryptic two-word answers for which you must invent your own back-story (take for example “cookie factory”). Other times you get more information than you were bargaining for (“I mowed lawns so I could buy my first set of bagpipes”).



Wednesday, February 13th, 2008 by Steph

Oh, and did I mention that I just, much to my surprise, passed my Level 3 Japanese Proficiency Test?



Her name in lichts

Wednesday, February 6th, 2008 by Chris

Last spring, we travelled to the nearest Big City, Sendai, for a Beck concert. During that trip we skipped over to the famous sightseeing destination Matsushima. While there, Steph snapped this moving shot of a Shinto procession carrying a shrine down the street:

Heavy Shrine

Imagine our surprise when a few weeks ago, out of the blue, a gentleman named Maarten Reith from the Netherlands contacted us through our Flickr account. The Dutch city of Arnhem is playing host to an international sculpture exhibition called Sonsbeek 2008 in June, and the opening ceremonies for this exhibition will involve the sculptures being hand-carried throughout the city to their final destination in a public park. Sonsbeek’s procession was inspired by religious ceremonies such as this Shinto custom, and Mr. Reith was writing a newspaper article about the exhibition.

Now, not two weeks later, the article is published and Steph is famous! The photo is almost a full page and spans the center spread of De Gelderlander newspaper of January 24, 2008. Contratulations to Stephanie!

Netherlands Newspaper Article thumbnail