Stuff I Say

A Shortage of Critical Reviews and Compelling Applications

Posted in Apple, internet, Mobile Computing, Mobile Telephony by 51future on July 15, 2008

I haven’t had much time to really dive into the App store yet (Only yesterday did I download Aurora Feint (iTMS), for instance…) But I’m really curious why I haven’t seen more critical reviews of App Store applications.

In fact, every single piece of info I’ve seen on Apps so far, with only one exception, has been worthless fluff.

Touch Arcade is a new site looking to capitalize on gaming on the iPhone but as of today it only has one worthwhile review up (of Ms. Pac-Man). The rest of the stories there read more like advertisements and fluff pieces– like the site is trying very hard not to offend anyone in its infancy in order to attract exclusive content later.

On de Blob: “While not as graphically advanced as the forthcoming Wii version, de Blob for iPhone does feature unique, engaging gameplay…”

And: Cubes: “…It’s an easy-paced game that’s fun to play and is well suited to short, broken play sessions while on the go. At $2.99 it doesn’t rob the wallet too notably, either…”

This Wired article reviews five applications but doesn’t really offer me any concrete reasons to download any of the Apps and like everyone else, remains surprisingly positive, even though, for instance, Ultralingua wants to charge us $30 a piece for their dictionaries…

There are no comparisons to web services that offer the same thing for free, for instance, and none of the reviews feel like the reviewer spent more than 5 minutes with the applications in question. The games aren’t compared to each other, even though its clear that there is competition. While there’s enough space on the current generation of iPhones to buy all the games you could play, there’s not really any good reasons for having more than one or two good games on your phone at any given time. Why aren’t these apps being compared to each other and/or even to desktop applications?

John Gruber of DaringFireball has given us a no-bullshit review of the Evernote app: “I can’t understand why anyone would deem an app in this state ready to ship.”

And yesterday there was a lot of noise about Jirbo Inc. and a few other developers jumping the alphabetical queue by inserting spaces and non-standard characters into their app names, but that problem has largely been cleared up. (Apple silently started removing these extra characters.)

Largely though, I think the reason we haven’t seen very many critical reviews is because it’s going to take a few months for the App store to really take off before we see anything really compelling on the iPhone. Right now, App developers have to catch up to all the Web 2.0 sites that have had a year to turn their websites into Safari-Apps. After that, they have to match or beat the performance of Apple’s browser itself if they want to sell their apps for any price greater than free.

Club Activities

Posted in Japan by 51future on July 15, 2008

I was looking around for a story about local governments (here in Japan) pushing for shorter convenience store hours when I came across this story, which I guess is now a dead link to a bunch of comments on a story that has “expired.” (lotwut?) The original story was about the Ministry of Education ushering in longer school hours (again, lolwut– as the comments mention, are they talking about 5AM – 6PM, or 9AM to 10PM?) over the next three years in Japanese elementary and middle schools. The comments, of course, turned to club activities, since club activities are mandatory and often run until 7PM every day after school and usually also run on Saturday and/or Sunday.

I started reading the comments and it made me think about “club activities” here in Japan. I work at a large, Japanese middle school that serves the metropolitan area of a rather large city so we have numerous “clubs” that students are forced to take part in. Yes, unlike American schools, students in Japan are coerced into joining “club activities” and failure to take part in these club activities often carries harsher penalties than say, not attending school itself. At my school, students who skip school or come in at say, 10AM, rather than 8AM, often get a “Good Morning! You’re up early today!” when they do eventually mosey on into the school building and make their way to the nurse’s office; students who skip club activities will find themselves the target of harsh words, significant penalties, parental conferences, and the like. Most students do get some sort of choice as to which club they’re forced into: some choose tennis, others, ‘cleaning club,’ others still, band or track and field. They talk about their club activities in class essays, short sentences, and especially in English class. Their club is often more defining then their name. While we have many 大畑’s, you could more easily determine who is who by their club activity than you could with their names.

The main reason I’m bringing this up is because their are two viewpoints on club activities, usually harshly divided straight down the racial-cultural line. Here’s a typical Western viewpoint:

My daughter’s school had their open house yesterday. From what I saw there was only about 2 kids in every class that showed any interest in what the teacher was doing. About half of the kids were just sitting, eyes down, face hidden, not getting a thing. People always ask us how our daughter does so well at Jr. High. “What juku does she go to?” “How many hours of homework does she do every day?” Besides the obvious, that she has had a more diverse upbringing, all I can say is, she doesn’t go to juku and we tell her she doesn’t need to waste her time on most of the homework if she already knows it. Instead she can do what ever she wants in her free time. Oh, and we didn’t allow our daughter to join a school sports club. The only “down side” is that some of the sluttier girls give her the evil eye because she knows all the answers and the kids that spend all their time studying things they already know are in a panic. Less free time will mean the marks will drop even more.

Contrast that with a typical Japanese view:

a child learns a lot about life through sports (building up a high self-esteem, becoming mentally tough, respect, hard work leads to rewards etc), not to mention bonding with friends, where proxy’s kids’ friends are while his daughter is busy doing god-knows-what with all her free time. I can’t believe how negative some people view things here in Japan. Then again, this is where the pessimists hang out, so there u go. Proxy’s daughter will end up like my a few of my students who cry when they lose a game-based activity.

“Pizzaboy” in this case, sounds like a Japanese teacher, who, by default, invests a lot in club activities. I don’t know the ins-and-outs of a typical Japanese teaching contract, but I do know that most teachers spend an inordinate amount of time at school and I’m relatively sure that they don’t get paid for all (or even most) of it. Teachers here are contract workers, so overtime is a no-go. Most teachers I know, especially new teachers with something to prove will often arrive to work at 6 or 7AM (school officially starts at 8:20AM and contracts usually begin at 8AM– this I’m relatively sure of). Some clubs, in addition to afternoon practice, also practice in the morning. I get to school at 8AM and there are always throngs of kids running laps around the school grounds even at that time. (I arrive 30 minutes early to work every day in order to make the morning meeting. I’m not sure why I do this, since the meeting never ever concerns anything I do, nor am I obligated to go, but that’s another entry entirely.)

School officially ends at around 4:05PM. In the afternoon, most kids I talk to say they stay at school until 7PM, fewer still until 8PM. After that, they often head to night school for even more study and get home just in time to eat a quick dinner and tuck in.

When people ask me about club activities and I tell them that we don’t do that in the States, I usually get a sort of exasperated look, followed by a surprised chirp and a sense of awe. When I tell them that I think students should have a choice in the matter, the conversation usually peters off because well, nobody here feels that way, as far as I can tell. And I think some people have a twisted sense of turnabout and fair play: “I did it when I was a kid, so you have to do it, too.” (After all, what would Japanese families spend time doing together if they ever actually were in the same room at the same time anyway? Madness!)

In any case, I promised myself when I started this blog that I’d keep it topical and that I wouldn’t bitch about my job. I have the job I have because I jumped through a lot of hoops (willingly!) to get it and I even signed up for a second year! I cash my paycheck and I spend the money. Clearly, I’m getting something out of it. However, reading those comments made me realize that I have to ignore quite a bit that goes on around me, namely club activities, in order to continue to perform my job. Club activities don’t affect me. I’m not in a club. I don’t run one. Whether they are there or not has ZERO net effect on my contract or on what I do on a daily basis but that doesn’t change the fact that I think the brainwashing and coercion that takes place in relation to club activities is fucking criminal. And I think that the culture that surrounds them is a disservice to every single Japanese citizen who consciously or unconsciously allows their existence to continue.

Don’t worry, I’ll be back to talking about the App store in a day or two, at most.

SoftBank is Bullshit But I’m Paying Them Anyway

Posted in Apple, Japan, Mobile Computing, Mobile Telephony by 51future on July 12, 2008

Foreigners treated like criminals; not surprising

So have you ever heard of those foreigners who buy cell phone contracts and skip out of the country without paying them? No? That’s weird because I hear it happens all the time. Constantly. Japan’s phones are just so fucking amazing that people come to Japan specifically to buy phones and then skip the country. In fact, you’d be surprised to learn that most foreigners are also criminals and/or terrorists.

What makes all this even worse is that the iPhone is only available in Japan! It’s such an awesome phone that anyone who wants one must come to Japan to buy one. That’s why there are so many foreign criminals paying thousands of dollars for a flight over here just to sign up for a phone they don’t plan on paying for.

Whew. Enough sarcasm.

But yeah, SoftBank is a shitty company that treated me like a criminal and I’m not happy. This is the story I posted on iPhone in Japan:

I got my iPhone today and honestly, it was a pain in the ass.

I went down to the store about an hour after they started selling them, since I only had a half-day off work and started the setup then. About 30 minutes later, after working out my new phone number, getting the contract details and everything else, they told me to go home and come back before 8PM to pick it up since the “foreign registration checking system” was “crowded” today.

About an hour later, I get a call saying that there was a problem with my visa and they told me that I’d have to pay 80,000 yen in full if I wanted to get the phone. (This is a visa with 25 months left on it.) I asked them what the problem was and they said they didn’t know. The head office just called and told them that I’d have to pay the full amount if I wanted to walk away with the phone today. So I went back (without my passport and whatall, since I like to keep that in a safe place at home) and realized that what I should have inferred from the “problem” was that we’d have to start everything all over again from square one.

So I went *back* home and got my passport and whatnot, went to the bank, got my wad and then went and sat down for another 45 minutes where I coached them on how to utilize the iPhone keyboard to type in web addresses to help me (haha) change my email address. After that, I had to choose a new number (yep, the other new number I had chosen was now locked out, lawl) and new details, of which I’m not even sure anymore. After that, they told me to confirm I lived in Gunma-ken??? They claimed my passport said I lived in Gunma-ken (even though we could find no mention of a Japanese address anywhere on my passport or visas, whatever) and when they couldn’t really figure out how to read my foreign card (yes, it’s in Japanese, I don’t know what sort of brain rot was spreading at the SB store today) I just gave them my Japanese license and from there things went smoothly.

Eventually, I walked out of there less 80,000 yen with a new iPhone and a contract that I can end for free at any time which will eventually pay back something like 20,000 yen to me over the one year.

The upside to all this is that my monthly bill is going to be something like 5,300 yen a month, which I can’t really complain about. But yeah, today was hell.

Wish you all luck.

There was a point (after I had come and gone three times to the store) that I thought about vocally complaining rather loudly in Japanese about foreign discrimination, but then I watched another guy, a Japanese security guard who looked like he was just coming off his shift fork out the same 80,000 yen to get the phone as I did. After that, I didn’t feel so bad about paying, even though my unhappiness remained.

There’s plenty of comments in the linked story that point to the same sorts of problems. It makes me glad I’m not a Japanese person or a citizen of Japan. And it makes me sad that I’ve spent all this time learning this language.

Meanwhile, there’s this analysis of the iPhone: “It’s like a foreigner who speaks excellent Japanese!”

Everybody’s covered the contract bit, but about the dodgy Nikkei Trendy headline – it’s perhaps based on stuff like this:

ただ、日本に上陸して間もないせいか、どうしても日本の文化になじめないところがあるのも事実。絵文字を受信すると、SMSだと「□」、メールは「〓」になってしまう。知らない言葉は理解しようともしてくれない。日本語が上手いからと、気軽に接していると、意外なところで、「育った環境が違うんだねぇ」と驚くこともしばしば。

Basically it understands the language, but without knowing the culture it screws up here and there, with the example being moji-bake-ing emoji – that will mean it will sell approximately zero to any woman under 35…

Then, to track shares you need to use the four-letter code, these’s no way to search names in Japanese.

Then there’s no One Seg or Osaifu Keitai, no 5MP camera, YouTube is too slow over 3G and there’s the lack of public WiFi here.

The conclusion seems to be picturing the iPhone as an American “Cool Beauty” – do you ditch the reliable Japanese model for a bit of foreign adventure?

Why are phones supposed to be free, anyway?

Posted in Apple, Japan, Mobile Computing, Mobile Telephony by 51future on July 8, 2008

I like the iPhone a lot and as such, I’ve been following all sorts of discussions on the launch. Pretty obvious right? But one thing I don’t understand is this notion a lot of people have that phones should be free. Or at least subsidized.

Why do people think that?

I mean, I don’t go to my cable company and ask them to subsidize my computer when I buy internet service, even though a computer without internet is, in this day and age, a lot like a phone without service. Nor do I ask the 7-11 to subsidize my car, even though my car is nothing more than a heavy metal box without gasoline. So why should our phones be any different?

I was discussing the iPhone with my supervisor here, because my supervisor is 27 years old and I feel that he has a pretty good grasp on the world. I relate to him better than any other co-worker of mine, and I was pretty sure that even though, yes, we’re out in the middle of bumfuck nowhere, he would be at least peripherally aware of the iPhone.

He was.

He sounded somewhat excited and thought that the whole thing sounded like a sound purchase. “It’s an iPod Touch with phone service,” he said. “All for a relatively low monthly cost. I think it’s a good deal.” Something that he understood well, though, was the idea that the iPhone was cheaper than an iPod touch, and in many respects, theoretically free. Most cell contracts here cost more than the 3,500円 per month that I pay. One of my co-workers pays around 12,000円 a month, most of that goes to the packet transmission fee for the e-mails he sends. Now, most phones in Japan are not free. Sure, there are usually 5-10 models per store that are 0円 (or sometimes, 1円), but most phones, especially the nice ones that you hear about when people run their mouth off about how “Japanese phones run circles around supercomputers,” cost anywhere from 10,000円 to 30,000円+. Yes, these phones probably are subsidized to a point, but the fact of the matter is, they still cost money.

Personally, I think the lie that is free phones, is one that the carriers have propagated in order to keep people locked into contracts by convincing them that if they don’t, the price of phones will be far and beyond what people can or are willing to pay. That may be true. Fewer people are willing to spend 80,000円 for an unsubsidized iPhone (the rumored price of such a beast, at least here in Japan) than are willing to take an iPhone home for no charge up front and pay 1,500円 or 2,300円 per month that disappears into a larger, more robust phone bill. But for some inane reason, people are willing to spend 48,800円 on a 16GB iPod Touch. Why?

Because AT&T and Co. have trained us to believe that phones become useless as soon as you disconnect them from the network, in the same way that they tried to convince us of the same thing years ago:

Bell could effectively prohibit its customers from connecting phones not made or sold by Bell companies to the system without leasing fees. For example, if a customer desired a type of phone not leased by the local Bell monopoly, one had to purchase the phone at cost, give it to the phone company, then pay a ‘re-wiring’ charge and a monthly lease fee in order to use it.

“We’re as flexible as copper tubing,” says DoCoMo Pres. Ryuji Yamada

Posted in Apple, Mobile Computing, Mobile Telephony by 51future on July 4, 2008

DoCoMo Remains “Flexible” in iPhone Talks

DoCoMo, which has been in discussions with Apple to offer the iPhone, ‘hasn’t given up yet,” Yamada said June 23.

DoCoMo claims that they “remain flexible” and are still interested in the iPhone in Japan. Personally though, I think this analysis is closer to the truth.

Analysts seem to think that the problem is that DoCoMo wants to put iMode on the device, but I disagree with their assertion that time is the issue.

I imagine there are some fundamental issues with the whole “unfettered internet” paradigm, mostly because the guy behind “iMode” DoCoMo’s “popular” (read, everyone is forced to use this on their phones) internet platform thinks he’s a visionary. Sure, iMode is successful, but that’s a given, there is no alternative on a DoCoMo phone. AU has their own internet portal on their phones, too. It’s really all the same. It’s a walled garden with lots of opportunities to spend money on ringtones, games, SMS messages, and the like. Giving people the whole internet conflicts with the the idea of keeping people imprisoned. Without a way to completely neuter the internet experience on the iPhone, I imagine that DoCoMo will continue to “negotiate.”

This is undoubtedly a philosophical issue, since they could easily roll up an iMode app in the SDK and just install it on every new phone by default. The trick is that Apple is the one who has the keys to the experience and they know that if they give them up, it’s no longer an iPhone.

Apple too has their own “walled garden” in the App Store, but in this case, they’re only attempting to control the hardware, not the entire internet\.

Japanese People May or May Not Be Interested in the iPhone

Posted in Apple, Mobile Computing, Mobile Telephony by 51future on July 3, 2008

It’s hard to tell.

The survey–this time conducted when people had heard a bit more about the iPhone and its pricing–gave a list of several devices either just out or soon to come out. The iPhone was #1 on the wish-list of the Japanese respondents…

Even the 9% survey was a stretch–if 9% of Japanese cell phone owners bought an iPhone, it’d be a coup for Apple and Softbank. But 58%?

Basically, there was this survey that I saw some press on briefly in June, talking about the iPhone, which is now contradicted by another survey by the same company? that says that 58% of the respondents were most interested in the iPhone out of a group of upcoming and/or currently released smartphones. But even before that there was this survey that was done around the release of the original iPhone that said that 40% were interested in the iPhone– and that was the model without GPS or 3G.

I think the big difference here is that the survey conducted in June was based on a negative headline: “iPhoneにない“電池交換機能”に高いニーズ” and was primarily about whether or not people wanted a Softbank iPhone. It contained a lot of leading questions like (literally translated): “It’s been decided that Softbank will release the new iPhone; do you want it?” I can’t find a link to this newer survey in Japanese but according to Nikkei Electronics, it sounds like this new survey was primarily aimed at smartphone users, which obviously would come to different conclusions than the previously released figures.

But I think the most important information here is the fact that most Japanese smartphone users wanted to limit their monthly access fee, which sounds like a bad translation to me, but I assume that this means that they’d like to curtail the high fees that are usually associated with unlimited data. Softbank charges about 1,628円 per megabyte of data transmission off-plan, so it’s not surprising that people were worried about data charges. I pay even more for my data at DoCoMo (about 1,000円 for 128kb of data by my calculations– that’s on a “packet plan” too). Which is why I pleasantly surprised by the price of Softbank’s unlimited iPhone data plan for 5,985円 per month, even though a few people I talked to in the USA were shocked by the price.

But it’s clear that a lot of people remain duped by the phone companies. From the looks of the survey, it looks like their business customers don’t even realize that the e-mail they send is considered data, nor do they realize, I imagine, the theoretical utility of a VoIP application on an ubiquitous 3G network like Japan’s. Although it’s pretty unclear what exactly people on their phones are doing when I hear things like this:

Those free minutes may mean more to you, but not to me–I make phone calls other than to my wife maybe once a week, most often to my office.

Diablo 3, Time Capsule Compatibility Update, and More Octopus Sex

Posted in Apple, Gadgetry, gaming by 51future on July 1, 2008

Time Capsule and Airport updates released

The interesting thing about this is that this update may have corrected the inherent incompatibility with Microsoft’s Xbox 360 Wifi dongle… From the comments at TUAW:

It also seems to fix the incompatibility issue with the official Microsoft Xbox Live Adapter on the Xbox 360.

I just uploaded the firmware and was successful in getting on Live via my wireless network.

Diablo 3 design fundamentals explained at a Worldwide Invitational panel. Diablo has always been akin to digital crack for me. I own 2 Diablo 2 Battle Chests as well as a separate copy of Diablo 2 and LoD. The design philosophy looks sound, in typical Blizzard fashion.

In an effort to increase my overall traffic, I’m decided to mention octopus sex in this one. It’s a hot topic these days.

Why You Should Vote for Barack Obama

Posted in Apple, politics by 51future on July 1, 2008

Softbank released their prices and I’m pretty satisfied with them. On Softbank’s White Plan we don’t get any “minutes” persay, beyond unlimited free calling to other Softbank users handsets during the day (1AM – 9PM), but that doesn’t really bother me. On my plan at DoCoMo I think I have something like 25 minutes free prepaid, along with something like 1Mb or 100Kb of data (for e-mail) and I pay 3,650 yen a month, which is the cheapest plan I’ve ever seen anyone on in Japan. Because voice rates are pretty expensive here, most people just text each other. However, even if I wanted to make a lot of calls (I have no one to talk, really) 20円 per minute isn’t bad at all. Typically, I make about 15 minutes of calls a month, maybe a few more if we have some kind of event coming up or something. In any case, Softbank’s iPhone plans include unlimited data, which means we aren’t getting screwed like those forced to deal with Roger’s. (That link is currently down, it looks like, but hit Engadget or Digg and do a search for “iPhone, Rogers” to get the gist of it.)

Meanwhile, Senator Orrin Hatch has given me one more reason to vote for Barrack Obama in the upcoming election: Obama doesn’t liberally spam my inbox!

Spam from the Republican Party

Usually, it wouldn’t bother me, but somehow this shit manages to get through Gmail’s spam filter and make it as far as Mail.app’s junk box. Gmail will eventually get the hint and start trashing Republican money-grabs as spam, but I still need to log in and actually mark it, which is a pain in my ass. Unsubscribing is a joke. I shouldn’t have to unsubscribe to something I never signed up for in the first place. Don’t they have laws against this kind of thing?