I Drink Your Milkshake

Data slurp (v) Compiling user data, especially personally identifiable user data, in order to make money from advertising. Companies that do this (such as Facebook and Google) push users to provide as much information about themselves as possible in an attempt to collapse the public and private spheres of life, while making it difficult to opt out of or learn more about such data gathering. See the Daniel-Day Lewis explanation for more information.

Data-slurp acquisition (DSA) (n) – Purchasing a company for the express purpose of acquiring extant user data — usually much to the horror of the existing user base.

I posted a bit about the ‘slurping’ phenomenon in my post about Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp, but I wanted to pose a few additional questions now that Facebook has added Move to its stable of data-slurpers, and changing Move’s privacy policy to allow for data slurping (h/t @gruber).

Some questions, since I’m not really up on the latest in the legalities of data wrangling:

-I was under the impression that by law users are required to be informed of any privacy policy changes, and that companies can’t proceed under the new policy until agreed to- is this true?

-If true, how do data-slurpers handle user data? Say I used Move and quit using it in disgust when I found out Facebook bought them without agreeing to a new Privacy Policy — this isn’t the case with WhatsApp, by the way, because their Policy explicitly allowed them to transfer user data in the event of a DSA. Does Facebook have the right to my data?

-If not, how do they go about parsing it, and what do they do with the old data? Do they specifically have a column in their database for ‘agreed to the latest policy’, and they only search through records that have that bit flipped? Do they just dump the data from users that haven’t agreed to the new policy within 30 days?

-This might be an extremely silly question, but who enforces that?

Given that these DSAs are coming fast and furious, inquiring minds might want to know. It would be kind of nice to not be blind-sided by such an acquisition in the future.

The Case for &

I use Twitter daily and almost exclusively for my social network needs. I get most of my ‘breaking news’ from Twitter, and keep in touch with friends and colleagues there. I prefer Twitter compared to other social platforms like Facebook or Google+ because a) it’s an easy format to skim through in bite-size chunks and b) there’s not as much insistence from Twitter that I use my real name, provide a ton of personal information about myself. This collapse of the public and the personal spheres of a person’s life is the biggest danger from social networking right now in my opinion, but that’s a topic for a different rant.

The main issue that I have with Twitter in terms of missing functionality is that there is no means to speak to a group privately.

There’s multiple ways to publicly (or semi-publicly) address one or a number of users, but privately you can only talk to one user at a time. But semi-public is not private. There’s a lot of people that use Twitter for, say, arranging meet-ups between friends that are all on Twitter, but there’s no way to do so in private without being driven to other venues for those communications, such as text messaging and (ugh) Facebook.

And this is a problem. I’ve always felt a little strange about the semi-public nature of @-messages when talking with people I know in real life, because if I’m @-messaging with Friend A and Friend B about meeting up later, then Friend C also sees everything I’m posting in the conversation. Not to mention I’ve also given Stranger D a heads-up because he follows Friend A and Friend B. This is not a hypothetical event — I’ve had more than one such conversation interrupted by some random guy that nobody in the conversation has ever met chiming in with his recommendation for a bar to meet at. It would be nice to not have to rely on good social etiquette (online or otherwise) from anonymous people when talking with friends.

The other big shortcoming I run into is engaging in group conversations where you have 3 or 4 or 5 Twitter handles in there — they tend to steamroll as more friends comment — and it cuts down the allotted 140 characters by half or more.

My solution to the above problems would be a private group messaging feature that I’m calling &. Read it as ‘and’, such as &geekpondering. I’m going to discuss a little bit more about the benefits of this feature, some implementation ideas that I have, and I’ll finish off with some of the drawbacks that come to mind.

Users talking privately to multiple people either on an ad-hoc basis or part of a named group and still have most of their 140 characters would expand Twitter’s functionality, and in a very good way. It’s not just for setting up a night on the town. I think the killer use-case on the user side is marketing. Consider, say, a well-known rock band has a private group that they could add their fans to. They could use this group to pre-announce tour dates, post members-only links to unreleased songs, recruit for a street team, host a live Q&A with the band, etc, etc. Only some of this outreach is possible using a private Twitter account, and to my knowledge very few private Twitter accounts are used for this purpose mainly due to the headaches of managing a lot of users.

Since there’s always great ideas that don’t make financial sense for a company to implement, the question needs to be asked- What’s in it for Twitter? And the answer is: more participation and more metadata. I believe group messaging would encourage people to be more active on Twitter, and not just consume- currently Twitter is like a firehose, and it’s up to users to decide how to narrow the firehose to an acceptable signal to noise ratio. Group messaging would allow users to join in on topics that they are interested in.

Twitter tracks all sorts of information now to pass on to their advertisers, like how many people have clicked on a travel section link from New York Times in the last 90 days? How many users in the city of Austin follow Lady Gaga’s Twitter account? etc. Group private messages would provide much more focus on what people read — i.e., which groups they belong to and what information they are most passionate about, i.e., which groups they actively participate in. More participation and more metadata means more profit down the line.

Implementation details:

  • Twitter could make it as simple as having a button to start a private conversation, and a user can either add users to that conversation or it can use the existing users from a public thread. This could be implemented to simply enable group direct messaging, another often called-for feature. But I think the real magic would happen if there were named groups that users could create and maintain for ongoing conversations. Twitter could even create built-in ones that they moderate, like &twitter-politics or &twitter-baseball.
  • Everyone could start off with their twitter handle as a group name — i.e., I’d automagically own the &geekpondering group. Users would have the option of adding all users that currently follow that handle as members of the group or manually adding users to their group, and also set whether they have read-only access or read-write access. If Twitter really wanted to get snazzy, they could allow multiple administrators per group.
  • Members of the group that have write access could simply post to that group by starting a tweet with &geekpondering, and every member of the group would receive that message. Since it’s private, members of the group cannot retweet a group message just as they can’t retweet a DM, and blocked users who are a member of a group along with someone blocking them wouldn’t see any messages from the blocker within that group.
  • The Twitter app and 3rd-Party apps can add neato functionality for ‘starting a new chat’, ‘new group from existing participants’, easy group management support, etc.

For the sake of completeness, I’ll cover some of the possible down-sides:

  • & would become a reserved term like @, but it’s would only activate a private group message when used at the beginning of a tweet, so if people accidentally put a space or add the group name later in the tweet, the tweet would be public. And typing the wrong group name would send that message to the wrong group of people.
  • Once a large number of groups get going, it’ll be tough to remember which groups you belong to, who belongs to that group, what is on topic, what permissions (read/write/admin) you are assigned. This can be solved somewhat with autocompletion that already happens on most clients.
  • Being social on the internet means friction between people, and groups would add an additional layer to that. There’d be administrator turf wars even if there aren’t multiple admins for a group. Even now there’s people in charge of company Twitter accounts that go rogue. Users would get their feelings hurt by not being included in a group, or getting kicked out of one. Additionally, different users have different ideas of what ‘should’ be public and not.
  • On the user side, managing a large number of users might get a little unwieldy. Twitter would have to create strict limitations on how many invites to groups you can submit, because an owner of a popular group is going to get swarms of invite requests from spambots. Twitter or 3rd party clients could include the functionality to mass-add users that have requested admittance, and then admins can manually boot out unruly users when needed.
  • Looking at it from Twitter’s point of view, groups might not be used much by the casual user that Twitter is trying to attract. They’ve also hinted that they are moving  away from punctuation-based tweets. From a technical perspective, groups add a number of complicating factors to Twitter’s setup. It took a very long time and an immense amount of code and hardware for Twitter to stabilize their existing platform, and that’s without having to handle varying group membership and access control lists.

I think this sort of feature would add an extra, missing dimension to Twitter, because it would partition the firehose of tweets that come at people, which in turn would increase engagement and therefore profitability.  Decide for yourself whether you think this would be a good idea, and hit me up on Twitter.

The Shaming of Brendan Eich

There’s a lot of navel gazing going on regarding Brendan Eich’s stepping down at Mozilla due to the anti-bigotry campaign mounted against him, and whether its acceptable to use such tactics. Sam Smith at Scholars and Rouges has a good piece on this, but I wanted to make some specific comments on Conor Friedersdorf’s Atlantic piece where he says such campaigns create a chilling effect. Proposition 8 was legislation founded in hatred, and I think it’s perfectly reasonable to confront hatred and attempt to eliminate it via peaceful means, full stop. Friedersdorf makes the point that when Prop 8 was passed, a large portion of Americans, including Barack Obama, opposed gay marriage. But that doesn’t matter. Was Strom Thurmond a racist when he left the Democratic Party in 1948 because of Truman’s integration of the US military and other civil rights moves? Would it be wrong to continue to suspect his ability to protect the interests of minorities in his later years in office? How about if he had been hired CEO of a company?

Friedersdorf comments that given Eich’s public comments after being hired as CEO: “no one had any reason to worry that Eich, a longtime executive at the company, would do anything that would negatively affect gay Mozilla employees.

Why? Because he said so? Eich was on the board of Mozilla, and was the CTO of Mozilla, but up until he was hired as CEO he didn’t have direct operational control over “anything that would negatively affect gay Mozilla employees.” Note: I don’t know the circumstances of Eich’s departure from the Mozilla Foundation, but if he was forced to resign from the Foundation as well, that IMO is wrong)

Continuing on, Friedersdorf makes a claim that I think is incomplete: “Calls for his ouster were premised on the notion that all support for Proposition 8 was hateful, and that a CEO should be judged not just by his or her conduct in the professional realm, but also by political causes he or she supports as a private citizen.

and then: “Would American society be better off if stakeholders in various corporations began to investigate leadership’s political activities on abortion and to lobby for the termination of anyone who took what they regard to be the immoral, damaging position?

Yes and no. If a company has a mission statement pushing openness and using technology and their business for good as Mozilla does, it’s certainly troubling that they hire a (IMO) bigot to be CEO. That doesn’t mean ALL leadership need to be investigated. Additionally, while there was some outrage when his Prop 8 donation came out, there wasn’t a big push for Eich to step down from the Mozilla Foundation. But yes, I think people with operational control of corporations, especially hiring and firing, need to be held to account for the things they say and do, including who they donate money to. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean you have immunity in the marketplace of ideas for what you say and do. If Eich had donated to the Hobby Lobby legal defense fund, I would be just as concerned about his behavior regarding women’s health.

Friedersdorf makes the argument that since Mozilla is a California corporation, Eich could do no wrong even if he is a bigot: “Proposition 8 was overturned. Gay marriage is legal in California. Having a CEO who opposed gay marriage now would in no way diminish equal marriage rights for gays.

Except, y’know, not all Mozilla employees live and work in California. Not all of them work in the United States. Not all gay rights issues have to do with marriage. Did you know there’s still 29 US States where you can be fired for being gay?

I don’t think the campaign against Eich was irrational or illiberal. People have every right to their opinion, and I’m sure there’s plenty of CEOs who are a little squicked out by the idea of gay marriage but nevertheless don’t fire openly gay employees or put policies in place that discriminate against them. Eich, however, donated a thousand dollars to the Prop 8 campaign, and to this day apparently hasn’t changed his mind regarding gay marriage. I don’t think this is a matter of a litmus test or getting an apology. This shouldn’t be something to get the torches and pitchforks out for. It’s a matter of trust. A CEO or anyone else with control over hiring practices shouldn’t be a bigot. I don’t think that’s a controversial position to take. I think it’s actually a happy day when a company is required to change it’s employment practices even for those at the top, making it clear that bigotry isn’t welcome.

On the Tech Bus Protests

It looks like the tech bus protests are continuing in force, now with extra vomit.

I’m a little torn on the whole thing, because when I lived in the Bay Area I actually rode one of those buses to work every day for a year. I couldn’t have lived in SF without it, because commuting to the South Bay sucks otherwise. And that’s kind of the point. Right or wrong, there certainly wouldn’t be as many tech workers living and working in SF if those bus systems didn’t exist. If you provide that sort of service people will start using it, and then start demanding an expansion of that service, which is exactly what’s happened with the private buses. My main objection to the buses is that instead of the city/region investing in good mass transit, they’ve let private buses come in and create a two-tier system that won’t easily go away. Even if they extended BART to Mountain View through the Peninsula tomorrow, Google and Google workers feel much safer working on proprietary code on a Google-run bus than on public transit, for example.

But the housing problem in SF has very little to do with tech workers and everything to do with lack of supply. San Francisco has a height limitation for buildings in much of the city (I think it’s 65′), so even if developers wanted to build more high rises they can’t. San Francisco proper is one of the most highly desirable areas of the country to live right now, and moral or not, I don’t think it’s exactly reasonable to expect that existing residents can both NIMBY their way to keep the city’s character the way it is AND expect that people aren’t going to be evicted or otherwise priced out of the city. Regardless of the rent control or other measures put in place, market forces are going to be too strong. I see SF as being the ‘Manhattan’ of the Bay Area, and both mass transit and urban density should be developed accordingly. Market forces will do what they will, but cities certainly can (and in my opinion, should) shape the results of those forces. While density will probably increase in the long run, the city should use urban planning to encourage mass transit usage, walkability, and local ownership of shops and restaurants. Areas like SOMA are the wrong way to develop, in my opinion- It’s a sanitized version of SF that’s a second-worst of all worlds. The worst of all worlds would be a SF that continues to devolve into a place where people are so afraid of change that their NIMBYism destroys the vitality and most interesting aspects of the city that they are trying to protect.

Chercher la User Data

The initial popular opinion is that Facebook paid too much for WhatsApp — $19B in combined cash, stock, and eventually vesting stock.

People have pointed out that the acquisition is worth $500 million per Whatsapp employee, and that if every human on earth paid to use WhatsApp, it would take nearly 3 years for Facebook to get their money back.

What people don’t seem to understand is that Facebook didn’t buy WhatsApp for their existing revenue stream, they bought them for their existing (and future) user data stream.

As has been pointed out by Facebook and WhatsApp, the app has 450 million active users and 320 million users daily users. Mark Zuckerberg crowed that WhatsApp is on their way to a billion users. That’s not more than Facebook, but Facebook is notoriously light in developing countries, and what’s important here is the user data that Facebook gathers from this.

Facebook has tried everything they could so far to gather mobile user data. On the desktop, Facebook can capture most things that users do on the world wide web through cookies and cross-website integration. Mobile has been Facebook’s Achilles heel for a while. The success of iOS and its robust security, which silos apps and web behavior, has made data tough to gather for Facebook outside the FB apps and Instagram. Despite Facebook Home going over like a lead balloon, they can usually get comparatively more data from Android users’ photos, text messages, etc, as long as those users don’t disable them.

WhatsApp can give Facebook the keys to the kingdom, since according to WhatApp’s privacy policy, users can often provide personal info like names and phone numbers, text, photo, and video information, location information, and payment information — you can bet WhatsApp payment accounts will soon be tightly integrated with Facebook — and social graphing, or who people talk to and why. All of this information can be used to extend Facebook’s behavioral models for selling advertisements, and since WhatsApp is truly cross platform, it can be a full replacement for email, text messaging, and other services that Facebook cannot gather data from.

What I found particularly interesting, and a little distressing, is this blurb from WhatsApp’s privacy policy from the link above:

In the event that WhatsApp is acquired by or merged with a third party entity, we reserve the right to transfer or assign the information we have collected from our users as part of such merger, acquisition, sale, or other change of control. (emphasis mine)

This blurb is like a matador waving a red flag in front of the Facebook bull. I joked earlier that the blurb was placed there for the express purpose of attracting this sort of acquisition. So Facebook now has the potential personal information described above on 450 million users, with many more users to come.

I think as a matter of government policy the least FTC could require is allow users to opt out of this sort of user data transfer. Unfortunately any such requirement, though pleasing to privacy advocates, would be unduly burdensome and would almost certainly cause a collapse in the fortunes of other tech startups lining up for their payout for trading in user data. We’ve gone way too far down the path of profiting off personal data.

Dr Roy Spencer, climate change denier

Someone brought Dr Roy Spencer, a well-known Global Climate Change (GCC) denier, to my attention the other day.

Note, I think GCC is a much preferred term over ‘global warming’, because it isn’t just that the earth is warming, but ocean level rises and warming oceans, etc, cause more drastic weather conditions and can certainly even cause the ‘Polar Vortex’ issues we’re seeing now.

Anyway, I didn’t want to spend a ton of time breaking down how horrible GCC is and will likely to be in humanity’s future – you can read all about that, since there isn’t a week when some piece of news comes out about it.

I just wanted to make a few points about GCC deniers and where I think they are coming from.

Generally, their objections to GCC are that a) it’s either not human-caused or it isn’t nearly as bad as those commie scientists are predicting, and b) that since we still don’t know if it really is happening, we shouldn’t take all of these steps to cut down on fossil fuels, vastly increase conservation, and the many other things that will help in the long run, even if they aren’t going to help much in the short run.

Looking at the first objection:

There seems to be two threads of GCC denial, and they all seem to be as self-serving as they are deeply unscientific.

1. Groups posing as libertarian groups, but are really fronts for economic interests. In our example here, Dr. Spencer is a board member of the George Marshall Institute, whose tagline is ‘Science for Better Public Policy. Note that GMI has for a long time taken cash from both oil and automotive interests, as well as a number of right wing foundations (the Sarah Scaife Foundation has also given money to Project for a New American Century, which was the think-tank that laid the groundwork for the second Iraq War, and to Judicial Watch, which routinely uses the courtroom to hassle liberal and moderate priorities. It’s a little unfortunate for Roy Spencer that he doesn’t name the GMI on his website bona fides, and actually states that “He has never been asked by any oil company to perform any kind of service. Not even Exxon-Mobil.” So…I’m assuming that his work for the GMI is unpaid, then?

Dr Spencer is known for being one of the few GCC deniers with actual scientific credentials, having worked for NASA, but looking over his site commentary, he quite often isn’t comparing like data for like data or downplays/intentionally obfuscates issues that are pretty important.

2.The second piece that I discovered when researching Dr Spencer’s background, is a religious aspect to GCC denial. There’s a right wing religious group called the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, which Dr Spencer is both an Advisory Board Member and a signatory to their Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming.

This document starts off with “We believe Earth and its ecosystems—created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence —are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory.  Earth’s climate system is no exception. Recent global warming is one of many natural cycles of warming and cooling in geologic history.”

In other words, it’s not just faith in technology (another major pet peeve of mine) that leads them to poo-poo the risks of GCC. It’s that according to them we humans, no matter what they do, cannot cause Global Climate Change because the Almighty God, in all his wisdom and glory, won’t let us.

Think of the hubris in that statement for a second.

Now think about someone who has a PhD in climate-related science, and otherwise apparently does good work for NASA and other scientific pursuits, and can turn around and throw the scientific method out the window to say that The Great Bearded Guy in the Sky will save us! Nothing to worry about! I mean, I have scholar friends and colleagues that have hobbies that range from running the greenbelt trails of Austin to traveling the world, but none of them use their scientific prestige to walk around committing what in my opinion is tantamount to fraud because it suits their own personal beliefs.

The second GCC denier objection is that even remedial action against GCC, much less fairly significant modification of behavior and economic activity to mitigate or reverse GCC will cause great harm to the fabric of society (usually economic). As Dr Spencer says in relation to humans not being a substantial cause of GCC, “if humans are the cause of only, say, 50% of the warming, then there is even less reason to force expensive and prosperity-destroying energy policies down our throats.”

I’m really sick of the economic catastrophe hysteria pushed by GCC deniers. Solutions for global climate change are no more ‘expensive and prosperity-destroying’ as the current model of oil exploration and highway-building. All social decisions and economic activity are beneficial to someone and harmful to others. Global climate change solutions might be prosperity-destroying to OIL COMPANIES (although most of them have diversified), but it’s not like Western society is going to be forced back to a hunter-gatherer culture because we push energy conservation and mass transit and move to solar/wind. Somebody’s going to make a lot of money and jobs will get created.

I mean, there’s going to be winners and losers, as there always is in an economy. The problem that I foresee is that oil companies that already have massive oil reserves built into their stock prices are certainly not going to be willing to take that hit, which is why they have Dr Spencer’s pseudo-science and the good Lord in their corner.

I see the GCC deniers as part of the deep streak of anti-intellectualism that’s been prevalent in America for the last 20 or 30 years or so. While it’s natural to be skeptical – scientists wouldn’t be scientists if they didn’t question theories, the data theories are based on, and their own presumptions – many people, including apparently Dr Spencer either find it easier to indulge in their own reality of how the world works, or they benefit financially or otherwise from those who benefit from these made-up realities.

This isn’t just present in the GCC deniers – you can also look at religious extremism that stomps on women’s economic and reproductive rights — never mind that women who have equal access to the workforce and control of their own bodies actually have fewer abortions, or the “grassroots” Tea Party, apparently ignorant of fiscal and economic policy, are willing to destroy the full faith and credit of this country because they can’t get their way, all the while having their strings pulled by the Koch brothers (another major oil interest).

It seems to me that the political goal especially in the last 5-10 years is to a) obfuscate what’s really going on and especially more recently b) put people in situations where they are dealing with emergency situations (Fiscal Cliffs, debt ceilings, filibusters, etc) so that true discussion of policy can’t be discussed.

Bonus Round:

The one thing that I never really understood about GCC denialism is the binary logic involved.

The logic: If GCC is true, we have to do something. Otherwise, we can keep buying SUVs and living the same way we always have.

To me, things like being an environmentalist and a good custodian of the earth, which would mean using cleaner energy and pushing hard to conserve as much energy as we can, are not just a means to an end (reversing GCC), but are noble and good ends themselves.

This kind of goes along with the narrowing of the scope of public debate that I mentioned above. I think we as Westerners and especially Americans should spend some time seriously examining our priorities vis-a-vis how we want to leave the world for future generations — not to mention the plant life and animal life that will inevitably be here long after we are gone.

The Comcast/Time Warner merger is okay with me.

I think the government should approve this merger, but with specific conditions.

To go all Buzzfeed on this, here’s a  list of the wishful thinking conditions I think the government should impose.

1. New Comcast has to be a ‘common carrier‘. This would make them subject to much more regulatory oversight, especially with regards to pricing, than before.

2. New Comcast, as one of the nation’s largest internet service providers, has to accept Net Neutrality, and both present a plan per the above common carrier oversight to implement it, and agree to not oppose any legislation implementing true Net Neutrality.

3. New Comcast has agree to a strict privacy policy where user data is not stored or used for marketing or any other purposes aside from law enforcement or actual performance improvements (issues with bandwidth, etc), and this data is never to be given to a 3rd party (including various federal spy agencies) for any reason

4. New Comcast has to agree to support and implement new open standards to improve security to deal with the above.

5. New Comcast has to divest itself of its content creation business (i.e., NBC and all of its cable channels).

6. New Comcast has to allow any channel that has a large enough potential viewership to be listed in its lineup, and they have the right to choose which tier they join (the Al-Jazeera America clause).

7. New Comcast has to provide channels on an a la carte basis at a reasonable price.

8. New Comcast has to provide capability to migrate, backup, and use recorded programming for any purpose covered under fair use — watermarking content with subscriber ID information, etc, to track down illegal distributors is acceptable.

9. New Comcast has to provide full HD-quality (where available) affiliate broadcasting and public access to any household with a cable hookup for no charge (as long as they have a digital-ready TV set), and they have to provide DVRs for said customers for the same price they charge digital cable customers.

10. New Comcast has to agree to work toward an open standard for cable boxes that can push standard television programming along with over the internet content and other added features (the Apple TV clause).

…and no toothless consent decrees here. I want all the executive-level people signed on to this decree, and facing perjury charges and jail time if they violate it.

Do you have any others to add?

 

Winter Tales-Happy New Years 冬の話ーあけましておめでとう

Editor’s Note: This blog post was half-constructed in mid-January. I should be going through pictures in the next few weeks, and will get them posted tout-suite. Or “sugu” if you want the Japanese.

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Happy New Year all.

Today was a national holiday in Tokyo – Coming of Age Day (成人の日- Seijin-no-hi). It’s always the second monday of the month, and actually when I came back to Japan a year ago, I came in on a Sunday and this holiday was on a Monday, and I wondered why all the shops were closed. So it’s been about a year since I got here. How time flies. Today was the first snowstorm of the year, and it dumped about 4-5 inches- not horrible, but enough to slow down some of the trains and enough so that I could hear trucks outside having a very difficult time getting up the hill near my house. Apparently there aren’t many snowplows in Tokyo.

Winter here is relatively nice because it doesn’t get brutally cold (maybe around freezing), and the mountains to the north block out most of the precipitation  – if you go up into the mountains, or up to Niigata on the Sea of Japan side, you’d see they really get nailed by snow. It’s not a coincidence that the ’98 Nagano Winter Olympics are in the mountains between Tokyo and the Sea of Japan. It’s safe to say they probably never have to truck in fake snow in the winter.

I’ve finally gone through my hundreds of photos, and given the long nights and cold days I could tell some tales in anticipation of spring. I’ll start with New Years and then start again from where I left off in the summer. Hopefully by the time I get done with the ‘Winter Tales’ it’ll still be winter. (giggles madly – Ed.)

I just missed New Years in Japan last year, showing up on the 8th. I figured because I’d just been in the States in June, and I wanted to see what New Years was like here, I’d hang out and see what’s what. This was a bit of a mistake, because while the New Years holiday (お正月 oshogatsu) is probably the largest holiday of the year in Japan, for someone in my situation, it’s frankly kinda boring. I made do with the time I had, and at least I can pass along the cultural and historical underpinnings of this holiday, and also the warning to you, gentle reader, that you probably shouldn’t come to Japan for New Years unless you are Japanese, or involved with a Japanese.

So the first question that came to my mind was “Why does Japan celebrate New Years according to the Gregorian calendar instead of the Lunar (Chinese) calendar?” After all, many Japanese do hold the ‘Chinese zodiac’ near and dear to their hearts (This year is the Year of the Snake), and just about every other East Asian culture celebrates the Lunar New Years (which this year is Feb 10) — the Chinese (and all countries with significant Chinese populations), Koreans, the Vietnamese (where it’s known as Tet, as in the “Tet Offensive”), etc.

My thought was that the Japanese had to have celebrated the lunar new year but switched over during the occupation after World War II. That thought was wrong, but not completely. They did formerly celebrate the lunar new year, but they switched over in 1873 during the Meiji Restoration, along with dumping many of their other ‘old ways’ such as isolationism and, y’know, fighting with swords instead of bullets.

So when they scheduled it changed, but how they celebrated it hasn’t really changed much. There’s two main ‘traditional’ holidays, New Years and Obon — and then there’s a bunch of other government mandated holidays culminating in ‘Golden Week’ the first week of May which, like Labor Day or Presidents Day, are more about giving people a nice 3 or more day weekend off work, or perhaps to have a sale. In both cases, these traditional holidays have serious religious underpinnings, and are generally meant to be spent with family. This is so different from the American New Years holiday that there’s even a joke about it (I don’t remember the source, but I didn’t make this one up)-

In America, Christmas is when you spend time with your family, and New Years is when you go out and try to get laid, and in Japan it’s the opposite.

Note: We’ll have to come back to Christmas in Japan in a later blog post.

The few days leading up to New Years is preparing- cleaning the household as well as food shopping and cooking- it’s tradition to not do work around the house or cook during the New Year holiday. This preparation also harkens back to the times when no stores were open during the holidays at all, so people had to have food that would last several days purchased and prepared before the holiday. This seems at least a little like the preparations done for Jewish Passover to me. The more time I spend in Japan, the more interesting shadows of other cultures I see, be they false or true.

New Years Eve is mainly spent doing one of two things: Watching TV with family, or going out to a shrine or temple near midnight and freezing one’s butt off listening to the bells toll — Buddhist Temples ring the temple bell 108 times for each of the known sins of Buddhism. I thought about going out, but a) it was cold and b) I figured much like Times Square is on New Years Eve, most of the fairly well known temples would be packed full of people. So I went with the former.

NHK has a show on New Years Eve known as Kohaku, which is in essence a 5 hour live concert that is also a competition. Girls vs Boys. Picture Dick Clark’s New Years Rockin’ Eve, but you’d have Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj competing against Justin Bieber and Moron, sorry, Maroon 5 for the glory of the title that year. And this show has been running on New Years Eve in Japan since… 1951. This had to have been one of the more surreal TV shows I’d seen since being in Japan, but hey, tradition, right?

At 11:40 NHK finishes up the show and shows live feeds from various temples and shrines to listen to the bells ringing, and sure enough, they were all packed. It was pretty cool to see some of the major ones in Kyoto or Mie or Hiroshima that I’d visited in the past, but the actual countdown to New Years on television was a bit of a somber affair. I’d bought a mini-bottle of bubbly at the conbini across the way, so I had a little celebration here. Not my best New Years, but not my worst.

I was interested to see earlier on New Years Eve that the trains were running 24 hours a day. Tokyo has one of the more impressive mass transit systems in the world, but a (small) complaint I have is that it doesn’t run all night. So you run into a concept of ‘last train’. The last train is usually at midnight or 1am depending on the train line and your location on it, and they don’t start running again till 5 or 5:30am. This means that there are generally 2 kinds of bars: Bars that close super-early (around 11pm) so that their patrons and employees can get their butts on the last train, or bars that are in effect open all night, or at least 4-5am. I think the train companies do this to save money and to be able to do maintenance in the off hours — I’ve heard the NYC subway crews, since their trains run 24/7, have to do maintenance on train lines between the running trains. Yeesh.

Anyway, since people are out and about on New Years Eve, they aren’t gonna catch last train, so most train lines stay open 24 hours this one day a year.

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(Written 3/5 -Ed)

New Years Day, and the several days after that (generally until the 5th), is dead in Tokyo. Since it’s the most important holiday, and people go home for the holiday, a lot of the shops close at least for the 1st and the next few days- some are closed all the way through till Friday or the next weekend. I spent one of the days going up to one of the major temples in Saitama — one that I had been to in the fall — and the place was packed. Lines out the gate of the complex packed. I guess it’s some ways similar to Christians that only attend church on Easter and Christmas.

Starting to be springtime here now. It’s still pretty chilly, but it’s getting lighter out earlier in the morning, and in about 3 weeks we’ll be starting Sakura season. Looking forward to the spring, but not the summer.

Social Media

A few small notes that will probably turn into a long and rambling blog post anyway (…and probably future posts):

Item the First:

I used to blog a lot back in the day, and that was mainly because I felt the world needed to know what was on my mind. Nowadays, Twitter is my narcissist release valve, so I use this blog mainly for travel writing and/or Big Thoughts. Hence, I use Twitter nearly every day, and my itch to write blog entries gets scratched by that. Sorry.

Apparently, though, my writing on Twitter doesn’t ‘count’ in the real world- I had the esteemed Wall Street Journal/All Things D columnist tell me that my comments (here and here) made in February of this year about Facebook being financially overvalued aren’t considered on the same level as very similar comments made by Henry Blodget..um…this week because mine wasn’t an analytical essay.

So, apparently because a) I don’t have a well-known blog and b) because I can make a point in 280 characters or less and it takes Blodget several paragraphs, I don’t get anointed with the Oils of Tech Prophecy. Anyway, I guess that’s pissed me off enough to try to write more here, at the very least because one of the bad things about Twitter is it’s a real bitch to scroll back 7 months to try to find a tweet that I’m pretty sure I posted. So…more to come.

Item the Second:

I’ve thought a lot about social media recently, and Twitter specifically. There’s a lot of controversy around things like buying followers on Twitter to appear more popular. The Romney campaign apparently purchased a promoted hashtag recently, and (unfortunately for him, but to my amusement) was used against him. I remember when I first started using Twitter and seeing a bunch of links to webpages about ’15 Ways to Gain Popularity on Twitter’.

My one rule for gaining popularity on Twitter is: Be Interesting.

To unpack that a little, I’ll say that you should:

  • Talk about topics you know. If you are really into collectable model airplanes, there’s people that want to hear what you have to say.
  • Try to get something out of Twitter. I use it for advice and answers on everything from whether Tokyo is still growing although Japan’s population is shrinking (it is) to complaining about my cable service (didn’t help). I found out about the 3/11 Tohoku earthquake under 10 seconds from when it started because I was watching my Twitter feed at that moment. Follow accounts you are interested in, and try to engage in a conversation with them. Follow various news organizations. Follow individual journalists. Follow Justin Bieber (if you must). Follow people who have similar interests. That leads me to..
  • Meet people from Twitter. Either meet them through a “Tweetup” or meet people socially or professionally and if they are cool and are on Twitter (redundant, in my opinion), exchange handle info.
  • Moderate your posting. I’d suggest posting several times a day if possible to maintain interest, but don’t go overboard on posting, especially in regards to social media plugins like FourSquare. These plugins are there to advertise for themselves, not inform or entertain your followers. I frankly don’t care that you checked in at the Safeway at 19th and Taraval to pick up a loaf of bread. Sorry.
  • Don’t be a jerk. Although you only have 140 characters, still try to be polite. Reword what you are saying into a question or an opinion instead of calling someone out on what they said. Remember that text doesn’t have non-verbal factors such as tone of voice or facial expressions behind it, so people can’t tell if you are making a joke or being an ass. I tend to ramble when I write and when I talk, and Twitter among other things has helped me strip away everything else from my writing other than the point I’m trying to make, and the tone I’m trying to make it with. It’s been exceedingly helpful.

This doesn’t fall specifically under ‘Be Interesting’, but I consider Twitter to be a meritocracy. Or it should be. You get followers because the person following you wants to hear what you have to say for whatever reason. I don’t follow people simply because they follow me- my philosophy of Twitter doesn’t work that way. If the Venn Diagram of “what a person is saying” and “what I find amusing or informative” cross in any significant way, and I look through their history and it seems like I’d want to hear what they have to say in the future, then I’ll likely follow that person. If not, I won’t. End of story.

Item the Second and a Half:

Twitter is kind of hard to read if you don’t know the syntax (hashtags, retweets, yadda), but if you want to see my daily postings, you can go here.

This is burying the lede a bit, but I’ve created a Tumblr as well, but it’s only for signs. I take a lot of pictures of signs/posters/billboards, etc. I don’t know why, it’s just what I do. I think it’s one way I can easily compare cultures, find humor, etc. So my tumblr is here. Let me know there if you have anything to submit.

Photo Barrage 6-Tokyo 東京の写真攻め

Currently: Waiting for a phone call and watching yet another cooking show on Japanese TV.

As promised, some pictures from around Tokyo. These were taken at various times this spring, but many of them were taken in the last month or so as I was scurrying around town seeing things that I wanted to see before leaving Japan because, well, you never know, right?

This one is of my old neighborhood in Yoyogi. You can see the NTT Docomo Building in the background, which is the third-tallest building in Tokyo and the tallest clock tower in the world. One of the things I really like about Tokyo is the massive number of narrow, crooked streets. Call it getting lost or exploring, regardless it makes for some fun wandering.

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A series of interesting looking buildings.

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This is an intersection near the Park Hyatt (the hotel from Lost in Translation) where there’s a few highway overpasses suspended above. The vast majority of highways in Tokyo proper are elevated so they have this kind of floating quality, and often times nearly wrap around corners of buildings when they make a turn.

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I took a long walk earlier in the month from Roppongi to Yoyogi, and took some pics of a few interesting buildings. This one was in the Nishi-Azabu area, I think.

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This one was in Aoyama.

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This is a pic of the Kanda River west of Shinjuku fairly close to my new neighborhood. Most ‘rivers’ are basically cement enclosures for water to run through. I still like the look of the resulting valley of buildings.

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Some pics from Cherry Blossom season- Cherry Blossom season is a few week period in the spring where the cherry trees explode in colorful glory, from a near-white to a reddish color depending on the tree. The Japanese use this to go out and throw picnic parties, calling it hanami (literally ‘flower viewing’), which is a lot of fun.  They also tend to see whether they can set a new record for the number of people sent to the hospital with alcohol poisoning, which isn’t quite as fun.

The first pic is from the entrance to Ueno Park on a rainy day.

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The rest of these are from Shinjuku Gyoen (Gardens), which differs from public parks like Ueno Park or Yoyogi Park in that you have to pay admission, and as the next picture shows, they kind of frown on people drinking in the gardens during Hanami.

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Note that I deliberately avoided the first weekend of partying because I don’t think nature and crowds mix very well. It was still pretty busy on a weekday afternoon. Lots of people sitting out on the lawn taking a break from work, I think.

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Shinjuku Gyoen with the Shinjuku skyline in the background.

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Next few pictures are of the west side of Shinjuku Station, which is the main skyscraper district of Tokyo. Shinjuku Station is the busiest train station in the world- over 2 million people pass through there daily. The strange curved building at center right is known as Cocoon Tower, and it was built from start to finish in the 6 years since I left Tokyo.

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These are a few pictures of Meiji Jingu, one of the main Shinto Shrines. It’s where the spirit of Emperor Meiji is enshrined. He ruled during Japan’s modernizing era starting in the last 19th Century through the beginning of the 20th, where they eliminated the Shogun as well as the samurai class, and many people started wearing western clothes. Meiji Jingu is part of Yoyogi Park, and is easy walking distance from the hustle and bustle of Shinjuku Station. It’s a nice place to walk through to get away from it all.

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I have occasion to pass by Tokyo Tower on a regular basis. With the opening of Tokyo Sky Tree, I think Tokyo Tower doesn’t get as much love, but it still makes me smile when I see it.

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I took a walk through the Chiyoda ward, which is where many of the government and bank buildings are located — with the Tokyo Metro Building being a notable exception. The following is a picture of the National Diet Building, where the Japanese Parliament meets. It’s the equivalent of the US Congress. I had a surprisingly hard time getting a clear picture of the building, between all the trees, surrounding buildings, and wall around the building. I’m sure I could have gotten a tour at some point and get some good pictures, but oh well. I practically had to stand in the middle of the street to get this one.

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The following are pictures of the Imperial Palace and surrounding buildings. Many of the taller buildings just outside the Palace are bank buildings.

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This is Sakuradamon, or Sakura Field Gate, one of the gates into the Palace.

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This is a picture of Tokyo Station, which is almost 100 years old. I had passed through this station maybe a half-dozen times to change trains since this is the terminus for all shinkansen (bullet trains) coming into Tokyo from anywhere in Japan, but I’d never seen the outside before. They are currently turning this part of the building into a hotel, to be opened for its 100th anniversary in 2014.

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A banana vending machine.

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This is a restaurant in my old neighborhood. Kinda old school Japanese decor.

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I ordered zaru soba, which is my new favorite Japanese dish. It’s a cold soba, which are buckwheat noodles, served with shredded nori (seaweed) and a dipping sauce that you throw some green onions and wasabi into. A very straight forward meal, but it’s quite tasty and fantastic on a hot summer day.

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Some pictures from the Sanno Festival/Parade, which is one of the main Shinto festivals in Tokyo. They tour most of inner Tokyo, but these pictures were taken in the Ginza district, which led to a pretty crowded dynamic with all the cars passing and a bunch of fellow shutterbugs snapping away.

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This group of pictures are the Asakusa area of Tokyo. I went up to Senso-ji (a Buddhist temple) again — see pics from Photo Barrage the first for an interesting comparison. These pics were taken at about 6.30am on a rainy Saturday morning.

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Tokyo Sky Tree under cloud cover:

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Empty Thunder Gate:

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This is the shopping street approaching the Temple that was absolutely mobbed when I was here last.

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The shop doors had interesting scenes of old Japan painted on them.

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I got a companion shot of the ‘Welcome To Japan’ shot from the airport on my way out this last time, too:

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I spent part of my time in the states when I wasn’t panicking over visa stuff with some of my family at a beach house near Tampa. A few pics of my view:

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I’m planning on hitting Yokohama soon, so that’ll probably be the next Photo Barrage. Questions or requests are welcomed.