Monday, August 31, 2009

Battling cultures in the world of tech support

I ran into a rather interesting snag this past week that was, at least to me, most unexpected.

So my girlfriend's computer has been giving her an odd error involving memory/space allocation or some such nonsense, which I for the life of me could not fix. This along with some less than ideal partitioning and some other things made me decide it'd be easier to just start from scratch with a fresh install. She doesn't have a recovery disk or anything, so I used a fresh copy of English Windows XP.

Now in what I would consider normal circumstances, you can go to the homepage of most laptop manufacturers and download any drivers you might need, or at least find out which drivers to look for and find them elsewhere. A visit to the Sharp Japan homepage, however, gives no such information.

Furthermore, clicking on the "support" button is rather telling I think in the difference in mentalities between Japanese service and American service. They give you 4 options: 1) I don't know how to use my computer, 2) I'd like to send my computer in for service, 3) I'd like you to setup my computer for me, and 4) I want to upgrade my computer. Further clicking shows that you can call their call center for the first year for free advice (pay after that), or bring it in and pay them to look at it. In the US, they couldn't be happier to have you try and fight with it yourself, as it'll save them time and effort.

So not only can I not find driver or specific hardware information, there is nowhere on the website that I can find an option to simply ask them for such information, or even advice without paying. Not even a simple email. I went through their FAQ on re-installation, and the only thing they mention on hardware drivers is to use their reinstall disk.

Just for a bit of balance, I went to the Dell support page to check, and sure enough "drivers and downloads" was the first option on the list. In my time here, it seems to me that either people are less willing to try to take on a task themselves or maybe just merely don't have the time to, and are thus much more dependent upon the service industries.

This could be a chicken/egg argument as I'm not sure which is the cause and which is the result and, albeit to a lesser extent, this exists at home as well, but this is far from an isolated case. You get looks of amazement telling most people out here that you've changed not only your own oil, but also your own brakes and so on. Now granted, in this case there is also the problem of having the space to work on your own car, but the fact that most people wouldn't even consider trying to pick up a wrench themselves is beyond me. I've heard stories from a particular friend married to a Japanese man who has wound up looking up how to fix her toilet herself when the husband didn't know where to begin. TV's broken? Well it's too hard to even think about fixing, better just buy a new one.

I'm sure that at least to some extent most of these are cases where the money spent for these services is for the saved time it allows, but there's also that element of Eastern willful interdependence vs. Western individualistic mistrust. Japanese companies further fuel this by basically saying "that's really complicated, you wouldn't understand. Just leave it to me."

Nah, I think I'd still rather figure it out myself and learn something in the process.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Unexpected lessons from life in Japan

Note: Edited Oct. 20 to officially add #10.

So having spent 4 of the last 10 years of my life abroad now, it's interesting to look back and see some of the less obvious things that I've learned in my time in Japan and roaming around. I'm sure there's plenty more I'm not thinking of, this is just off the top of my head.

1. What a real cockroach looks like.
By the time I first stepped foot in Japan I already knew a bit of the language, but the first new word I learned was 'gokiburi', or cockroach. Japanese roaches can get frickin' huge, and unless you have lived either Japan, Texas or somewhere south of the border or tropical, then I doubt you really know what I'm talking about here. Besides that though, the greater point here is that there is a whole world of disgusting and scary bugs out there that I was never aware of until coming here - 2" cockroaches, poisonous centipedes, giant moths and most recently swarms of little gnat-like flies that simply will not go away... I'll get back to that one later. To be fair though, there are cool bugs too like kabutomushi and praying mantises, which if you're lucky will feast on unassuming cockroaches.

2. Whale isn't so hot, but horse meat is actually pretty good.
If you live somewhere halfway across the globe, you're more than likely going to have to eat the local food or else pay out the ass to maintain your old eating habits. Luckily in Japan this isn't too bad since most of the food is excellent. This also includes being a bit adventurous sometimes, and I've taken some rather wild culinary adventures which have included whale meat, fugu, raw horse, fish scrotums, python-flavored ice cream, several tropical fruits I never even knew existed... and an overnight stay in a Bangkok hospital, but we won't talk about that one. The view was nice, at least. At the top of my list for "exotic" (Japan doesn't really feel so exotic after a while, thus the quotes) foods, I would say do try raw horse (basashi), fugu and eel (anago if they have it, unagi if they don't), stay away from fish scrotums (shirako), and only eat whale or sea urchin (uni) if you haven't tried it and want to, just once for the experience.

3. Most sauces and dressings are really simple to make.
I cook way more since coming to Japan - mostly because it's cheaper and healthier. I do make local stuff as well, but sometimes you just want a little taste of home. The only problem is that a lot of times the sauces and dressings you're used to back home are prohibitively expensive, if you can find them at all. Luckily, in times like this there is the interweb, with a little place called Can't find bbq sauce? No problem - do you have ketchup, sugar and red wine? Ranch dressing? Well that's just mayo, sour cream, garlic, onion and few other spices. I've figured out how to make a whole bunch of things from scratch out of necessity, and had plenty of fun along the way.

4. 3USD/gallon for gas is pretty damn cheap.

Growing up in the US, it's easy to become disillusioned about fuel prices, and really the cost of driving overall. You don't think about it, but we have government subsidies to thank for artificially lower gas prices than the rest of the civilized world as well as a mostly toll-free national highway system. Out here they'll charge you about as much for a liter as you would get a gallon in the US for, and there is not one section of highway that doesn't charge a toll. Luckily there's an easy way to get around the whole thing here - trains. You guys should look into those. :P

5. Toilet paper and toilets that have seats and flush are a luxury.
Wow- you would not believe the spectrum of toiletry you find in Asia! Starting off in Japan is actually pretty tame, although you do get to run the entire bathroom gauntlet from its traditional squatters (supposedly crouching helps things come out, but I'm not going to find out) to talking washlets that can make artificial flushing noises so no one hears you fart if you're concerned about that kind of thing. Once you get used to that go out to a place like Thailand, where I looked for toilet paper and instead saw a bucket of water with a small cup inside to wash myself with. Or China, where a friend of mine not only had to squat, but did so right next to other guys with no walls between them. Lovely stuff.

6. The whole world does not share my affection for cheese, and Chicken Kung Pao is not real Chinese food
It was almost traumatic the first time I went to a Japanese supermarket and looked for the cheese section. It was a selection of two types: sliced and grated. Simply another one of those products that isn't used in cooking as much as back home, so you don't find it as much (see #3 above). Also though, going to restaurants you'll find that things aren't served the same as you're used to. You may find a "hamburger steak", and when they bring you a side of fries you may get a single packet of ketchup when you expected them to just leave the bottle. Or even worse, they may just give you a dollup of mayonnaise! If you go to a Chinese restaurant, don't bother looking for General Tso's Chicken or Chicken Kung Pao, but say hello to gyoza and shumai. There's also Japanese interpretations of Italian, Thai, Indian and just about any other food you can think of which will more than likely be different than what you're used to. This can be doubly true if it's the Japanese interpretation of your own country's food - do not go to a Japanese Denny's as you will be most disappointed.

7. Never get an apartment on the 1st floor.

This may be more true here than back home, but God living on the 1st floor has more drawbacks than I could ever imagine! When you search for an apartment here, they list "2nd floor and above only" as a possible search criterion, and I now know why. I thought it was just a girl thing - not wanting neighborhood pervs stealing their panties and peering in to see them change and all (anyone who knows me knows that I have no problem with being seen less than fully dressed). But oh no, it doesn't stop there. First, it was the additional moisture, which gives way to mold. I have had mold on my floors, in the bathroom, on my clothes... on my couch! And then there's the bugs... they stay close to the ground, and we get them all. Never again, never again.

8. Platypodes lactate but don't have nipples, and other fun facts.
Ok, so this one doesn't actually directly relate to the point that I wanted to make per se, but it is an interesting and random fact that I looked up at work one day so I'm going to let it ride. I find out all sorts of interesting tidbits of useful uselessness for work looking stuff up on wikipedia among other sources. Some recent findings are where Toyota got the name 'corolla' from (it's actually the name for the petals of a flower) and that Princess Di was actually cursed by ancient Japanese superstitions. Sometimes it's more interesting than other times, and this is something that probably would've happened no matter where I work, but I'm guessing my job being here has me looking up different things than you would back home.

9. Lorries, boots and general dodginess.
An interesting thing happens when all of a sudden English is the common language between you and people from all over the world - you learn all sorts of quirky localisms from all 4 corners of the globe. This goes doubly true when you are asked at work to "fix" your own Americanisms to match a text to what someone in the UK (or Kenya, apparently) expects to see. Trucks suddenly become lorries, and Sarah Palin goes from being a dangerously uninformed extremist to merely being a wanker. This knowledge becomes doubly useful when on a night on the town with your new neighbor from New Zealand or Egypt, or somewhere else you're not likely to have ever actually been yourself (if you have then good for you). Now why a globe has four corners I have not a clue, but you will be sure that I shall be looking it up later per #8.

10. All the Stuff I've learned about Brazil. (added Oct. 20)
The last thing you expect coming to a country is learning about elsewhere in the world, but the truth of the matter is that you being fellow foreigners with others sometimes means you'll make bonds with a rather international crew. Since coming to Japan I have friends in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, England, Switzerland, Australia, Brazil, Korea... I could go on. I started capoeira out here too, which means I could find a place to stay in Brazil, no problem.

That's about all I have for now - if you have any additions of your own, feel free to comment.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Shinkansen vs. HSR in the US - background

I've been rather busy lately, but now that I have a little free time I'd like to take the opportunity to comment on an issue that I find interesting - the recent talk I've seen about establishing high-speed rail in the US, and more often than not the reasons it won't work. You of course see people pointing to examples in Europe, Japan, even China and Korea, but people discount these examples of integrated public transportation systems that work by saying that there's no way it'd work with the sprawl of the US. There's a small nugget of truth nestled in that pile of bullshit - let me give you a little background on the conversation before going through what I've ascertained.

The Discussion

First off, the detractors - freakonomics has a post commenting on a rather negative assessment on the economics of HSR in the US by another economist over at the Times, Edward Glaeser of the economix blog. The freakonomics post references a certain Randal O'Toole critique from the CATO institute, who recently commented that NYC would be better by replacing their subway with busses, because that would make driving in the worst traffic in the country just that much more pleasant don't you know. The economix post talks about a hypothetical, stand-alone Dallas-Houston HSR line, which is pretty much doomed for failure from the beginning... at least from an economic standpoint.

On the other end of the spectrum you have the train geeks and those pushing for updates to the transportation system, such as the proposed line in California and the Midwest connector centering around Chicago, the latter of which has some good direct response to a few arguments against rail. I've also seen reference to other lines which are prospering despite all those who said it was foolish to try building them.

Background on Japanese Rail

Also just to give you a little idea of where I'm coming from, here's where Japan stands on things. The shinkansen, Japan's HSR system, has been around since 1964 and has transported more passengers (over 6 billion) in its lifetime than any other HSR system in the world. This covers 2,459 km (1,528 mi.) of track servicing most of the greater cities from Kyushu to Tohoku - once the Kyushu extensions are completed next year, you'll be able to go all the way from Kagoshima at the southern tip of Kyushu to Aomori at the top of the Tohoku area, with further extension into Hokkaido up to Sapporo planned. The busiest line is the Tokaido line between Tokyo and Osaka, which carries 151 million passengers a year, runs 10 trains per hour in either direction with 16 cars each, and goes up to 270km/h (168mph). Other trains see speeds up to 300km/h, with new trains to start service soon to further up that to 320km/h. According to numbers from 2007, the shink was more competitive than other modes of transportation for trips between 100 and 500 mi., holding 66% of the share of trips between 313 and 460 mi. (21% and 11% for air and cars respectively over the same distance). (source)

This of course only builds upon Japan's already expansive local rail systems, which permeate the entire country. While they do have their problems, the trains, when combined with busses, make owning a car a total luxury for most anyone living at least in the greater Tokyo area, including much of Chiba, Kanagawa (including Yokohama and Kawasaki) and Saitama prefectures, which in total account for 35 million people or roughly 27% of the current national population. Add in The Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto metropolitan area with its 18.6 million population and you're up to over 40% of the country in these two major centers alone. The entire nation's population has gradually relocated as development has gradually centered around this rail system, making full use of the investments.

The Effects

There are of course going to be the obvious energy efficiency and air pollution effects. It also lowers use of oil of which is all imported in Japan due to lack of resources, and makes it run on electricity, which can be run by local resources. A good portion of Japan's power is thermally produced using fossil fuels, but it also has a lot of hydroelectric power and is one of the biggest users of nuclear power in the world.

Shinkansen and regular rail line development have totally rearranged the Japanese economy and lifestyle. Besides just connecting locations and making it easier to get around, bigger stations are bustling economic centers, with department stores, shops and just about anything you can think of. As mentioned before, you'll notice that real estate along rail lines is at a premium since everyone wants to be in an accessable location. New stations, whether local lines or shink lines, can totally revitalize local economies.

To take myself as an example, a bicycle, trains and busses get me pretty much anywhere I could possibly want to go on a daily basis, and I live about 30-minutes by train from anywhere that would be considered "downtown". I have about a 13-minute walk to the closest station, which is considered far by Tokyo standards.

The Costs

Certainly not cheap. Initial costs of the Tokaido line was 380 billion yen back in 1959 (1.055 billion USD, equivalent to 7.71 billion in modern terms). Due to it's great success, however, the loans were repaid by 1971, and it has been highly profitable ever since. The budget back in 2007 for new lines was 263.7 billion yen (~2.2B USD), shared between the national and local governments. The latest proposal is for maglev upgrades between Tokyo and Osaka at $82.5 billion with a big ol' "B" in USD, which while it would be cool, I'm still not totally convinced are necessary given Japan's already great transportation system.

Other Factors

Some factors make construction more expensive in Japan than they would be pretty much anywhere else, but 70% of this is civic engineering costs needed for all the tunnels (2/3rds of the country is mountainous), bridges and strengthening to account for the effects of earthquakes and heavy rain. Another caveat to keep in mind when applying Japanese rail figures to international debates is that there is next to no demand for freight trains in Japan due to it being surrounded by sea and having most all major centers on the coastlines. Sea freight dominates long distances, and trucks pick up the local slack. (source)

Next time I'll talk more about what I think the problems are with the arguments against HSR.