February 23, 2007

Injection Please!

The other day I taught the preschool kids about dysentery being one of the top killers of children in the world. We talked about how it is preventable through good hygiene and treatable with a simple sugar and salt solution for rehydration. We discussed how people in poor countries don't always have access to clean water or medicine so it's hard not to get sick and hard to recover once they are sick. I think it's important for our kids to understand that not everyone has the advantages we do, to pray for others, and to do what they can to help.

Later that day, T had to go for a six-year old booster shot for one of his immunizations. He hates shots so at the end of the preschool day I told him how fortunate he was to live in Japan and be able to get these shots so he wouldn't get sick. Tomomi left with him and R but a couple minutes later I heard R wailing from a block away. She was inconsolable and couldn't explain why she was crying. Later she told me that she thought she was going to get diarrhea and die if she didn't get the same shot T did.

February 19, 2007

Softbank Double White Plan

The point of my blog isn't really to discuss cell phones, but I started on it last November, and nobody else is blogging about this stuff in English so here goes.

Softbank White Plan
Softbank, a mobile carrier in Japan, is going after market share. Evidently they have a lot of unused capacity and are trying to lowball the competition. Their latest offering is the White Plan. For 980 yen per month, subscribers to the White Plan can call other Softbank subscribers at no additional cost between 1AM and 9PM. SMS and MMS mail to other Softbank subscribers is also included in the subscription; there is no extra charge. MMS mail to other email addresses cost anywhere between 3 and 210 yen. Voice calls to non-Softbank phones and to Softbank phones between 9PM and 1AM cost 21 yen per 30 seconds (or fraction thereof). Optional add-on services raise the monthly fees, but the only one that I think most people would want is the S! Basic Pack which allows users to send and receive MMS and to browse the web. It costs 315 yen per month.

Softbank Double White Discount Service
Softbank has just introduced a new "discount service" to be rolled out March 1. The Double White service, an add-on to the White Plan, costs 980 yen per month. Charges on calls to non-Softbank phones and to Softbank phones between 9PM and 1AM are halved to 10.5 yen per 30 seconds. I calculate that the "Double" White Plan beats the "Single" White Plan if the subscriber spends more than an average of 47 minutes per month on non-free calls. This isn't a perfect calculation because call times are rounded up to the nearest 30-second interval. but I think it's pretty close. So at 47 minutes of non-free calls, the Double White Plan costs 980 yen (for the basic subscription) plus 980 yen (for the Double White discount service) plus another 1000 yen or so for the discounted calls. For people who call other Softbank users a lot and non-Softbank users for an hour or so per month, the monthly fees will be in the 3000-4000 yen range. Not bad I think.

People often ask what the best carrier and price plan is. The answer is that it depends on how you use your phone: whom you call, how long you talk, whether you use the web a lot, etc.. If you have specific questions, I'll try to answer them. Either write in the comments or email me at misterjeremy @ seminoff dot fastmail dot fm.

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February 17, 2007

Buzan on Mind Mapping

Tony Buzan, "Mr. Mind Map," has a video on YouTube in which he concisely introduces key mind-mapping concepts and the research behind them. For example, he discusses why a branch should have only one word on it and the benefits of using color. Mind mapping is a great way to brainstorm, to see the relationships between ideas, and to get ideas out of the brain and onto paper or pixels. I think paper is generally the way to go but for mind maps that need to be shared, archived or heavily edited, software can be appropriate. I use FreeMind because it's free and fairly easy to learn. Buzan has recently released his own iMindMap which is expensive but "official" (whatever that's worth). Anyway, here's the YouTube video.

Edit: I just realized that I didn't explain well what mind mapping is. There's a decent entry in Wikipedia. Here is an excerpt from it:

Tony Buzan suggests using the following foundation structures for Mind Mapping:

  1. Start in the centre with an image of the topic, using at least 3 colours.
  2. Use images, symbols, codes and dimensions throughout your Mind Map.
  3. Select key words and print using upper or lower case letters.
  4. Each word/image must be alone and sitting on its own line.
  5. The lines must be connected, starting from the central image. The central lines are thicker, organic and flowing, becoming thinner as they radiate out from the centre.
  6. Make the lines the same length as the word/image.
  7. Use colours – your own code – throughout the Mind Map.
  8. Develop your own personal style of Mind Mapping.
  9. Use emphasis and show associations in your Mind Map.
  10. Keep the Mind Map clear by using radial hierarchy, numerical order or outlines to embrace your branches.

An idea map is similar to a mind map but does not adhere to the above guidelines. Rules are constantly broken based on the purpose and application of the map.

And for those who are more visual, here's a mind map of how to create a mind map (from the same Wikipedia entry linked to above):

Winter Hike in Ogose

The Okumusashi region, not far from where we live, is an easily accessible area not far from Tokyo with lots of trails among low mountains and hills. It's great for a family hike and there's rarely a need for snow gear, even in winter.

On Monday, we went with a few friends and were able to to a bit more rugged of a hike than we had ever done there before. The kids held up great, and Tomomi (now midway through pregnancy) was a trooper. We had a great time, even though the cedar pollen set my nose and eyes a-running.

The trail-head is just a ten-minute walk from Ogose station. To get there take a Tobu Tojo line express train from Ikebukuro. Transfer to the Ogose line at Sakado station and go to the end of the line (700 yen one way). Hiking maps are available for free at the station and there are courses for the casual and ambitious hikers. We didn't see any decent stores so be sure to pack a lunch. Ogose is famous for plum blossoms. They are in full bloom right now!

"Ordering Your Private World" (1)

Every two years or so I read Ordering Your Private World by Gordon MacDonald. Over the next few posts, I'll offer up some nuggets that I've dug from it.

The author, a pastor's son who also became a pastor compares his natural giftedness and fast start in the ministry, with some of his seminary classmates who "had to work harder, discipline themselves more carefully, and develop an inner depth that [he] had not found necessary to worry about."
Those who brought their lives into discipline or (and this is a favorite word of mine) intentionality would, more than likely, go on to long-term lives of fruitfulness, and their best years would be in the last half of their lives when discipline and depth paid off. And those like me, who relied heavily upon our natural giftedness, would reach some high point early in our lives and, more than likely, trail off into averageness for the last half of our days on earth.
We see this in the ministry but perhaps even more clearly in sports where careers are shorter and the spotlight is brighter. For every Michael Jordan or Ichiro Suzuki who discipline themselves into consistent greatness, there are dozens of others with more raw athleticism, the type who skip college, can't get along with coaches and teammates, or go to steroids for a shortcut, who end up a flash in the pan, or worse, disgraced and washed up.

I want to be one of those whose best years are in the last half of their lives.

2/18 Edit: I won't add any more nuggets for a while. A friend just borrowed my copy of the book.

February 11, 2007

The Great Japanese Bear Slaughter

In Japan "between April and November last year 4,251 black bears - between 30 and 50% of the total population - were killed because they were considered a threat to human safety and crops, the environment ministry said" (source). The fact that bear gall bladder and bile is in high demand for Chinese medicine makes me wonder how much of a threat they actually are.

On top of that, this winter has been so mild that bears are having a hard time being able to hibernate; they are making their way into populated areas and even more are being killed.

We'll be sure to make plenty of noise tomorrow on our hike to avoid encountering any shell-shocked, sleep-deprived bears.

Photo: J-Hob

Softbank Ordeal

Warning: This post will be boring to most people. Read only if you are looking for a mobile phone provider in Japan or if you're trying to decide if the Softbank White plan is right for you.

If you're in Japan and haven't heard about Softbank Mobile's new White Plan, you've been living under a rock. For 980 yen a month, they offer free SMS and MMS messaging to other Softbank users and free voice calls to other Softbank users between 1 AM and 9 PM. Calls to other companies' phones and calls to Softbank phones between 9 PM and 1 AM are 21 yen per 30 seconds. To send and receive MMS messages (anything more than short text messages) a monthly fee of 315 yen is required. For people who either don't make a lot of calls or usually call other Softbank users the monthly bill could be under 1500 yen per month.

I'm that kind of user so a week ago I applied to switch to the White Plan. As a matter of background, I got new phones for my wife and myself last month on the "New Superb Bonus Plan" which means (as Softbank representatives usually present it) that in exchange for a two-year contract, Softbank subsidizes the cost of a new phone. I found that this isn't exactly the case. In reality, the discount doesn't apply to the cost of the phone; it applies to the basic monthly fee, optional services, and calling charges. What this meant to me was that if I switched to the White Plan which comes to 1300 yen per month with the optional services I need, I would lose most of the discount I thought I had.

What I had on my side was that the Softbank representative who had sold me the phones had explained the discount incorrectly and had actually written the wrong information on my contract. Even with that, it took four days of arguing with the telephone customer service, the assistant shop manager, and finally the shop manager before I got any kind of resolution. First there was a lot of "sorry we didn't explain things fully enough" and "we explained it in an easy-to-understand way rather than confuse you with details" but when I kept pointing out that their explanation to me was just plain wrong and that they even wrote it that way on my contract, the store manager finally relented. She gave us Tomomi's phone for free with no strings attached and let me downgrade my phone to a model that would lower my monthly bill by about 1000 yen. Even though it's an older model, I actually like it better. It's bulkier, but it has more features and I fat-finger the keys less frequently.

There's a reason that most of AU's advertisements focus on customer satisfaction. With the transition from Vodafone to Softbank and with ever-changing price plans, even the Softbank employees don't know the details of their company's offerings. Shop carefully and get everything in writing.

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Found an Apartment

I've been busy with lots of blogworthy things (blogworthy in my opinion anyway). The problem is that I've been too busy to blog about them so I'll sum up in a few brief posts and follow up in more detail if and when I have time.

The biggest news is that we found a place to live. We ended up applying for the place I mentioned in the last post, just a one-minute walk from where Tomomi and I work and where the kids go to school. We were approved and it looks like we'll be moving on March 5. The reason we chose that day is that according to Japanese superstition (not sure if it's astrology or something Buddhist) it's a very unlucky day, and since no one else wants to move that day, the movers offered us a 30% discount. Ain't it grand to be a Christian?

We almost had a showstopper when the realtor/property manager told us about the screening process. The way that particular company typically does things is that the prospective tenants have to apply for a credit card, then if they are approved for the credit card, they are deemed worthy to rent. Sounds simple enough but then rent has to be paid with that credit card and a 1% fee is assessed each and every month! I hate being taken advantage of and can be pretty stubborn so I told the realtor (quite strongly) that we weren't interested in paying 1% of our rent perpetually for a one-time credit check. A one-time fee for a one-time service is okay but every month?! He said he would talk with his boss and get back to us. This was a Saturday evening. An hour or two later he called with news that we were approved and that we wouldn't need the credit card. I asked him how we could have been approved so quickly and on a weekend. Evidently anyone who isn't on a blacklist is automatically approved. Sheesh -- I'm glad we aren't paying over a thousand bucks a year for that!

Anyway, now that househunting is over it's nice to have our weekends back.