Nihon Yasumi: Day 1

So, I decided to take the RFID passport out for a spin, and now Neibi and I are in Sapporo, Japan, sequestered in a business hotel opposite Hokkaido University. Outside it’s a bracing -6 degrees celsius.

I will now relate to you the tale of day one.

On the first day, December 14th, we flew from Sydney to Narita (Tokyo international airport). We flew JAL and it was pretty good: the flight left late yet arrived early, we got vegetarian food, and the headrest entertainment screens were absorbing. The chick who checked us in was like an angrier Lee Lin Chin, but she got the job done.

I spent my eight and a half hours playing go (on the headrest: victory by resignation), watching movies (Stardust, enjoyable; and Ratatouille, a competent entry), playing Travel Blokus (with Neibi… we tried to play Ingenious Travel Edition but she dropped the pegs), reading Nabokov (short stories), eating (rice crackers), and playing shogi (on the headrest: defeat by checkmate).

When we landed we got into a tiny train (my head touched the roof) which took us to honour systems customs (“I’d like to declare…” “No, just go through.”). From there we took the famous airport limo bus to Haneda (Tokyo domestic).

So, the first day was most spent sitting down, but after checking into our hotel (which was nice) we strolled through the industrial ghetto seeking dinner. We found an extremely Japanese street, which was laid out as follows: curry house, medical clinic, hana-ya, yakitori stand, level crossing, McDonalds, Lawson konbini, karaoke bar, soba restaurant. The soba place had a kana / primary school kanji menu so I thought I had a decent shot at ordering our dinner.

We got ooki yasai soba o futatsu, which for some reason had spam in it (“spam, spam, eggs and spam, tenpura and spam”, etc). The patrons mocked us in a friendly fashion. “Dozo”, they said, gesturing to the counter as I fell over trying to remove my shoes. The proprietor was a fan of Australia and kept mentioning Kingusu Kurossu, which he was keen on.

The next morning we ate breakfast at the hotel (an East-West buffet with fruit salad and cold miso), then flew to Sapporo, Hokkaido.

RFID Passport

I am now the proud owner of an RFID passport, complete with a very thick page that says “do not stamp… gadgetry inside”. Apparently this will get me through customs faster, but I’ll still have to shave my beard off if I don’t want my shoes to be randomly selected for chemical swabbing yet again.

Next up, biometrics and DNA samples.

Kamineko Screenprinting

We did a bit of screenprinting on the weekend to make some clothes for people’s birthdays and the like. The design is based on Kamineko, the biting cat from the manga Azumanga Daioh.

Here’s the screen in action:

And here are the results:

Starcraft Origami

Pretty self explanatory, really… some twisted Korean genius has come up with origami versions of pretty much every unit from Starcraft. Some of the Zerg models are quite beautiful.

The paper battle scenes are impressively nerdy.

Olaf Captures A Frog

We were rudely awakened the other night by Olaf (the cat) depositing a slimy frog on our faces at 3am. Happily N had been watching a TV show about the care and feeding of frogs earlier that day, so she leapt out of bed, crafted a frog habitat out of an old pot and a cake net, then went back to sleep.

The next morning we went out to the local permaculture garden and released the frog. I’d just bought a new camera, so I snapped a photo of it before we sent it on its way. When I loaded it into The GIMP and zoomed in on the picture, I thought the camera’s JPEG compression was busted, because the frog’s skin looked weird and fractal. But when I looked at the rest of the photo (skin, fabric, etc) the compression was gorgeous, so guess frog skin is weirdly fractal for camouflage purposes.

See for yourself (the image below has been compressed again as the original is many a megabyte):

Entertainment, Food

My Neighbour The Doughnut

Check out this excellent My Neighbour Totoro doughnut, baked crispy fresh in the seaside town of Hakodate, Hokkaido.

As well as producing doughnuts of interest, Hakodate is home to Isoya Yuki, who enthusiastically sang the Kenshin theme song. You know, the one where her heavyweight love soon dissolves like the sugar cube, etc.

Turn-based Board Game Servers

Playing games on teh intarwebs is quite fashionable of late, and it sometimes seems like all the cool kids are grinding levels on World of Warcraft, collecting a +3 loincloth of smiting, an epic beagle, and perhaps some sort of lemony potion. After playing three Final Fantasies in a row, the appeal of this sort of thing has diminished for me, and now I favour something more sedate: turn-based board gaming.

For those of us with slower reflexes, those who are content to sip a cup of earl grey and make one or two mouse clicks per hour on a 16-colour virtual gameboard, board gaming by web is quite rewarding.

As a mathematics student, otaku, and young intellectual, my game of choice is go, which I like to play at the Dragon Go Server. There are plenty of places to play go online, but I like this one best of the turn-based servers. The WoW players among you will like the fact that DGS awards you a ranking, which shifts up and down with your gaming fortunes. It’s a bit like experience points, except that they go away when you lose a match. Which would make the other player some sort of wight or revenant, if we stick with the RPG motif.

Another good’un, which I’ve just recently discovered, is Spiel By Web. SBW features hip Eurogames like Reef Encounter (in which you take the role of a deranged parrotfish gobbling up the Great Barrier Reef) and Tikal (in which you take the role of an old fashioned archaeologist looting the Americas).

And finally, for those who prefer the traditional games, there’s, which serves up turn-based chess, backgammon, and ‘Jamble’ — a game as similar to Scrabble as the rule of law will allow.

I heartily encourage you to abandon your expensive MMOs and join me on all of the above.

Cityrail Anagram Map

Saw this Cityrail anagram map in one of boingboing’s recent spate of anagram map postings, and thought it would be amusing to fellow Sydneysiders. It appears that making English anagrams from aboriginal place names is quite difficult.

The station pictured is Bexley North, a.k.a. Xylene Throb.

Anime Review: Kiddy Grade

Anime seems to having a renaissance in the west at the moment, with hundreds of titles being translated and cranked out in form of bulky boxed sets. And since these boxed sets are on the pricey side, I’m a bit wary of taking a punt on new anime, as opposed to titles that I can be sure I’ll watch repeatedly, like Haibane Renmei, Irresponsible Captain Tylor etc. A shame, really, as it means that the guilty pleasures of the anime world (consisting mostly of mecha and copious fan service) are neglected.

One such guilty pleasure — worth watching or renting, but not paying retail for — is Kiddy Grade, a somewhat confusing sci-fi series in which cute girls and giant robots beat the crap out of various bad guys, good guys, and departmental colleagues.

Though relatively mild on the fan service, it does have a zany cosplay element, as the protagonist dons three skimpy uniforms, then branches out into receptionist, pizza girl, waitress, pro wrestler and even motorcycle sentai outfits.

Éclair (the variously costumed heroine of the piece) is an agent of the GU (basically the space UN), and is sort of a blend of superhero, commando, secret agent, and office worker. If you’ve seen any of the Burn Up OVAs you’ve got the general idea. Éclair’s partner / sidekick is Lumière, a wealthy heiress with a taste for fine wines and etiquette, who appears to be no older than age 14. Using a nanotech lipstick and bottle of aged burgundy respectively, they battle evil and make friends in a lighthearted manner reminiscent of series like Rurouni Kenshin and Dragonball.

There’s a bit more to it than that, however, and as the series progresses Éclair starts to have doubts about the ethics of her work, subtly encouraged by the enigmatic / bishi Mr Armbrust. Armbrust (variously titled an ambassador, inspector, and auditor, though the latter seems most likely) bears a strong resemblance to the protagonist of Michael Swanwick‘s Stations of the Tide. Like Swanwick’s bureaucrat, he has a nanotech briefcase and a sort of understated cynicism. The kind of guy who has a preferred brand of Dijon mustard, if you take my meaning.

Armbrust would make a good romantic interest for Éclair, but oddly the series doesn’t exploit this. And actually the plot in general is a bit wonky, with many a loose end and deus ex machina (though admittedly these are fairly standard plot problems with anime). There’s plenty of style, and lots of merchandising opportunities, but the substance is a bit patchy in places.

One good thing that really stood out about the series was the quality of both the design and the animation (by Studio Gonzo). The characters are detailed, the buildings are suitably gigantic, and the mecha are done in a streamlined Full Metal Panic style. The spaceships are a real standout: they’re colourful and birdlike, and scooting about on plumes of flickering blue flame in the manner of an side-scrolling arcade shooter.

The only faults I can find with the production lie with the US licencees (Funimation), who give us not only the usual crap English voice acting, but also a script that diverges from the Japanese a fair bit. And it’s
dubtitled, arrgh!

On the whole, then, Kiddy Grade is like its scantily clad protagonist: easy on the eye, but basically airheaded. That’s not a bad thing sometimes, so I give it 7/10, and suggest you rent it if you get the opportunity.

Dalek Porn Movie

The BBC and the estate of Terry Nation are a wee bit angry at makers of a recent Dalek porn movie, entitled Abducted by The Daleks. Said movie apparently features, uh, hot plunger action, and unlicenced action at that. The Beeb has prevented the movie being distributed, but naturally a torrent is out there for those of you interested in such a thing.

Rev Controller Hands On

When I first saw the photos of the new Nintendo controller (for the upcoming Revolution console), I was both impressed and bewildered. Impressed, because clearly it was going to be something a bit out of the ordinary (Nintendo’s strong suit), and bewildered as to how the thing was supposed to work in the real world. CNN had a play with the Rev controller prototype and all is revealed: as well as having the usual rumble feature (and wirelessness), the controller is also modular and gyroscopic.

The basic unit looks like a TV remote, and has a d-pad, a trigger, and a large main button. Two smaller buttons are lower on the face, as well as the usual start button. The select button is also back, and an indicator has been added to show you which control port the device is wireless mapped to. The basic idea is that you tilt the controller, and the analogue gyroscope works like a control stick. You can also move the whole controller through the air, swinging it like a sword, yanking it like a fishing rod, or moving it like a free-floating joystick. For games that require two axes of movement, like first-person shooters, a traditional control stick can be added (see picture).

There are more Rev controller photos at

Board Game of the Year

I was going to write an article on my pick for game of the year in various formats, but realised that it would largely be a repeat of my enthusiastic blurb about Resident Evil 4. That being the case, I’ll assume you’ve all dutifully obtained a copy of RE4 and are now dying to know which board game to rest the console of your choice on. Read on…

In a strong year for board games, my choice for board game of the year is Bonaparte at Marengo by Bowen Simmons. For those unfamiliar with the game (which I imagine is most of you, given that it’s self-published), BaM is a block wargame of the Battle of Marengo.

As a block game, one of Bonaparte at Marengo’s distinguishing features is that information about a player’s pieces is hidden from his or her opponent. The pieces are blocks with information on one face only, and the information side is kept facing the piece’s owner (as in the classic 1950s game game Stratego). When a battle occurs, the pieces are revealed and the winner determined.

Close-up of wooden blocks showing hidden unit markings

Why do I like BaM better than any other board game released this year? There are many reasons, but the main ones are:

  • It’s lavishly produced: the blocks are made of wood, the board is attractive and properly mounted (a rarity in wargames, which commonly use paper or cardboard maps), and two copies of the rules are provided.
  • There’s plenty of strategic interest: both sides have different pieces, objectives, and playing styles, with an emphasis on manouvering that feels like chess with a wide open board
  • A game takes 90 minutes, which means that you can play a game, switch sides, then have a rematch, and still get to the pub before closing time.
  • The rules are brief (10 pages) and comprehenisble, though admittedly it’s not the sort of thing you could play with a random family member.

Bonaparte at Marengo will be hard to find in a retail store, but if you’re interested in it you can buy it direct from Simmons Games, or from an online retailer such as Boards and Bits. The BaM page on has reviews and other information if you’d just like to check it out.

BaM photo by Kurt Tolley used under CC licence.

Happy Hour Tightarse Search Engine

Wow, this is a website that’s long overdue. Enter an Australian capital city, a region, and a day, and it’ll spit back a happy hour drink price comparision for every bar in the area. It even tells you which ones are trying to fob off dodgy champers and house wine on you instead of beer. For example, if you’re in Sydney’s inner west of a Tuesday arvo, the Excelsior has $2 schooners. Nice. And of course there are the mandatory reviews to dispute and forums to troll and whatnot.

Free PDF Go Books

The Wings Go Club has a bunch of PDF Go books including a beginners guide, commented games, and some interesting guides to making the most out of handicap stones (the latter are also available in .doc format).

If you prefer physical books and are in Australia, J.W. & S. Hardy have a nice selection.

German Board and Card Games

If you look in the board / card game aisle of your local department store, you’ll quickly notice that most of the games there are over thirty years old. Lets see now, we’ve got Sorry (1934), Monopoly (1903), Cluedo (1946). Some of the card games are bit fresher: Mille Bornes is from 1954, and Uno first appeared in 1971.

With that in mind, one might wonder what’s been happening in the world of board games in the last fifteen years or so (i.e. since computer and videogames became popular). The surprising answer is that Germany has been going through a board gaming boom due, a drunken traveller told me the other night, to winter being ‘cold and dark’. As it is now getting a bit colder and darker around our way, the time seems ripe to discuss some German games of interest.

Throughout this blurb I refer mainly to two sites: (a repository of board game knowledge) and, an Australian online board game store.

First up is Carcassonne, winner of the 2001 Spiel des Jahres (German game of the year). This was the first German game I got my hands on, and it blew me away with how different it was from the Parker Brothers style games mentioned above. The first thing that struck me about it was the quality of the playing pieces: the pawns (known to fans as meeples) are wooden rather than plastic, and the tiles are made of thick line-backed card printed in full colour. And the rules not only cover how to play, but also contain colour photographs demonstrating how ambiguous moves should be resolved.

The basic idea of the game is that each player places tiles (containing sections of roads, cities, and farms) in order to form a SimCity type map of the Carcassonne region. As tiles are played, meeples may be placed on them in order to claim the roads, cities, and farms (and the associated points) for a particular player. If you’re looking for a light and friendly first game to ease yourself into more sophisticated modern board games, this would be a good start. Unhalfbricking sells it for A$35. It plays well with 2 to 4 players, so it’s pretty flexible.

If you want something a bit more challenging, China is one of my favourite German games. It’s another good example of the kind of production quality you can expect from the genre: full colour board and cards, one hundred cut and painted wooden pieces, clear and concise full colour rulebook. It’s basically a game of area majority, where you play cards to place your pieces into an area of the board so that you outnumber the other players there. If that sounds interesting, you can read my full review on This is a game to consider if you like games of skill and confrontation (chess, Risk etc) but are looking for something with no dice for three to five players. It’s a cruel game, but it plays quickly, so the tears of your loved ones will be brief. Unhalfbricking has it for A$50.

Reiner Knizia is the most prolific board game designer, and is considered by many to be the best. The most recent addition to my stack of Knizia games is Samurai, a tile-laying game set in feudal Japan. Samurai is beautiful to behold, with black plexiglass buddhas and a deco-style map that adds more islands to the archipelago as you increase the number of players. Unlike Carcassonne, it’s an influence game, where the tiles you place represent your political and military force being brought to bear on the peasantry, nobility, and religious leaders that are on the map. It’s a very simple game to learn, but it has some of the classic character of Go, as the struggle for territory moves back and forth across the board. Highly recommended.

On to card games now, and one game in particular that everyone seems to enjoy is Bohnanza, the game of trading, planting, and harvesting beans. People are usually lukewarm to the theme, but once you put some cards in their hand they start trading soy beans for green beans as if their very lives depended on it!

Bohnanza has some really clever mechanics that make it a cut above most other card games I have come across. Everyone can trade beans with the active player and also harvest beans at any time, so there’s no looking at your watch and waiting for your turn — you’re playing all the time. Additionally you must play your cards in the order in which they were dealt to you, which encourages everyone to get involved so that they can trade away their unwanted cards. Another great mechanism is the way the game handles income from bean sales: you flip over the sold cards and there’s money printed on the reverse.

You can get it for A$35 from Unhalfbricking. The game supports up to seven players, but the two player game is a variant. A 3 to 7 player game should take somewhere between 45 minutes and 1 hour 15 minutes.

A popular card game for couples is Lost Cities (also by Knizia). It’s basically a game of card counting and compromise, with a rather thin India Jones theme tacked onto it. The components are of excellent quality: big tarot sized cards, and a folding board with areas for the game’s five discard piles. There’s not much more to it than playing cards in numerical order or discarding them, but there are so many choices to be made that the game is strangely addictive. This is a good game to try with relatives that might be confused by a more complex German game with a zillion wooden cubes in it. A$40 from Unhalfbricking.

If the above games sound a bit too light and fluffy for you, a more complex German card game to consider is San Juan. In this game the cards pull triple duty as buildings, money, and trade goods. For example, I might discard two cards to pay for (play) a sugar mill card, which will later produce sugar (a face down card atop the sugar mill) which can then be sold (in a fluctuating market represented by cardboard price tokens) to bring in fresh cards as income. On each turn, the active player chooses a role for all of the players to play out: the prospector draws a random card, the councillor seeks a specific card, the builder builds a structure (e.g. sugar mill), the producer generates trade goods (e.g. sugar), and the trader sells goods. The role selection mechanism is fiendish, and players will try to choose the builder when their opponents are broke, or the trader when their opponents have no goods to sell. If that’s not enough for you, San Juan is actually a simplified version of Puerto Rico, an even more complex board game. Unhalfbricking has San Juan for A$40.

Idaho Government Honours Napoleon Dynamite

The government of Idaho has commended Jared Hess and his film Napoleon Dynamite for their contributions to the state.

The text of bill HCR029 lists the aforementioned contributions with bureaucratic zeal. Highlights include the following:

16    WHEREAS, the friendship between Napoleon and Pedro has furthered

17  multiethnic relationships; and

18    WHEREAS, Uncle Rico's football skills are a testament to Idaho athletics;

19  and

20    WHEREAS, Napoleon's bicycle and Kip's skateboard promote better air qual-

21  ity and carpooling as alternatives to fuel-dependent methods of transporta-

22  tion;

The bill was unanimously passed, possibly due to the clause stating:

2    WHEREAS, any members of the House of Representatives or the Senate of the

3  Legislature of the State of Idaho who choose to vote "Nay" on this concurrent

4  resolution are "FREAKIN' IDIOTS!"