blarg?

These are the last few pictures of Japan that I thought were show-to-other-people good, mostly from Nara.

The Rail Line To Nara

The huge temple at Nara

It’s difficult to believe that not only is this building entirely handmade, but it’s all interlocking, no-nails and all-manual-labor construction. This thing houses the huge buddha I put up earlier, which it itself about three stories tall. The whole building is six or so? Craziness.

Insert Your Coins, Human

The deer at Nara have pretty much got everything except about this source of food worked out except for the opposable thumbs and fine-motor skills, which they delegate effectively by looking at you with big deer eyes.

Hiding

I saw this girl hopping from one side of a rain gutter to another on a long path bordered by these mossy stone monuments and that white outfit just jumped out of that background at me, so I went looking for the line the shot wanted. And I found it, I think.

Traditional Attire

This is the best shot of a set taken over the course of about forty seconds; I really choked on that set, too, which makes me really sad.

While we were at Nara, one of the things I saw a fair bit of was traditional garb, presumably because we were there during Golden Week. A not-small number of women were meticulously wrapped in some very beatiful kimonos, carefully made up and walking tourist’s paths with the small, elegant steps that are all a kimono allows. I absolutely love the combination of domesticated deer, the traditional outfits and digital cameras in these shots. The only other picture that came close to being usable was shot between these two ladies towards the deer, but it was a little out of focus and had a truck in the background – you can see it slowly rolling into screwing-up-my-shot range on the right, there. It pains me, because the shot I really wanted was about four feet to my right at the exact moment took this one.

Yes, These Are Japanese Schoolgirls

That this was entirely involuntary is the story I plan to stick to – one of them asked me to take their picture, possibly because of my chiselled visage and suave demeanor, but more likely because I was standing nearby with a camera. I said yes, being nothing if not accomodating, and then the other five immediately asked if I could possibly find it in me to take more pictures with the rest of their cameras, too, and they were nice enough to play along and let me take one for me while I was at it.

Thanks to the magic of tags, this picture has been seen approximately fifty times more than anything else in my photostream. Way to stay in character, internets.

In the background, as always, patient wife is patient.

Near The Enormous Steel Ball

Finally, taken just outside the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, this picture is more interesting than anything I saw in the actual museum.

Update: Found a much, much better solution. If you’re looking for the correct fix for this problem, go here.

This is a technical note, mostly to get this into Google, and will be profoundly uninteresting to anybody who doesn’t have to slay the Exchange 2007 hydra. Let me begin, then, in the traditional manner of many fine and nerdy things with a reference to the Hitchiker’s Guide To The Galaxy:

It was, of course, as a result of the Great Ventilation and Telephone Riots of SrDt 3454, that all mechanical or electrical or quantum-mechanical or hydraulic or even wind, steam or piston-driven devices are now required to have a certain legend emblazoned on them somewhere. It doesn’t matter how small the object is, the designers of the object have got to find a way of squeezing the legend in somewhere, because it is their attention which is being drawn to it rather than necessarily that of the user’s.

The legend is this:

The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to
be impossible to get at or repair.

-Douglas Adams, “Mostly Harmless”

If there’s one guarantee about Microsoft products, it’s that for at least two years after they ship, nobody knows a goddamn thing about how they actually work or how to fix them when they break. The documentation lies to you, by omission or outright, and when implementors get these obscure, unhelpful and completely uninformative error messages and start asking questions in the world’s forums other people who should know way, way better by now start making stuff up trying to sound helpful. And after not-long any search for a solution to your actual problems gives you results full of half-truths and superstitious bullshit from people who’ve tried a bunch of things without actually understanding what they’re doing, that maybe worked but probably didn’t.

This is not be unique to closed-source or Microsoft software, for sure, but the staggering size and opacity of their products sure does make the situation worse. But I digress, because anger is the only exercise I get most days.

The problem is that an Outlook user can’t connect to the exchange server, and the extraordinarily useful error message says “Exchange server not available”. But it won’t tell you why it’s supposedly unavailable, and:

  • that’s a lie, it’s very clearly available,
  • it’s not a network problem, and
  • it is limited to that user’s account, but
  • they can get their mail through OWA just fine.

So basically all your first-line diagnostic tools will tell you that everything is fine, but a specific user will not be able to use Outlook for no obvious reason.

The reason, or at least what turned out to be our reason, is that the user has somehow exhausted their permitted number of MAPI connections, normally limited to 32, to the Exchange server. I believe, but have no proof, that this is a result of a user switching Cached Exchange Mode on and off, which is why we have seen it here so rarely. (Cached Exchange Mode, incidentally, is a sulfurous wellspring of pain, and you should never use it ever. It looks like it’s just one little box with a checkmark in it, but that’s a ruse, and in my mind I now refer to that option as a Lemarchand’s Checkbox.)

The next problem is that as far as I’ve been able to find out, there’s no tools or powershell-exposed functionality that will let you change a user’s MAPI connection state. There’s only one way to fix this problem, and you’ll love it, because it’s totally awesome and totally Microsofty.

You need to reboot the exchange server.

It’s so awesome.

Now, strictly speaking that’s not entirely true – you need, specifically, to restart the Exchange data store, but since that’s going to kick off all of the users connected to it while it restarts, “Did You Reboot?” is what it boils down to.

It was pretty grey on our last few days there, but you don’t get to pick the weather. You only get to pick what you wear, and I, frankly, look good.

The Tokyo Subway Map

Getting around Japan is surprisingly easy for a tourist, or an english-speaking tourist at least; there are enough translated-to-english maps around and even the untranslated signage is decipherable enough that with a level head and a pocket full of yens everywhere we tried to go was walking distance away. This struck me about Hong Kong, too: get a modern public transit system, cities! It does great things for every single part of city life I could see, and it makes the TTC look kind of… embarassing? Why does Toronto have this filthy, poorly maintained and vaguely Stalinist toy model of a public transit system when other places get these sprawling, clean, fast systems? It’s pretty depressing.

The Tokyo Light Rail System

We spent some time near Ueno Station, looking around the very Hong-Kong-like and very awesome Ameyoko market, visiting the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and just generally wandering about in the park, and as usual the people-watching was a lot more interesting than the thing-seeing. There was a modern art exhibit in the Metropolitan Art Museum which was, in tourist terms I think, a mistake? It reminded me of my visit to MOMA in New York – “modern art” apparently means “doesn’t connect to anything else, including the audience” – and sadly didn’t particularly speak to me of anything particularly Japanese. I lack the appropriate context of modernity, maybe? Maybe that’s the gag, that not getting it means you’re somehow out of touch, so everyone plays along. Anyway: some of it was neat but we could have spent that time better, I think.

Outside The Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art

As always, though, there are intricate little shrines all over the place, intact and well-maintained over centuries, and the constant juxtaposition of the intensely-modern (in the more conventional “built recently” sense) and the durably traditional was one of my favorite parts of the trip.

Inscriptions

We spent some time doing a little window shopping around Ginza, too, a sprawling shopping district for the recklessly affluent. Stepping out of the subway puts you within five minute’s walk of four entirely different acre-sized Tiffany’s, just to give you an idea of the grade of affluence we’re talking about here. Not how I roll, exactly, but cool to see, regardless. We even visited the Sony flagship store, was fully of shiny things that you couldn’t use with anything that wasn’t also sold by Sony. Also neat, but also not how I roll, so there you go. Again, it was pretty, but I’ve seen big stores before, you know?

You Are Here Now

But, as I’m starting to realize is typical, it’s the unexpected street-level interactions with a place that really bring you the awesome, not the destinations. Getting there is most of the weird.

Japan Rail

We had lunch at what appeared to be a restaurant-backed vending machine, which was pretty cool. You might have seen these ads before, which look really disheartening, but these places were exactly that sort of job, but done exactly right. The vending machine was basically an automated cashier, and I selected a picture of food and brought the ticket it gave me to the back of the eight-foot-wide restaurant where a woman in an apron looked at it and shouted what might have been my order.

Then, and this seemed like a remarkable thing, two guys behind her splashed some liquids into bowls and clanked some pans in this tiny little kitchen, maybe six by ten feet of floor space. And she turned around, picked up a tray that now had two full bowls and some chopsticks on it, and handed it to me, and that was my order. It’s all about the prep work, of course, but that’s literally how long it took; she took the ticket, yelled the number, clank pour clank pour, here’s your food. Time gets weird when you’re swimming in awesome, I know, but to my estimation this took about nine seconds. I wasn’t sure how to react; this can’t possibly be my order, am I expected to hand this to somebody else? Who? This is mine? What? (And hesitating was bad, because what I clearly was expected to do was get the hell out of the way, so they could do the same trick for the next person in line.)

But for a meal assembled in less than ten seconds, it wasn’t bad at all. Apparently this is a common thing in Japan, too, but I definitely need one of these near my office.

The Shinkansen

We took the Shinkansen from Kyoto back to Tokyo and it’s fast, it’s OMG fast. The line going the opposite direction passes you on rails six feet away and so quickly, just a rush of air, one heartbeat and gone, a quarter-mile of train snapping away like a rubber band. It’s basically impossible to take a picture of it, but if you like I can show you my white blur collection.

I’m used to traveling on ViaRail in Canada, and the Tokyo/Kyoto Shinkansen trip was a bit of a long slow shock. Both cities are huge, Tokyo in particular is vast and high-density and the rail line runs mostly parallel to the coast, so instead of spending your time looking out the window at hours of forests and farmland there’s only about twenty minutes on the three hour trip that don’t feel like you’re rocketing through the middle of a city, scattered around in two-minute chunks. On the trip out from Tokyo, I just kept staring out the window at the passing buildings thinking, Jeebus, does this place ever end?

I’ve never seen a city like Tokyo before, and it’s hard to believe that it can exist at all as it is. 12 million people or so and it’s clean enough that you could eat off the roads, none of which are in straight lines and many of which don’t even have names or even unique identifiers. But every morning it seemed like a brand new metropolis had been cut out of its shrinkwrap and carefully placed around us, pristine and barely used; I felt like I’d have to be a powerful man with powerful enemies and a shadowy past just to be able to find somebody willing to put gum on a sidewalk.

Tokyo Signage

The thing that kept reinforcing this impression was that a lot of the time Tokyo is quiet, eerily quiet. Step off a main road into any of the narrow, labyrinthine little streets that make up much of the city and you might as well have stepped onto the moon; the background hum you can hear in every city I’ve ever known is gone, baffled right down by the tall buildings and enthusiastically non-Roman road plan. So, is this when the ninjas jump out, I kept thinking? I can’t hear my theme music, so if they jump me now, I might not win.

Street Level Flora

Sadly I didn’t see any ninjas, but I suppose if I had they’d be sad ninjas indeed. Akihabara was enough of a letdown, I didn’t need to get randomly jumped by a bunch of second-rate martial artists. Next time, I’ll have to pack one of these, which I wouldn’t have thought would ever work, but now it’s hard to believe that it wouldn’t. I don’t think that I was more than twenty meters from a vending machine the entire trip.

Temple Gate Plus Vending Machine

But when we did find ourselves on a major road, near a train station or somewhere like Ginza or Harajuku, we’d find ourselves in the middle of a huge, noisy, frothing, enthusiastic mess of people, and walking through it felt like I was crowd surfing in the world’s most polite riot.

Harajuku was particularly awesome, some of the finest people-watching in the world. It’s a young person’s ‘hood, for sure, and the kids were dressed up and out to see and be seen, but the cosplayers were the real gold. There were weekend Elvises (one of whom had procured an enormous pink ’57 Cadillac from somewhere, a monster about six times the size of a typical Japanese car), crunchy-looking Goth girls, elaborately coiffed Harajuku Maids, cosplayers and vending machines that served iced coffee and beer. For a few moments, I wondered why I should ever be anywhere else.

Harajuku

There was even what looked like an impromptu battle-of-the-bands going on, though whoever won that, it was a pyrrhic victory for sure. From what I could make out, there was some boy-band signing session going on nearby, so the cosplayers were out in force, hundreds where there would “normally” only be dozens. It hit me there that all fashion is a strict subset of cosplay, and that the people who embrace that will be able to push at boundaries the rest of us can’t even see, and make the world a lot more colorful, interesting and fun for all of us.

And it also occurred to me, as I was crossing a bridge beer in hand and patient wife in tow to take some pictures of a horde of girls in goth-lolita outfits that life had somehow brought me to a point that I was in Japan with a beer in my hand and my wife humoring me as I went to take some pictures of a horde of girls in goth-lolita outfits, and I just started laughing, because it’s good to be me.

We’re home. No disrespect to our gracious hosts but two weeks away is slightly more than plenty, it turns out.

I’m well behind on my blogging, of course, and have to sort through several thousand pictures to figure out which ones are worthwhile, but the last few days in Japan and a week in Hong Kong are on the way.

Some Local Flora

Context, because it is all about context.

First, a bit of short reading: The Grim Meathook Future, a phrase coined by Joshua Ellis.

The upshot of all of this is that the Future gets divided; the cute, insulated future that Joi Ito and Cory Doctorow and you and I inhabit, and the grim meathook future that most of the world is facing, in which they watch their squats and under-developed fields get turned into a giant game of Counterstrike between crazy faith-ridden jihadist motherfuckers and crazy faith-ridden American redneck motherfuckers, each doing their best to turn the entire world into one type of fascist nightmare or another.

Of course, nobody really wants to talk about that future, because it’s depressing and not fun and doesn’t have Fischerspooner doing the soundtrack. So everybody pretends they don’t know what the future holds, when the unfortunate fact is that — unless we start paying very serious attention — it holds what the past holds: a great deal of extreme boredom punctuated by occasional horror and the odd moment of grace.

Like they say, read the whole thing.

Second, a well-worn observation, that a common failing of science fiction is to assume that the future looks pretty much like the present, only more so; the first time I remember noticing that was in Larry Niven’s mid-seventies Gil Hamilton series, set centuries in the future, where a planet of thirty billion people is described as largely peaceful and well-regulated, but computers still output their information on paper tape and a few hours of “time on the computer”, singular, is described as an absurdly exorbitant expense.

Those stories don’t age well, as you might imagine; nothing is as hard on science fiction as the future,

Bear with me, here.

Akihabara, or “Akihabara Electric Town”, is Tokyo’s discount-tech district and something of a nerd Mecca. It’s home to a ridiculous number of computer and anime stores, and many shiny technologies are found there; the widgets of the future are reportedly sold there long before finding their way to the Americas, I made my pilgrimage, hoping to get a glimpse what the future would look like.

And I was deeply disappointed. Whatever you might think about what’s coming, it’s crystal clear that the future we go with had better not look like the one I found at Akihabara.

Yesterday's Technology Today

The Japanese do not, I think, have a long cultural tradition of making new stuff. They do have a long tradition of taking ideas and items from elsewhere and making or doing them about as well as they can be made or done, and in Akihabara that particular cultural bent has been focused on nominally inexpensive technology. And everything you could ask for in that was there – racked-up rows of tiny devices, bigger stores holding smaller, more luminous widgets than I’d seen anywhere, lightweight laptops, tiny media players, wildly functional cellphones, you name it. Collector’s boutiques for all things anime, comprehensively stocked to obsessive completion, second-hand electronics stores stocked to the ceiling with retro cool.

Tiny LCDs reflecting off brushed aluminum casings and grim portent as far as the eye can see.

If I were a younger man I might have seen it differently but what I saw, all I could see, was the science fiction of the-present-only-more-so, a huge amount of obsessive effort put to the service of a future destined to age very poorly. Mountains of plastic crap, robot figurines, big-eyed-cartoon-schoolgirl porn and thousands of people expending enormous amounts of time, money, talent and effort in a thousand desperate bids to be not bored. And I don’t think it’s going to age well at all. I sure hope it doesn’t.

Akihabara: Fail

And to nobody’s surprise but mine I’m sure, when presented with the nonrational customer, the rational merchant’s prices don’t toddle downward, no sir. For an ostensibly-discount tech district Akihabara is goddamned expensive, and only got more expensive the more gimmicky stuff became. I’m sorry, you want a hundred and thirty bucks for a one-gig flash drive shaped like a piece of sushi? I’m thinking no. Specifically, I’m thinking no and fuck off. Which brings us to the compare-and-contrast part of today’s entry: Tsukiji

We didn’t get to Tsukiji in time for the morning tuna auctions, so when we got there it the day’s catch was being piled into trucks and sent wherever it goes. The public accessway to watch this process looked terrifyingly-enough like an industrial service entrance that we mistakenly thought it couldn’t possibly be the regular public entrance, so instead we went around the corner to what turned out to be the actual service entrance to try our “luck” there.

I don’t know if that was a mistake per se, but since we were walking around with a four-year-old girl and a nine-month old boy, it certainly was exciting. I wouldn’t really describe the place as child safe, even though they made it out OK, and their mother earned my respect one more time for not flipping out even a little when she clearly (and entirely justifiably, I might add) felt that flipping out was exactly what the situation called for.

Because Tsukiji is, by an order of magnitude or three, the largest fish market and distribution facility in the world. In addition to the several hundred tons of boring old produce that moves around Tsukiji every day, they shift more than two thousand tons of fish in and out of a single building every day in a convulsive spasm of unhinged expiry-date carno-mercantilism, with all the slippery floors, sharp edges and fast-moving machinery it implies.

It Turns Out Tuna Are Huge

And it’s beautiful. The seafood is all vivid colours and shimmering rich texture, alien shapes and odd appendages packed in ice next to huge marbled slabs of tuna. The machinery is corroded and worn, heavy chains greased thick, the air is full of the thump and clank of shifting metal, two stroke engines, the smooth whine of bandsaws and aging brakes.

Tsukiji's Delivery Entrance

Try and imagine that the people from Finding Nemo and Blade Runner decided one sunny morning to collaborate on an elaborate, big-budget snuff film. God, it was beautiful. Oh voice-in-my-head, I love you so; don’t ever change, you embittered, psychotic junkie fuck.

Unlike what I saw at Akihabara, everything I saw at Tsukiji was motion-to-purpose, the blade put to meat meant to feed somebody, not some shiny thing meant to distract. If you only saw pictures of the place you might think the opposite, could easily believe that that Akihabara is the way to go. But you need to see them in person to really feel it, I think; you need to feel the fishmarket rattle and froth around you, to soak in Akihabara’s curious sterility. Nobody at Tsukiji had that terrified otaku inability to look you in the eye or time to wander around slowly deciding what model to buy. The three-foot gaff and four-foot gutting blade in the fishmonger’s stall will never sit idly in a display case, and I saw way more glassy eyes in the store aisles in Electric City than I did packed in ice in the fish market.

While there’s no jihadis or redneck motherfuckers there to throw that occasional horror into the works, at least there’s also not the profound sense that you’re looking at an evolutionary dead end, some cut off island where the animals grow more and more elaborate plumage in response to the lack of real competition. And whatever the future looks like, if all we can muster in response to prospect of the grim meathook future is an exaggerated version of the present, with all that effort put to novelty and trivia, then that will be an enormous failure.

There might be some way to beat that, if we can figure out how to put all that effort towards something meaningful, whatever that turns out to be. But in the meantime, I guess I’d better go learn how to gut a fish.

… and the only prescription is more temple. Apropos of nothing, I was a little surprised by how much Japanese produce I recognized strictly from Mario powerups, though I couldn’t find a place that served a decent radish, mushroom and fire-flower salad.

You Can't Have Too Much Temple

A Shrine Near Kyoto Center

Temple Walkway

You’ll be getting more in this vein for the next few days; Kyoto is to beautiful centuries-old Buddhist temples as Seattle is to Starbucks. They’re everywhere.

Another Temple

Temples, Perspective

The Fire Temple

A Kyoto Graveyard

Leaves

Apparently it is considered to be in extremely poor taste to photograph graves and gravestones. I’m not sure why, but I put forward the argument that since cameras steal a bit of your soul, taking pictures of a soul’s final resting place amounts to spiritual shoplifting. My friends seemed to think that was the dumbest thing I’ve said in some time.

I am only just now restored to connectivity, which means that I will be playing catchup for the next two weeks and for which I humbly apologize. I am in Hong Kong right now; I’ve finally found a good SD/USB widget, so this borrowed PC that I’m working on will now deign to let me back up my photos, an enormous relief to me. My home machine is for some reason inaccessible, a cause of some distress, but I now have backup space available to me, for which I am grateful.

Remember, kids: If you don’t have your data twice, you don’t have it at all.

Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, a morning in Kyoto:

Kyoto Morning

An Alley In Kyoto

Kyoto Station

Leaves

Temple Roof

Prayers and pine needles