All posts by Scenario

Gojira!

I took the Marinouchi Line from the Metro station and emerged in fabled Shinjuku 30 minutes later. There is so much neon there it even makes the day brighter. My photo tour was not until 7:30 so I had time to kill and shop.

My first stop was the Godzilla Store. I struggled to find anything of value there so I settled for a couple of holographic postcards to send to Steven and Shannon.

I ducked into a few shops here and there but they were far too crowded, especially wearing a backpack. Shinjuku is known for its nightlife and there were large packs of masked teenagers everywhere, gawking and giggling at the giant YouTube videos illuminating entire buildings.

Japan is not dollar-friendly. Everything so far (except mass transit) is prohibitively expensive. So I figure if I find something I like I can probably order it from home for less. This was true for Italian Murano glass and Irish Waterford crystal years ago. I want to find some t-shirts here but I’m not going to pay $40 per.

So I kept moving toward the Godzilla Head that looms over TOHO Cinemas and the Hotel Gracery. The street there is famously saturated with neon, like a pedestrian-only canyon of light and music. Even the Krispy Kreme doughnut shop there is Japanized, featuring all sorts of Pokémon and anime (I presume) characters. My blood sugar was low so I needed a fix.

I savored a beautifully crafted cappuccino on the 8th floor observation deck and awaited my fate. The Yank at the next table was telling his Japanese colleague all about the Chicago Cubs. But I know he didn’t understand a word because the poor guy did what everyone does in that situation: Nod profusely. So polite.

Every hour on the hour, the life-sized 1950s Godzilla terrorizes 2010s Tokyo with lights and sound.

Dusk approaches, and Shinjuku comes alive.

Mmmm, Octopus

It’s easy to find a train station. You just follow the tracks. So I did. And they led me through the most amazing scenes in less than a mile.

Nestled under Ginza’s tracks are rows and rows of quaint little shops and rather crusty restaurants. Each seemed to have a specialty — and a smell to match. One was flowers, for example. And one was octopus. So imagine the conversation in some Tokyo bank around 11:30: “I know a good octopus bar nearby. Mmmm, octopus. The one near that stinky flower shop? Let’s go!”

There was a common theme among the odors. A combination of teriyaki, cigarettes and sewer gas permeated the air until I reached the ultramodern International Forum. To compare this with the smell of Paris, just swap dog poop for the teriyaki.

Here, across from a line of retro food trucks, I naturally gravitated to a place called Shake Shack. I ordered a burger with a craft ale and sat outside to people watch. Then to my amazement, the manager came out to offer me a blanket. It didn’t feel that chilly to me but I was just amazed at the customer service.

When I left, I got a hundred yards away before I realized I’d left my backpack in the opposite seat. After all, Olivia wasn’t there to literally watch my back. So I ran back in a panic and was relieved to find it still there. The woman at the next table smiled and shrugged as if to say, “You thought someone would steal your backpack? Here? In Japan? That would be unthinkable, yes?”

On the way back I saw what Japanese businessmen do on their lunch breaks. Stand around tapping their phones. Probably shopping for black suits.

Off to Shinjuku next. After another mineral bath and a nap, of course.

Fresh Perspectives

I started Wednesday morning by ferreting out a Starbucks in the depths of Tokyo Station. The cute Japanese girl who took my order for a grande spoke perfect English, but I noticed she was giving me a funny look. And sure enough, I touched my nose to find one of those little rubbery morning booger balls. How it escaped my right nostril is a mystery.

It’s so embarrassing to be a gaijin, sometimes.

The coffee was thin, more the consistency of tea. But it got my heart started. My next mission was to hit Bic Camera in nearby Ginza to buy an intervalometer for my Canon. Inexplicably, the only thing this new DSLR doesn’t have is a time lapse function. It requires a remote controller.

The store was massive, covering an entire city block at least eight floors deep. But yes, they sell more than just cameras. The Canon desk was unmanned so a couple of Nikon guys tried to figure out what I was asking for. It took twenty minutes for me to act out “time lapse” in pantomime. Finally the Canon guy showed up and after five more minutes of kabuki theater he turned to me and exhausted his English vocabulary: “No stock.” I must have imagined him punctuating this with the universal gesture for harakiri.

But then he led me to a rack of freshly harvested intervalometers. No, the one he handed me wasn’t Canon and had no English instructions, but he seemed confident it would work. And later that night, it did. The price? ¥6,510. But at least now I can claim to have supported Japan’s fledgling camera industry.

Next I walked to the Imperial Gardens. My goal was to get familiar with my Canon in a low-pressure environment, so I wouldn’t look like an idiot for my photography workshop later on.

The gardens are like Tokyo’s Central Park. The Imperial Palace is off-limits, so what you see is a bunch of stone walls that are the ruins of an ancient castle (Edo). It’s not quite cherry blossom time but I did photograph a couple of early bloomers. The ponds were nice too. But my best shots were of the modern, bustling skyline playing backdrop to these peaceful grounds.

I’ve come to appreciate how curated this culture is. Ever polite and shy, the Japanese clearly exude national pride. Even the subways are spotless and shiny. More than once I saw someone stop and pick up garbage. And it is considered rude to walk and eat, drink or smoke at the same time here. No one chews gum. No one spits on the sidewalk. No one raises their voice. No one wears profane clothing.

The few people I saw doing these things were Westerners. And it made me realize what pigs Americans are by comparison. Take downtown Portland, for example. Chain-smoking vegans riddled with tattoos, piercings and meth, milling about a city covered in filth and graffiti. Not to mention crawling with thousands of homeless-by-choice stoop poopers. None of that here.

UThe contrast made me ashamed. Especially in light of the fact we twice nuked these people, and have somehow utterly failed to outpace them as a civil society after all that dust settled. The difference goes well beyond military spending and playing Team America: World Police. When our so-called President talks about making America great again, he’s really talking about finding ways to subjugate humble people like this so that we can be the smartest kids in the sandbox. Every time I travel outside the US I’m reminded of how ignorant and arrogant we’ve become under Republican control. In terms of infrastructure, education, healthcare, the environment — and now politics, we have become a third world country. You know, one of those shithole countries under the thumb of a wannabe dictator, where people don’t even want to procreate anymore because things are only getting worse at home.

Sigh… time for lunch.

Toto! Toto! Toto!

Forget the in-room massage. You haven’t lived until you’ve been serviced at 3 AM by honorable Japanese bidet. Meet the Toto Washlet personal hygiene system.

Always aiming to please, Toto even lifts the heated seated seat for you on final approach.

But of course my favorite feature is the Oscillator. It’s A-OK.

I feel like a new man. A bit like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation.

Come in, Tokyo!

Yep, it’s my first trip to Japan, or to Asia for that matter. I just landed after a 10-1/2 hour flight from Portland.

Just try to find the words “car” or “seat” on that ticket.

I’m starting this post from car 7, seat 3D aboard the Narita Express. I should be pulling into Tokyo Station any minute, where my hotel room awaits. Yes, it’s the historic Tokyo Station Hotel. How’s that for convenience?

The train left the airport exactly on time but it made three unexpected stops due to “obstructions.” So much for Japanese efficiency.

Damn, there are a lot of Japanese cars here.

The sun here looks just as you’d expect. An ominous nuclear fireball shrouded in haze. The Rising Sun will be setting shortly, followed by the screams of people trying to outrun Godzilla. Fortunately Tokyo is protected by power lines placed everywhere at neck level.

I’m not that hungry. Delta fed us pretty well and all the booze was free too.

My first impression of Japanese people: Why is everyone wearing masks and should I be concerned?

Tokyo Station is at least five stories underground. I got reprimanded (by another Westerner) for standing on the right side of an escalator. So I chided him back for being a conformist.

This hotel is incredible! I’m being treated like royalty here. Everyone is so polite. But not in that fake way, like in Utah. The hotel seems like it’s a mile long, straddled above one of the world’s busiest train stations. My room’s ceiling is 15 feet, and the windows overlook the main entrance hall with its dome towering above. So I’m watching masked commuters in suits swarm the station at rush hour. Olivia and I will definitely stay here when she comes next time.

After spending ten minutes trying to find various switches, my next move was to pop a couple Kirins and enjoy a hot mineral bath and some extremely silly Japanese TV. Hey, it was a long flight and I have an action-packed day tomorrow.

Oh — almost forgot. I had scoped out a currency exchange this (yesterday) morning in Portland International. The official rate was ¥112 for $1. But Travelex at PDX was only offering ¥94 plus a $9 bullshit “service fee.” Worse than Ticketmaster, right? At Travelex at NRT I got a respectable ¥103 and change. So for $500 USD I got ¥51,690. And with ¥4,000 I bought my round trip N’EX tickets on the aforementioned Narita Express. The rest will be for food and shoppage.

The key here is to remember that there’s about a 100:1 ratio, so it’s easy to just drop two zeroes to decide the value of something.

Stop Motion Studio

Returning to my filmmaker roots well ahead of retirement age, Scenario RETROfilm’s little indie animation shop is progressing nicely with Olivia’s help and support. Here are our key technical investments:

Dragonframe 4 software and Bluetooth controller

Everything revolves around Dragonframe‘s amazing stop motion software and communication protocols. Compared to back when I did stop motion in the early 80s, the process is infinitely easier today. For example, Dragonframe has an “onionskin” feature which lets you superimpose the previous frame over the current frame in order to check your puppet moves. So you get immediate feedback instead of waiting a week to get your Super 8mm film back from a Kodak lab.

Canon EOS Rebel T6 bundle

Believe it or not, most stop motion is shot on DSLR cameras — not video (or film) cameras. This bundle was the best value which still meets all of Dragonframe’s requirements, as it communicates best with Canon EOS bodies. That includes the ability to display a live digital view on a Mac through the lens, and the ability to control every aspect of the exposure for every frame. This camera can produce 4K RAW images, which Dragonframe then strings together in sequence at whatever frame rate you want. That’s typically 24 fps, which means a 10-second scene is 240 frames and a 10-minute film is 14,400 frames.

The only modification I made was to swap out the Canon primary lens with a Nikon manual aperture lens. That way Dragonframe can take control of the aperture and eliminate any chance of flicker between frames. This is a known problem and a long-established solution among animators.

eMotimo ST4 Dragonframe Bundle

This is a 4-axis motion control rig sold by eMotimo in San Diego. It’s basically a robot that can smoothly repeat complex camera moves across a scene, producing the parallax shots that today’s short-attention-span-challenged audiences expect. The eMotimo Spectrum ST4 is the only head that talks directly to Dragonframe and can scrub through a shot in real time. That is a godsend to animators. That means if you screw something up in the middle of a scene that has taken hours to animate, you can simply undo those frames and the camera will move back to the precise position it was in. This rig is also great for time lapse shots and even live, unassisted interview shots. Not pictured is its remote control: An off-the-shelf PlayStation 4 DualShock controller. Simply brilliant. Kudos to eMotimo’s team, led by founder Brian Burling. He personally sold me this system.

VIVO Electric Stand Up Desk Frame w/Dual Motor and Cable Management Rack, Ergonomic Height Adjustable Standing DIY Workstation (DESK-V103E)

The slider will rest atop this adjustable platform made by VIVO (the same company that made the retractable TV ceiling mount in my RETROvan).

I’ll cut a rounded top myself out of 2’x8’x3/4″ cherry plywood. Then I can mount all kinds of equipment to it, like a power strip, drawer, keyboard shelf and even my iMac itself via a VESA bracket. This is much better than having one or two tripods sprawled out next to your set, as tripping hazards.

J.Lumi track lights

Overhead we have some cool studio track lights, fitted with LED bulbs (both daylight and warm). We’ll supplement these with other articulated desk lamps and in-set lighting as needed.

So yeah, we’ve been pretty busy writing scripts, acquiring props and building sets — inbetween our day jobs of course. I’ll post some photos of them later. Generally we’re working in 2x2x4-foot modules using 1/2″ plywood. Three such sets are currently under construction and they look amazing. Each set will simply move to a larger desktop (under those studio lights) for shooting, in production order.

Apple & Thunderbolt 3

I recently sold my 5K iMac (late 2014 model) and replaced it with an iMac Pro. Having bought dozens of Macs over 33 years, I was careful not to fall for Apple’s price-gouging trap. Particularly when their internal storage options are now priced at a ridiculous $2,800 extra for a 4 TB SSD (solid state drive). Yes, I emphasize “extra” because you get no credit for the 1 TB stock SSD they replace.

My “old” iMac had a 3 TB Fusion Drive (a combination of mechanical and solid state), so I had to do some serious juggling to pare my internal storage needs down to fit a more affordable stock 1 TB SSD.


In doing so, this was part of my solution: The super-sexy Samsung X5 Portable SSD – 1TB – Thunderbolt 3 External SSD. It’s priced at $499.99 now on Amazon. This drive uses the latest super-fast PCIe interface, called NVMe (cleverly pronounced “Envy Me”). Here are the typical write/read speeds I’m getting with it:

This makes it ideal for use as a Final Cut Pro X cache drive. I’ve learned that to maximize data throughput for video production, it’s important for the system to avoid reading/writing to the same drive. It’s better to read raw video files from a fast, read-only source drive, and write all the project data out to a separate, fast destination drive.

By comparison, here are the typical write/read speeds I’m getting on my iMac Pro’s internal 1TB SSD:

As you can see, they’re both scorching fast. For some reason, the internal writes faster but the external reads faster. They’re very similar on average, though: ~2215 MB/s external versus ~2583 MB/s internal. That means the Samsung X5 is within 15% of the maximum possible performance — and that’s good enough for me, especially considering this solution saved me $300 versus Apple’s inflated upgrade price of $800 to go from 1 TB to 2 TB. That, and it’s portable to boot.

The TerraMaster

Since replacing my 5K iMac with a new iMac Pro, I’m a huge fan of Thunderbolt 3 for maximum throughput. Meet the TerraMaster D5 DAS (Direct Access Storage). You buy this enclosure empty, and add your own drives. I installed five 8 TB Western Digital “Red” drives inside. They’re 3½” SATA drives, not SSDs. Why? Well, because the cost per terabyte is less than $59 and this enclosure puts a super fast interface on them to make up the difference.

I got the enclosure on an Amazon “Lightning Deal” for $639, where the regular price was $799. Each hard drive was $249. So for a total investment of $1,884 I got 40 TB of total storage, which should meet my demanding video production needs for the foreseeable future.

This is a RAID controller, so I configured it using RAID-5 mode. That means out of 40 TB of total storage, the controller will read and write data across all five drives at once to maximize access speed and redundancy. So while the effective available storage is reduced to 32 TB now, that means any one drive can go bad and everything keeps working until that drive can be replaced. Once replaced, the controller rebuilds the array and all is good again.

I’ve been using a 16 TB NAS (Networked Attached Server) for a couple years, so there were a number of problems to solve:

  1. Access speed to and from my NAS was too slow over Gigabit Ethernet. I was spending way too much time waiting for large files to copy. It was also doubling as an FTP server for my security cameras, which meant that it was very painful to browse those files quickly or efficiently.
  2. I was close to maxing out the space on my NAS. At first I used it in RAID-1 (mirrored) mode, which cut its available space down to 8 TB. I later switched it to RAID-0 (striped) and then to JBOD (just a bunch of discs) mode to gain access to all 16 TB, but of course that left me nervous about a potential drive failure.
  3. My NAS was not encrypted or backed up. Not good.

Configuring the TerraMaster took some trial-and-error, given that its UI is typical Chinese garbage. My goal was to strike the best balance between performance, convenience and security — on a volume-by-volume basis.

The first major decision you have to make is the base format. On a modern Mac, your main choices are “MacOS Extended (Journaled)” or “APFS.” You get the option to add “Encrypted” to either choice, but that’s where things get confusing.

Apple’s Time Machine, love it or hate it, is not yet compatible with APFS. And worse, Time Machine does not play nice with encryption. So after a few false starts, here’s what I wound up doing:

  1. I made a dedicated 2 TB partition using Disk Utility. I formatted that partition using MacOS Extended (Journaled, Encrypted) and named it “Time Machine.”
  2. I formatted the remaining 30 TB partition as APFS, unencrypted.
  3. Within that 30 TB partition, I created a few different volumes. APFS volumes get dynamically resized, so you don’t have to commit to those sizes the same way you would for partitions. I chose Encrypted for some of those volumes, and left others unencrypted.

Why? Because encryption incurs a performance hit and I don’t need that much security for everything I’ll use this file server for. And plus, you can always add, rename or resize volumes later in Disk Utility without losing data. And you can replace them as long as you have a way to back them up first.

Using the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test app, here are some typical results:

  • Write/Read to unencrypted portions of DAS: 515/755 MB/s
  • Write/Read to encrypted APFS volumes on DAS: 475/725 MB/s
  • Write/Read to encrypted Time Machine partition: 375/375 MB/s

Now by comparison, I had some cool 1 TB SanDisk Extreme SSDs connected via USB 3.1. They cost $199 each. Those SSDs yield around 450/500 MB/s on my iMac Pro. So you can see how these 8 TB SATA drives are comparable to 1 TB SSDs at a fraction of the cost: $59 per terabyte versus $199 per terabyte — just not nearly as portable.

So yeah, I’m pretty happy with this solution. Especially considering the biggest 2½” internal SSDs you can buy are 4 TB. And they still cost around $699. Using five of those would yield only 16 TB and bring the total investment up to around $4,134 or $258 per terabyte. That’s 4.4X more expensive than these traditional mechanical drives. And by the time these start failing, SSDs will be much cheaper replacements.

Now there’s some learning to share, for those of you thinking about (or struggling with) the same setup. Here are some lessons I learned:

  1. Apple’s System Utility teams are sadists, and there’s a special place in Hell for them. Not just Disk Utility, but other essential tools like Migration Assistant, Time Machine and AirPort Utility. Their biggest sin is not providing actionable error messages.
  2. Make sure you understand the limitations of Apple’s file formats up front. And no, they aren’t very well documented.
    • Time Machine cannot write to an APFS drive, period. It’ll warn you that the disk is not the right format. Sadists generally don’t want you to know about their shortcomings.
    • You can partition a drive (or an entire RAID array) first, separating the MacOS Extended (Journaled) portion from APFS. And then you’ll have the best of both worlds — as long as you pick the right amount of space for Time Machine to grow over time up to a limit. In my case, I chose 2X the size of my iMac Pro’s internal SSD.
  3. Be sure to encrypt Time Machine’s partition first, using Disk Utility. Then add that volume as a Backup Disk in Time Machine’s UI. Tell Time Machine to use “Encrypt backups” again at this point, even though it doesn’t make any sense.
    • If you do it this way, Time Machine will make its initial backup in around 90 minutes for a 1 TB system. And then it’ll all be done. Yes, it’s inexcusable that Apple continues to ship versions of Time Machine without proper guidance in its UI, when clearly they know about these pitfalls.
    • If you don’t do it this way, Time Machine will make its initial backup very quickly, but it will spend days encrypting it separately. That is no exaggeration. This is a major flaw in Time Machine’s algorithm. That progress indicator will be stuck at around 13% for hours and hours while your drive(s) thrash.
  4. Know that if you’re ever tempted to uncheck Time Machine’s “Back Up Automatically” checkbox, it will abort any backup in progress without warning and it’ll have to start over. Yep, like I said: Sadists. That button used to be titled something like Start/Stop Backup, which reflected the fact that this control is more of an action than a preference. But the lack of a confirmation dialog is absolutely negligent on Apple’s part.

Modular Power

Today I installed this nifty little modular outlet under the dinette table, to help keep various computer cables out of people’s way.

The photo shows how the module snaps in and out of its mounting plate, making access super easy. The power cable isn’t long enough to reach my wall plugs, so I’m planning to run this extension cord down through the storage cabinet under the port bench:

This cord is unique in that it terminates in a single, grommeted outlet that will mount cleanly through my 3/4″ plywood wall. All it requires is a 1-3/4″ hole saw and a twist of the wrist — and not an electrical box. And here’s the result. That a pretty cool little extension outlet:

You might notice that new trim piece on the floor. That’s a 1-1/4″ aluminum bracket cut to length, then screwed through the rubber and into the marine plywood subfloor.

Here’s the treatment on the entry well. That’s a single piece of aluminum, notched and bent at 90°. This piece will prevent people from tripping over the edges of the rubber floor. And it looks better to boot.