Keychron K2

I bought my first computer in the spring of 2002. I had come late to personal computers. It was a Fujitsu laptop that I bought from a big box electronics store near Enmachi in Kyoto. It took a few months before it was even connected to the internet!

A couple of years later, I made the switch to Apple and bought a 17 inch iMac G4 off of a friend who was getting the 20 inch. The flat-panel G4 was iconic because of its lampshade design. I loved it, and it was partly on that machine that I learned design. I have owned many computers in the intervening years, but to this day I still think about the keyboard that came with that old iMac — the JIS version of the A1048. It had big chunky keys that clacked (a bit) when you typed. It felt great.

Since then I have experimented a bit with mechanical keyboards, some split style ones and even some straight columnar ones, all courtesy of some real keyboard-freak friends. I agree that something you spend 8-12 hours touching all day, should be optimized for you. However, I spent a lot of time rushing from meeting to meeting with a laptop, and it didn’t seem that optimal to be switching external keyboards all the time.

Now I am in my home office, and spend most of my time on my 27″ iMac. I do go out occasionally, but take my iPad Pro with its little keyboard when I am on the road. Since most of my time is here at my standing desk at home, beside my window that looks out over the port, I decided to take the opportunity and get a big, chunky, loud THERE IS A WRITER AT WORK, CAN YOU NOT HEAR!? keyboard.

I looked around quite a bit, and asked some friends, and ended up getting the Keychron K2 with white backlight and brown switches. It checked off most of my boxes:

The only thing I couldn’t get was a Japanese layout. There is a really good Japanese mechanical keyboard outfit, but they only make keyboards for Windows computers, and I wanted something I could use out of the box without any key-surgery.

So after a bunch of deliberation, I went for the K2, a reasonably priced keyboard with a good rep. It arrived today. Take a look!

Unboxing

I have been clacking away at it all morning. I am going to need a few days to get used to it. I totally prefer the arrow key config compared the Apple Magic Keyboard, but having the Backspace and Return buttons not at the edge of the keyboard means I cannot be so wild with my typing.

Here it is on my desk. (The woody looking thing is my iPhone charger… I was using my phone to take this picture.)

iMac with new keyboard and Apple Mouse sitting on a desk. To the left is a GoPro on a mini tripod.

Sakyōbana, crumbling pillar of Heaven

In my last post I explained about the “Pillars of Heaven”, the eight objects sent down by the gods to prevent Iki island from floating around the Sea of Japan at its own free will. Other than Saruiwa the Monkey Rock, most have crumbled into the sea. Of the remaining pillars, my favourite is Sakyōbana, a lava rock formation that looks like a massive, stubby finger pointing up to the sky. You can just imagine this as the remains of a “heavenly pillar.”

Sakyōbana sits just off the coast on the Easternmost part of the island. The cliffs are about 20 meters high, and covered in stiff vegetation, clinging to the rocks as the ocean winds whip at the rock face. It is spectacular seascape viewing at this part of the island. There is not much civilization, and the road runs right along the cliffs so you get amazing views. Also, these cliffs are where these cool sea cows hang out.

At Sakyōbana is a wide grassy field atop the cliff with a memorial sign, a gazebo for windy picnicking, and a shrine overlooking the sea. Here is a 4K video of Sakyobana from the top of the cliffs:

I climbed down the cliff to take some shots of the waves close up. All the rocks are igneous and dangerous. I was on the lookout for snakes, imagining if they popped out and caused me to fall, the lava rocks would tear my flesh before I fell into the big waves crashing into the rocks. It was very dramatic. My wife looked down upon me from the cliff tops, impassive as a stone statue.

The tide was starting to come in, so I didn’t spend that long taking footage of the waves, as the water began lapping at my feet. Here is a 4K video at the water level:

Below is a bit of a gallery. It is just one of the stunning natural spots that Ikijima offers.


Monkey Rock, a pillar of heaven

On the eastern side of Iki, jutting 45 meters out of the ocean is a giant rock formation, somewhat covered in moss-like greenery. From a certain angle the rocks look uncannily like a massive gorilla, solemnly looking out over a nearby cliff. This is the treasure of Ikijima: Saruiwa 猿岩 or “Monkey Rock.”

The Kojiki, or the “Record of Ancient Matters”, describes the creation of Japan by the gods Izanagi and Izanami (the parents of the Sun Goddess). With their jewelled spear they originally created 8 islands, not all are part of modern day Japan. The fifth island created was Iki… but there was a problem. Iki was a “living island” and apparently floated around the sea at its own whim. This was inconvenient for the gods, who preferred that islands stay put. So they cast down eight massive pillars to pin the island, and hold it in place upon the sea. Saruiwa is one of those “heavenly pillars.”

The other seven are not so spectacular — most have crumbled into the sea (I will cover one of the better ones in a future post). But Saruiwa is extremely striking. I wish I had a 50mm lens to give you a sense of how massive the thing is.

Below is a mini gallery from the rock. You can check out a few more photos and short videos, including some from the evening and from the cliff beside the giant Monkey Rock on Flickr.


Sounds of the Monkey Rock

It had been raining for days, so when I went up there the grasses were full of all sorts of life. I decided to take a quick recording. Listen to this while you look at the photos, and maybe you will get a feeling of being there. It was very windy, so I pointed the mic away from the ocean, but you can hear the waves in the background.

Convenient Countryside Karaoke

Hey peeps in Japan, does your FamiMa include a Karaoke room? I mean, convenience stores here have everything but I have never seen karaoke in one before!

On the left is a convenience store. On the right is an attached building with a sign for "Onpu"
“Onpu” — the local karaoke joint in Gonoura

The only big name convenience store on Ikijima is FamilyMart — there are no Lawsons or 7-11s. FamiMa has two locations and both of them have attached karaoke rooms. The above is in the “city” of Gonoura. It is pretty fancy as you can see. Onpu (literally “musical note”) is attached to the FamilyMart. The entrance is right beside the cash register inside the convenience store.

Below is Pop, at the other FamiMa on the island, in the “town” of Ashibe. It is not as fancy, and is not attached. You have to go into the convenience store and get the key, which you reserve in advance.

On the right is a convenience store. Beside it to the left is a small building with a sign for "Pop"
“Pop” — the local karaoke joint in Ashibe

As you can see below, Pop is shaped like a trailer but is a permanent building. It is more like the karaoke trailers that you see around, but nicer.

A different angle of "Pop" with the convenience store in the background

Elsewhere on the island you will see the more “rustic” karaoke trailer. Below we have “Music Studio Shinjo“, which you can see upon closer inspection, is literally a trailer.

I have only experienced karaoke in larger cities, so this is the first time I have ever seen a “country karaoke trailer.” It seems like a good idea to put these little bunkers out in the middle of nowhere where no one will be bothered by my caterwauling. Is this common in other rural parts of Japan? I can’t imagine this is a purely Iki thing… let me know in the comments. 👇

What is the most exciting thing in publishing today?

This weekend I was thinking about the recent history of publishing content: What are the innovations and trends of the past? What is in the near future?

Let me give you a few examples of the kinds of things I am thinking about:

  • blogs
  • microblogs vs tumblr vs twitter
  • social
  • interest-based blog networks like Medium
  • Podcasts become popular (again)
  • recent trend in newsletters, especially paid ones
  • fediverse platforms like Mastadon
  • old skool Indie ‘zines
  • Cellphone novels
  • Kindle singles and other self-published eBooks
  • more novellas coming out in recent years
  • Wattpad

This is not an exhaustive list of publishing tools/models (if you have more please add them in the comments!).

These platforms go in-an-out of fashion. One reason is when a certain platform starts getting eyeballs, professional orgs come in and start crowding out indie voices (I really saw this both in blogging and podcasting). It is a kind of gentrification. We saw this with blogs and podcasts. I wish I could find the original quote, but I think of it as a dictum:

Everyone has a voice on the internet, but that doesn’t mean they will be heard.

Unknown

Network effects, especially driven by the big social media platform(s), means that content distribution is really bumpy.

On the opposite end, you get the “Yogi Berra effect.” You know:

Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.

Yogi Berra

So there is churn in online publishing, even if it is cyclical. Benedict Evans said in his most recent newsletter:

New internet distribution models work like slash-and-burn agriculture: OK for year or two and then it’s time to move on.

There is tons of content online, and if you want to contribute, which distribution channels should you use? How not to get buried?

Ben Evans points out:

… the average FB user feed has 1,500+ items a day – once you’ve followed everyone interesting you’ll never see what they post, and you’ve mixed your friends and your interests, and the algorithm hides what it will.

(This is a question I have been asking for a while, as I think about how to share all the photographing, filming, and writing about Japan I have been doing returning here 4 months ago).

In the early 2000s the blog was the tool, and RSS was the network that bound everyone together. RSS lost out to social media as the network, and in many cases social became the publishing tool (think of how many people just use Insta instead of a blog). You can write alone on the web on your blog forever and not be discovered because you have no distribution into/via the network. If you are trying to start up a new project, figuring out how to crack the nut of distribution and get effective reach is key. These are old problems, but they stay evergreen due to the musical chairs of publishing/distribution tools+networks mentioned above.

Looking at the problem at its most simplistic, there are two axes of differentiation:

  1. Content: you have unique ideas/perspective/experiences/skill
  2. Medium: you express your ideas/perspective/experiences/skill in a unique medium

Sounds like a “style vs substance” or “form over function.” — I told you it was simplistic! — but it got me thinking about publishing mediums in general.

I have been writing on this blog for 10 years, and have been blogging for nearly 20, and I came to it 10 years late! Blogging is a very mature medium and although the tools might improve, I think it is still a pretty recognizable form after all this time — like the novel or poetry.

Every day I am now using Roam as I work on my zettelkasten. Last year I was inspired by Andy Matuschak’s essay on transformative tools for thought. These are new ways to write==think. Andy’s published notes site is a very interesting way of putting that thinking online (I recommend clicking around and exploring it). I have been following Evgeny Morozov’s The Syllabus since the beginning (see this interview with De Correspondent to get what it is all about). Then there are things like Craig Mod’s companion site for his book Koya Bound. That’s just classic, cool webdesign.

These are certainly cool tools providing novel ways to interact with ideas/perspective/experiences/skill. But they don’t have the best thing that blogs had back in the day: community. I want to engage in a back-and-forth, to learn new ideas and improve my own. That was the best part of blogging in the early 2000s: meeting cool people online, and then meeting them in real life! I want to capture that feeling of blogging 20 years years, which had little to do with technology, and everything to do with the community.

In thinking about this, and looking to be inspired, I am on the hunt for innovative publications, magazines, blogs, etc that are firing people up: getting them engaged with more than just hitting a Like button. If you have any you want to share or plug, post below!

A better process for reading, writing, and thinking: zettelkasten

I read a lot. Maybe too much… I am not a particularly fast reader, and I only do about 48 books a year (about 70% of those books in audio).

Chart showing number of books read per year.
Stats from Goodreads

So why do I say that I read “too much”? It is because I can barely remember anything I have read in the past. To date, since 2010, I have ticked off over 500 books. But like most people, I have forgotten pretty much all of it. Is it because I am consuming too much too quickly? Of course not. It because I am not retaining knowledge in an effective manner.

A few months ago my buddy asked me an intriguing question: “What note taking system do you use?” He said he was reading a new book on taking better notes… I thought he meant what app do I use. I have about 15 note taking apps on my devices, so I launched into a (yet again, unnecessary) comparative analysis lecture. What we was really asking was about my methodology. It was pretty simple: I annotate books like crazy in my Kindle, using different colours for certain things, then export the notes to plaintext and store them in one of my many note-taking apps. Generally I write only short articles or book reviews, so during writing I usually pull up my highlights in a window on the left, and a bit of an outline on the right, and piece together my draft that way. When I do a book reviews I might read four or five books from the author to get a sense of their ouvre. It is not too difficult to keep all the salient points in my head.

Screencap of book notes. Most are just exports of the annotations from Kindle.
Screencap of book notes. Most are just exports of the annotations from Kindle.

But for writing that relies on more sources, especially longer writing, this approach is impossible. The big thing my approach lacks is connecting what I am reading with other knowledge. I am relying solely on my memory to hold all the relevant points in order to generate insight. And since the human brain is fallible (well, mine at least), the raw materials used to generate insight are constantly receding into the murky past. This results in me being a victim of the “feature-positive” effect, which is when one puts more emphasis on information that they have recently encountered, even if it is not the most relevant (ie. Recency > Relevancy).

My master’s thesis was over a hundred pages, with dozens of references. My current book will be much larger. I needed a better approach. So I asked my friend about that book he was reading…

The Getting Things Done for academics

There are lots of “productivity gurus” out there selling you bunk. I am a guilty sucker ✋, I’ve tried a bunch. The only two I have stuck with, and evangelize still today, are the Inbox Zero and Getting Things Done methodologies (note, Inbox Zero is heavily based on GTD, so it is really just one methodology). GTD saved my life back in 2005 when I was running my first web design company, had too many competing priorities, and was dropping the ball all over the place. The GTD book by David Allen is super popular — because it works. I even mentioned it in my post of Your life-changing books.

So when it came to having a methodology for taking notes so that I could retain more of what I read, and thereby come up with better insights, I started looking at the book recommendation of my friend: How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens.

cover of the book How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers by Sönke Ahrens

I am not going to write about the how here. It is one of those things that is deceptively simple, and if you read the book you will see its many impacts on learning, thinking, and creativity. However, to sum up the “simple technique” from the subtitle: it is about reading with a pen in hand and recapping the ideas you are reading in your own words in full sentences, then connecting the ideas in those notes to ideas in other notes to build a web of knowledge, and finally putting notes from various sources together to produce writing products like articles, papers, or books.

From a productivity standpoint, it is similar to GTD in that it breaks projects down into discrete, manageable tasks so you won’t freeze up due to your lack of productivity. You focus on the process and not the outcome, which is much more motivating. If each day you are faced the monolithic task of “writing a book,” it is understandable why you can’t leave dirty dishes in the sink and cannot log out of Twitter. But if you set your goal to be simply writing a handful of well-constructed notes each day, that is a much easier task to tackle.

Each day you add notes and make connections, then make notes about the connections. This is where “thinking” happens. This is the work: the productivity that you can easily measure every day. This is the zettelkasten methodology, or what some people call building a “second brain.”

Cartoon with two boxes: the left box is labelled "INFORMATION" and contains a number of randomly distributed dots. The right box is labelled "KNOWLEDGE" and has the same random distribution of dots, but this time each of the dots is connected to at least one other forming a "web of knowledge"
Source

The zettelkasten is the field where you harvest your ideas, your daily productivity is seeding that field with a critical mass of useful notes.

I have been working with this methodology for the past couple of weeks and it has been pretty freeing. Like when you do your first GTD brain dump and feel your stress dissolve because you trust the system, I have been recording all the ideas/facts/data I have been coming across in my system, freeing my brain up for thinking, which is the most enjoyable creative act to me. After reading the book How to Take Smart Notes I see there are many more benefits to using a zettelkasten other than productivity. I feel like it has been life-changing, and it certainly has already impacted the approach I am taking with my new book.

If you want to learn more, in this video the author gives a nice introduction to the concept and its history (at about the 30 minute mark he discusses productivity). That is highly recommended viewing, but I would also recommend the book. It is short, and packed with ideas (it generated 3,300 words of notes in my zettelkasten!).

The Bridges of Nagasaki

In northwest Kyushu, on a peninsula of a peninsula of a peninsula, like a fractal made from prehistoric solidified lava, lies the vibrant city of Nagasaki.

Satellite image of peninsulas, with Nagasaki location labelled
Nagasaki City lies on a branch of three interconnected peninsulas. Two volcanoes can be seen, Unzen to the east, and Taradake to the northeast.

Nestled amongst rugged volcanic hills, Nagasaki is one of the most important ports in all of Japanese history. The narrow bay quickly gives way to steep mountains, carpeted with thick, sub-tropical jungle fauna thanks to the rich soil and humid weather. Here and there buildings cling tenuously to the hillside, almost stacked upon one another.

Street in front of a building, with hill behind and many houses and buildings on a steep hill
The Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture. The hill behind gives you a sense of the steepness of the city.

Below are narrow gullies where rivers flow into the bay. The rivers are interconnected by a series of canals, crisscrossed with bridges supporting the movement of people and goods. Higher up, the mountains are connected by bridges and tunnels. Driving into the city from the airport your view constantly alternates between smooth concrete lit by drab fluorescent lights, and soaring vistas of cities, rivers, and farmland below. Just entering the city one sees how Nagasaki has conquered its rocky landscape with feats of infrastructure.

The ruggedness also has its boons too, beyond natural beauty. That craggy geography protected much of the city from history’s second atomic bomb in August 9, 1945. Fat Man was a bigger bomb too. Little Boy, the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan, flattened about 70% of Hiroshima’s buildings, leaving another 6-7% severely damaged. An old teacher of mine was a child living in the suburbs when the Hiroshima bomb was dropped. He described to me his memory of coming over the hill to see a total wasteland. He could see all the way to where Hiroshima station used to stand, an unimaginable sight for a 6 year old. It was now a plain of rubble, the only things standing were the occasional telephone pole. A few days later, Nagasaki’s furrowed topography frustrated the Fat Man who could destroy only (!) 40% of its buildings.

That was 75 years ago. Since then the city has built itself back up. Nagasaki has long been a city of industry. A 150 years ago Nagasaki was at the center of Japan’s industrial revolution. Scholars from all over the country would come to Nagasaki to engage in 蘭学 rangaku or “Dutch Studies.” Engineering, medicine, technology — much of the transfer of knowledge from the West happened here in Nagasaki. Specifically on one little island. You just had to get over the bridge.

Continue reading “The Bridges of Nagasaki”

First month at Japanese Elementary school

My feet are soooo sunburnt. It looks like I am wearing crabs for slippers.

It has been one month of Japanese elementary school. My kids have done surprisingly well considering that Japanese is not really their mother tongue. There have been a couple of rough days, but overall they are maintaining a very high level of curiosity and drive.

This is my first time experiencing Japanese elementary school too. Not only am I experiencing through my kids, I am participating more in the school community. Certainly not having a regular job gives me the freedom to volunteer at the school, but Japanese elementary schools drag the parents into all sorts of activities. That is how I got terribly sunburned (more on that later).

Below I thought I would outline our experiences so far, what the kids do each day, what they learn, and then round up with a special event where I helped out at the school. This post is admittedly long — sorry about that! Hopefully I can keep you entertained. Keep in mind of course that whatever I say here can only be representative of our experience: even though the Japanese education system is centralized, there are many small localized variations.

Continue reading “First month at Japanese Elementary school”

What are Japan’s Remote Islands (ritō)?

Before coming to Iki on the Remote Islands Exchange program, I didn’t know “remote islands” were. I mean, all of Japan is islands right? In English there is lots of content on “Japanese islands that are remote” but not much on “remote islands”, or ritō, as a singular concept. Now that I live on one of those remote islands, I started to dig in.

How many islands?

Quick quiz! Name the islands that make up Japan!

🤔 Well, there is the main island Honshu which has most of the population and the big cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Kyoto. Hokkaido is the big one in the north famous for potatoes and the Ainu indigenous peoples. Tucked under Honshu is Shikoku connected by that really long bridge and the 88 temple, 1200km walking pilgrimage. Then, in the southwest there is Kyushu, from which it is a short ferry ride to Korea. That’s the major four islands. Then of course there is Okinawa, the old Ryukyu Kingdom which was only returned to Japan by the American military in 1973. Those are all the major islands, but there are obviously many more. Like the Senkaku Islands that Japan and China are fighting over, or Takeshima, which the Koreans dispute as Dokdo. The Russians have some claims on the Kuril islands in the north. Then there is that bunny/poison gas island and like 11 cat islands.

Being a “stratovolcanic archipelago” Japan has a lot more islands than you can likely name. In fact, there are 6,852 at the last official count. The vast majority of these are uninhabited, but there are 416 islands[1] where human beings (and cats probably) reside. But they are all important for Japan. I will go into that in a future post, but today I would just like to introduce you to the concept and the geographic context of the ritō.

Continue reading “What are Japan’s Remote Islands (ritō)?”

A successful move to Ikijima, the Lucky Island

In the last post I described moving to Japan during a pandemic. After all that drama we followed up with an inter-prefectural move within Japan under a State of Emergency! The drama never ends around here…

Golden Week is around the beginning of May when a series of holidays fall in place almost almost one after another (a couple of Emperor’s birthdays, Constitution Day, Children’s Day etc.). Many people take the whole week off and travel around the country — either to visit relatives or for tourism — in the beautiful May weather before the rainy season brings the oppressive heat of summer. Since everyone has the same week off, everywhere is packed. But not in the year of coronovirus: the government asked everyone to stay home on their holidays.

The State of Emergency called on April 7th was to go to the end of Golden Week on May 6th. We considered waiting until the SOE had lifted before moving, but feared another outbreak as the country started up again. Travelling while everyone stayed home seemed like the best way to mitigate the risk. We paid attention to the news, and when the numbers came out that the Bullet Train only had about 6% ridership, we decided to head to the island.

It was a good move. We took the Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka and there were only a handful of people waiting to get on the train. At most there were 10 people in our car, which had a capacity of 100. Everyone was wearing masks and we disinfected our seating area. It was the plane flight to Japan all over again. By the time we disembarked in Hakata there were only two people other than the four of us in the car.

Shinkansen scenery — shot and edited entirely on my iPhone

The jetfoil to Iki was a similar story. We were the only passengers on the upper deck, which holds about 90 people. Downstairs, I saw maybe another handful of people. Thus, we were able to traverse the 700 kilometers through 7 prefectures safely.

Jetfoil to Iki was pretty empty
All aboard…? An empty jetfoil to Iki.

Staying at Wasabi

We still didn’t have a home to go to though. So we stayed in a local guesthouse we found online called Wasabi. This cool little backpacker’s hostel is situated high up a hill overlooking Ashibe Fishing Port. I took a few photos around the guesthouse and made a little tour video:

[That whole video was shot and edited on my iPad Pro. I was really surprised at the capability!]

We stayed here for a couple of days while we met with the school district to secure our house and finalize the selection of our school. But we took the day after we arrived off to recover from the trip, and the master of Wasabi took us on a quick tour around the island (photos). We only drove around the outer rim of the island and visited a series of white sand beaches, some historical sites, climbed the biggest mountain (212 meters) to take a 360 video, and of course saw the famous Monkey Rock. I plan on going to each of these sites again and taking lots of pics and video, but this was a quick taste test since the weather was really nice (but windy!).

Moving into the house and first day of school

On our second day in Iki, a Thursday, we decided on a house and a school. After two and a half months of basically being homeless, we finally secured a place of our own! Friday was fridge and washing machine shopping, as well as other home stuff, and we picked up the 19 boxes we had sent from Kyoto. On the Saturday we began the move. We were going to take a little more time, but the school district wanted the kids in school for Monday, since school here just started up again after Golden Week and a bit of a hiatus during the State of Emergency (they only had 4 school days during the month of April).

Monday came soon enough as we spent all weekend unpacking boxes and cleaning. During the weekend some neighbourhood kids came over and offered to walk to school with my girls. On Monday morning they came over at 7:05. My kids were up and changed before the alarm went off at 6, and were out the door with big smiles on their faces. A couple of hours later, while cleaning, I came across this note:

To: Mom and Dad. I hope you will have a nice day by yourself. Mom and Dad thank you for letting us go to school.

Since Monday was an auspicious day (金剛峯日) we decided to make that our official move-in day. Thus we waited until then to set up Baba in the butsudan, enshrine the Sun Goddess ofuda we got while in Ise a few months ago, spread some Ise sand around the four corners of our house for purification, then we walked up a nearby hill (which reminded me a lot of that scene from Totoro!) to pay our respects to the local kami who oversees this area.

After planning this for nearly six months, we are finally here, and our island life can finally begin.

On May 4th the Japanese government extended the State of Emergency to the end of May, but already they are letting up restrictions in rural areas where the impact has been limited. Ikijima has not had any infections since the original six people back in early March, and is taking passenger temperatures before they board any ships or planes before heading to the island. There are still many restaurant and hotel closures on the island, and everyone is still wearing masks, but it seems to be pretty much a return to normal life here. We’ve been here for just 1 week and have settled into a house, saw some sites, made some friends, and enjoyed some beautiful weather. So far so good! Now I just need to get my internet and desk sorted, and then I can get down to some serious work.

iMac sitting in empty tokonoma
Current (temporary) workstation