Category Archives: Sociology

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.

RETROfilm Intro

Feeling polarized?

November is coming. That means elections and Thanksgiving dinner, which bring anxiety and stress for many Americans today.

You’ve probably asked yourself how we got here, facing our siblings and parents down across the social, political and cultural divides that only seem to widen with each news cycle, post and tweet.

Sociologists say we’re the products of our environment. Sure, everyone’s family dynamic was different growing up. You’re a baby boomer who fought in Vietnam and your brother is a pacifist. But you were also the same in many respects. You both still love country music and baseball, right? We have the power to redefine what it means to be family…

But we’ve all forgotten how much common ground we share.

Meanwhile, your old home movies are slowing disintegrating. Your amateur 8mm, Super 8mm and 16mm films may be dusty, moldy and scratched — but they still tell a compelling story. The story of us.

Let us help you tell that story before it gets lost to time.

At Scenario RETROfilm, we believe that when families, neighborhoods and cultures take the time to share their stories, through laughter and tears, we naturally become more human. We start to understand each other. We break down tribal barriers. We start to care again. We cooperate for the common good.

We heal as a family and a nation.

Scenario RETROfilm is gearing up to help you tell your stories through your own treasure trove of film. If you’re lucky — and old enough — you probably have a pile of film reels stashed away in some attic, basement or closet.

We will carefully transfer your old films to state-of-the-art digital videos. We’ll organize them, curate them, edit them lovingly, and find just the right music to accompany them. Sometimes funny, sometimes somber, but always avant-garde.

Then we’ll help you find a hosting plan or another easy way to share them with your friends and family.

Our rate for VIP-level service is only $1 per second of finished film. Yes, that’s $60 per minute or $3,600 per hour. And what you’ll get is not just a home movie — but a documentary.

We’ve done hundreds of RETROfilms, but here are some samples:

We at Scenario RETROfilm hereby declare each November to be #NationalHomeMovieMonth, and the weekend before each national election to be #NationalHomeMovieWeekend.

Share and share alike.

Renewing Our Energy

Wednesday I hosted our first annual Racepoint Energy barbecue on the RETROpad. It was a beautiful day, snapping Portland’s heat wave at only 82° tops. The sky was mostly sunny with scattered clouds, light winds out of the north. 100% chance of treason, followed by darkness…

But I digress.

All eight of us have joined pretty recently. Clockwise from the left is Dave, Michael, Nick, Nels, Tabor, Alex and Will. A funny thing happens when you invite a brilliant team like this to your house for a few hours that don’t involve mashing knuckles on keys or glass.

You start to feel a bit… human. Maybe even family. You get to know each others’ hobbies, sensibilities and motivations. Normally, you’d get to know each others’ weaknesses, too. But we don’t appear to have any at Racepoint Energy. I believe that together, we will help disrupt an industry that has turned against this planet. But first we have to ship some thermostats, right?

Meanwhile, Tabor and Dave discuss the prospects of retiring to Portugal and Mazy wonders how long Todd is gonna burn that meat. But what Todd’s really thinking about is why does the RETROvan’s AirPlay system keep cutting out every few seconds — but only when there are guests here? Is all that extra Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and brain power messing with the space-time continuum?

Dave had just flown up from San Jose to meet the team, in the midst of what most Bay Area-ers ultimately do: Flee the Bay Area. Only he’ll be moving home to North Carolina with his wife, where his quality of life will improve greatly. While we’re just a startup, never underestimate how simultaneously liberating and empowering it is to work for a company that embraces remote nerdage.

Will’s our fearless Director. And when he’s not firefighting he’s directing. When he’s not directing, he’s coding. So he never really looks at the camera — unless his code is on fire and he needs directions. We luv ya, Will.

Full-contact Croquet (almost) broke out. Croquet is a French pastime, so you know it’s steeped in cowardice, pageantry and intrigue — much like WWDC.

You are faced with some moral dilemmas during a match, so it’s a fun team-building thang. It’s also a good beer-drinking sport, especially when there are only six mallets and two chairs for eight people. That’s when the “white beard rule” comes into play, folks.

Here’s Alex at the final post, after which the poison rules kicked in. And that’s Michael in the background. He’s working out how he can best destroy that last post before HR arrives.

You know, Croquet’s default poison rules are great. But we can do better. I’ll create a gitlab issue.

And coincidentally, Alex also won the “Guess the Height of that Sequoia” contest. 

I thanked the team for coming and said, “I’m sorry the meat was tough.” Someone whispered, “Blame the butcher, not the chef.” That kept me up all night, wondering if I had pulled a Trump or maybe a ligament in my brain. And then I remembered this proverb: “Don’t blame the baker if the butcher bakes the bread.” One of those head-scratchers, yeah. 🙂

But I digress.

Renewable Energy. Renewable Life.™

¡Cuba Libre!

This post is a work-in-progress. Photos to come…

In February 2017, four members of our family boarded a Southwest Airlines flight and traveled back in time about 60 years. We were headed to Havana, Cuba for four days and three nights.

Because of the current political climate in America, who knows when this window might get slammed shut. So now was the time to go. And believe me, we checked the news every day leading up to our departure for any hint that Raúl Castro had dared mention our so-called President’s tiny hands. And without any access to the fake news while in Cuba, each day started with jokes about about whether we would be allowed to return home until groundbreaking at the inevitable Hotel de Trump.

Accommodations

I had booked a very nice “casa particular” called Casa Miramar on Airbnb for $487 and was able to pay with a U.S. credit card in advance. I had looked into rooms at the famous Hotel Nacional de Cuba but they go for over $500 per night for double occupancy. And worse, the few Cuban hotels tend to overbook and they don’t take American credit cards. Most of them are run-down and get sketchy reviews. So it’s best to arrange a private house in advance, pay for it, and get multiple confirmations up front—especially right before you leave the States. The last thing you want is to arrive in a third-world country without a safe place to stay. While some may like to tempt fate, we do not.

Travel Restrictions

Despite the recent death of Fidel Castro and President Obama’s subsequent easing of relations with Cuba, it is still technically illegal for American citizens to spend money in Cuba without a Specific License. But for now, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) allows for travel under a General License as long as you qualify for one of twelve categories.

Basically, that means you must choose a category and check a box on a form when you buy your plane ticket. Then you just stick to your story whenever asked, according to Rick Steves.

In our case, my daughter was traveling to Cuba as part of a Study Abroad program at her university. So my wife and I qualified under the Family Visit category. Therefore, we merely had to time our trip to align with my daughter’s itinerary and accompany her. We then documented our activities in case we ever get audited in the future, which we assume is highly unlikely. In fact, there has only been one prosecution for such a violation, and that was a company who broke the embargo rules.

Meanwhile, my in-laws chose the People-to-People category for their general license, which implies that they were going to interact with Cubans to exchange ideas, learn about the culture, and so on—which we all did.

The rules are pretty clear that you’re not supposed to travel to Cuba just to hang out at the beach. But then again, who’s looking besides some retired Cold War spies? Remember that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cubans desperately want our money and any gifts of American goods, so we never felt unwelcome.

Customs

Before you can get anywhere near a plane to Cuba, you must have a valid Cuban Tourist Visa in-hand. The best way for Americans to do this is via CubaTravelServices.com. The cost is $50 per person. (More if you screw up the form.) In our case, we picked up our cards at the Cuba Desk at Tampa International Airport, where they check and copy your passport a couple hours before boarding your flight. You are required to maintain health insurance while in Cuba, but fortunately a policy is built into your airplane ticket. So you must keep your boarding pass with you at all times, along with your passport and visa.

Currency

Because of the embargo imposed by President Kennedy in 1962, the Cuban government still imposes a 10% tariff on the exchange of U.S. dollars. So, you’ll want to take another currency with you to maximize your money. We chose Euros, and made that exchange at our American bank a few weeks prior. While that exchange rate included the bank’s hidden fee of around 5%, there is only a 3% additional exchange fee in Cuba when you change Euros to CUCs. So you wind up saving around 2% overall. Possibly more, while the Euro is stronger than the dollar.

Our first introduction to “Cuban Time” was at the currency exchange cage at the airport. Not only was it very difficult to find in our terminal, the staff didn’t seem very interested in doing their jobs. We were first in line but stood there for more than a half hour while two young women counted stacks of cash. They were frequently interrupted by friends who stopped by to chat at length, and then some other local rudely barged in front of my brother-in-law for another lengthy delay. We felt like we couldn’t complain to anyone, being the new kids in town. 

The Cuban Convertible Peso is what tourists will use for most transactions in Cuba, and no bank outside of Cuba sells them. Be sure to change whatever you have leftover back to Euros or Dollars at the airport on the way out of Cuba, or you’ll be stuck with what amounts to souvenir Monopoly money.

Getting Around

Here’s where the fun starts. First of all, we got taken outside Terminal 2 at the Havana’s José Martí International Airport despite reading up on it. The yellow taxis are state-run, and they’re fairly modern and clean. After trying to negotiate, we had to pay 30 CUC per stop to get into central Havana. That is, it cost us 30 CUC to drop our bags off at our casa in Miramar and then another 30 CUC to drop us off in town. The problem is, you are forced to take the first taxi in line at the airport so you don’t really have any leverage. That, and the drivers know you’re a rich, dumb American. This ride should have cost 20 CUC to Miramar and then only 10 to get into Havana. So Gustavo, the Future Capitalist, earned a 100% tip simply by exploiting a language barrier. Lesson learned.

The trick is to avoid the yellow state taxis and stick with the fleet of independent classic American cars, which are much cheaper and have a lot more character. Some of them looked like demolition derby cars, but some made you think “how can I buy this heap and get it home?” Because of the embargo, these cars are held together with incredible ingenuity. I could swear I saw some chrome trim that looked like it came off a retro icebox.

The original V6 or V8 gasoline engines have all been replaced with four-cylinder diesel engines, since diesel sells for 1 CUC per liter and gasoline is not an option. And since these old cars predated the catalytic convertor by decades, the air on the main roads can get heavily polluted with diesel exhaust, especially in the narrow streets of Old Havana.

To get from Miramar to anywhere in central Havana, 10 CUC was the norm. Getting back to the airport is equally cheap, once you know the ropes.

Nightlife

It’s all about the music. There was plenty of street music, and plenty of hole-in-the-wall bars along Obispo street. But our best night was spent at a candlelit table at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba where some surviving members of the Buena Vista Social Club were performing with a large ensemble. Much drinking and dancing ensued…

Communism

We were somewhat surprised by the lack of firearms at the airport and on the corner cops. Our first taste of communism came at the Museo de la Revolución, where a grand total of four toilets had to be flushed by a female bucket brigade.

Around the corner we found a mural depicting Ronald Reagan as a cowboy, George H. W. Bush as a Roman emperor, and “W Bush” as an illiterate Nazi. The work’s title (Rincon de los Cretinos) translates to “Corner of the Cretins.” So this is how Fidel Castro saw America, blaming us for a crippling naval blockade.

Inside, the museum displays artifacts from the Cuban Revolution with the presentation quality of a high school civics project. Outside, you can touch some cool guerilla warfare implements and see actual debris from the U-2 spy plane shot down by a Russian missile. Meanwhile, the Cuban Army’s best-looking soldiers guard the Granma, the yacht that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s men used to invade Cuba from Mexico.

Commerce

After interacting with merchants, we got the sense that Cubans are “taxed” at the rate of 90%. That would include taxi drivers, tobacco farmers, artists and so on.

One day, three of us walked past a local school and got watched like a hawk before arriving at a local market, which seemed to have only flip-flops on the shelves. Locals were lined up to get in, but suddenly an armored vehicle pulled up and several soldiers jumped out carrying machine guns. They motioned for everyone to leave and then exited the store carrying a bag of cash. No one got hurt, we assume, but apparently this is how taxes are collected under a dictatorship. I later saw the same squad marching past our casa and was afraid to use my camera.

Culture

I can’t possibly write enough words to describe the Cuban culture, and especially not after such a short visit. But here are some take-aways:

Most Cubans are polite. Sure, they’re oppressed and careful not to make waves, but it was something more. They seem to eschew drinking, smoking and profanity without being overtly religious about it. I figure most of them simply can’t afford to drink or smoke, and probably just do their swearing in Spanish.

Everyone is “on the con,” as my brother-in-law put it. Everyone you meet in a tourist area wants to introduce you to their “friend” but when you press them on their name or where they live, suddenly they have a CD to sell you. And whenever they tell you something is “free,” that just means the hard-sell is deferred to the end of the tour. Remember, the average Cuban lives on $20 a month. So they go to great lengths to charm you out of a few bucks on the sly.

Many Cubans have no civic pride. I know that may sound harsh, even in the absence of social classes, but here are some examples:

A dog turd lies in state at the entrance of a busy shop. No one cleans it up. Not the shop owner, who sees it. Not the street cleaner, who also sees it. Not the landlord next door, who sees it. The turd’s destiny is simply to be stepped on by some barefooted child. No one cares, even though the street is crawling with tourists. Or perhaps because the street is crawling with tourists?

A woman directs her grandchild to throw his food wrapper and cup on the ground at a large festival, rather than find a garbage can a few feet away. This was at one of Havana’s most famous landmarks, the Morro Castle built by the Spanish in the 1589 to protect Havana’s harbor. There were thousands of locals there to celebrate some event, and the grounds of this sprawling structure looked like a landfill. There was garbage everywhere.

This leads me to believe that without any pride of ownership, there is very little room for civic pride of a voluntary or genuine nature. In most parts of America, the shopkeeper would bring out the pooper-scooper and the grandmother would scold any brat that dared to litter such a monument.

Language

Few people outside the big hotels speak English in Cuba, so it helps if you know the basics. The free Google Translate app rescued us many times. You can speak or type a phrase and then show it to the driver or waiter as a flash card. It also helps to anticipate essential communications (especially addresses) up front, and the app will save them for quick access. Generally speaking, everyone we met was very patient with us. Because again, Cubans are very curious about America and they do want our money.