Sunday, August 31, 2008

"Plant Soap" (植物石鹸)

The 4-bar box and the 3-bar box, both with identical soap and the same price. The bars used to come wrapped in paper, but were changed to plastic, unfortunately.

There's an episode of "3rd Rock From the Sun" where Sally, the alien who has been stuck in a female body during their mission to earth, is informed by her three cohorts who have conveniently been placed in male bodies, that she doesn't smell as good as other females on earth.

In response to this, she goes to a department store and attempts to buy soap. The woman at the counter keeps asking her if she's tried a variety of designer skin care products. After each query about moisturizer, exfoliating solution, etc, Sally, asks, "is it soap?" With growing impatience, she keeps saying she just wants soap, but the saleswoman wants to sell her some expensive, luxury skin care products. Eventually, the clerk tosses a bunch of samples into a shopping bag and Sally ends up comically addicted to skin products she can't afford to buy.

This scene reminds me of my quest in Japan for soap because, like Sally, I just want soap. I don't want perfume. I don't want moisturizer. I don't want pretty colors. I just want something that lathers up well, cleans well, and has as little scent as possible. I fail to see the point of using soap which coats you in some sort of lingering perfume-like smell. The soap is supposed to get you clean so you don't smell at all. Having perfume applied by your soap seems to imply that you've got an odor that needs to be covered up. If you're a perfume fan, on the other hand, you're likely going to do better than whatever scent the soap leaves on you by applying actual perfume to your body.

Avoiding the perfume in soap goes a bit further for me than merely not wanting to smell like nothing rather than some warped approximation of a flower (though I'm guessing that sounds ironic coming from a talking orchid). In small enclosed rooms in the summer, any sort of fragrance will fill the room. I've had students with modest levels of scent who have left my living room tinged with their soap or perfume for hours after the lesson is over. If a person is very sensitive to a scent, the experience of being trapped in a 4.5 mat room (about 9' x 9') with that person can be unpleasant. Also, my husband has an intense dislike for perfume and doesn't want to use any soap with a scent so the quest for just soap is a righteous cause for both of us.

There is a lot of very nice Japanese soap, but the majority of it is scented. Even the standard bar of white Kao soap, which is quite a creamy and luxurious soap for a low price, is a bit too heavily scented for our tastes. For years, my husband and I bought Ivory soap that was imported from the U.S. for about 100 yen a bar (about a dollar). At some point in the not so distant past though, the price went up and our income went down. Instead of 4 bars costing $4, they now cost $6 or more, and it just seemed like too big a luxury on our 1.3 incomes.

After Ivory scaled beyond our budget, I started sampling Japanese soap again. Fortunately, you can usually sniff a package and know if it has too much perfume in it as they are usually far from hermetically sealed. At one point, I bought a box of extremely cheap (4 bars for about a dollar) soap and found the closest thing we've come to Japanese scent-free soap. The second phase of the test though would be how it lathered up in hard water. Fortunately, it does adequately in that regard.

The soap is not made in Japan, which likely explains why it's so cheap though clearly it is made for the Japanese market when you look at the box design. Some of what it says is that it's made with milk and that it's gentle. It's made in Malaysia and the company name appears to be "Nid". However, about a year ago, the box size changed and now it's 3 bars for a dollar (about 98 yen) most of the time. Occasionally, a box with 4 bars will show up again. It's still a bargain in either size. There is a tiny little logo on the box which is hard to read. I did a little searching and found that they make several varieties of soap which are all priced the same, but none of those varieties is sold in my area.

In fact, finding this soap at all requires me to shop at a drug store. Markets rarely carry it. I'm guessing this is because the margin for profit on such items is razor thin (or it's a loss leader). In general, personal care goods like toilet paper, soap, etc. are always appreciably cheaper at drug stores than markets in Tokyo and, at 33 yen (30 cents) a bar, this is cheap soap.

If you just want soap, and you're trying to save money, I recommend using this particular brand. It's certainly no worse than the more expensive brands in terms of effectiveness and fills the bill if you just want to be clean, but not perfumed. However, I don't think I'm translating the characters right as "plant soap", but the first two characters can be read as "plant" and the second two as "soap". Besides, there are all these leaves on the box design so it's not such an absurd conclusion that the first word might be "plant". ;-)

Saturday, August 30, 2008

What is the Placebo Effect?

These days, most people are familiar with the placebo effect thanks to the plethora of medical dramas on television. Back in the dark ages when I was in college and there were only 3 television networks, limited cable programming (which consisted mainly of Gilligan's Island repeats), HBO (which was mainly for movies with nudity), and MTV (which used to show music videos), there were fewer shows and they tended to underestimate the sophistication of the audience. The word "placebo" wasn't tossed around casually at that time, but, being a psychology major, I learned of it in one of my classes.

The idea behind the placebo effect is that we "fool" ourselves into believing an effect is being had on our bodies when administered treatment which biologically has no measurable effect. Though I've known about this for quite some time, I didn't really think deeply about until recently. Let's break down the placebo effect as it generally works:
  1. An authority figure tells you your are going to receive a treatment which will solve or diminish the problem.
  2. He gives you the equivalent of a sugar pill.
  3. You take the sugar pills.
  4. You get or feel better.
The placebo effect is a very handy effect for medical science in some ways. It allows them to explain how treatments that cannot be scientifically proven in the laboratory such as acupuncture, herbal remedies, and holistic applications appear to be effective while neatly discounting their viability as treatment.

What medical science obfuscates with a complicated-sounding word (placebo) is that the truth of what the placebo effect represents. It represents the ability of your mind to regulate your body's healing or pain management without the intervention of an external treatment. What the placebo effect really is, is a form of self-healing.

Encouraging self-healing is a tricky business. For one thing, it doesn't always work and believing it might work may discourage people from seeking proper treatment. It most certainly does not work when an injury is inflicted on the body which requires resetting of bones or stitching of wounds and this rather undermines the perception that we actually can self-heal in some cases. However, just because we cannot apply mental focus to achieving the equivalent of lifting a boulder over our heads does not mean that we can't do the equivalent of lifting a few pebbles. What I mean by that is that you may not be able to mend a broken leg by the use of mental processes, but you may be able to overcome a headache or diminish the intensity and duration of a leg cramp. You may even be able to maintain better health on a regular basis by mentally applying yourself to all aspects of its overall health.

The notion of self-healing is further undermined by the idea that it's some New Age pie-in-the-sky concept that is practiced by hippies who are interested in keeping their chakras aligned and their auras healthy. This is a notion that medical science prefers to perpetuate, not because of financial self-interest as many cynical sorts like to believe, but rather because they firmly believe it does not work and are afraid that people will be conned by opportunists or fail to seek life-saving treatment for serious problems.

The placebo effect is not some New Age myth though. It is a scientific fact. Many studies have been done on it and it works in a statistically significant number of cases. The reason placebos work and directed self-healing does not is that when an authority figure tells us we will get better, we believe it. When we tell ourselves we will get better, we often lack the true conviction to bring about the desired improvements. There is a vicious circle at work in this situation. If we believed we had more control over our body, we'd be better able to self-heal or pain manage. However, we don't believe it so we can't, and if we can't self-heal or pain manage, then we don't believe we can.

The curious thing about the placebo effect to me is that there is actual evidence of a concept that is embraced by a variety of spiritual beliefs, yet people still do not believe they can regulate their own bodies or cure themselves of some problems without involving an external application. This ability is written off as a mental trick or our ability to fool ourselves when it really is, for lack of a better word, "power" to control a situation we're frequently told is not under our control. Instead of allowing this power to be written off as part of a scientifically curious result, it should be regarded as a revelation of which we should explore the potential.


As a personal aside, I will note that I have worked with controlling my pain and problems since I gave up on doctors ever helping me with my back problems. I also mitigated a lot of the discomfort of chilblains using what can best be described as a form of "active meditation" or "directed thought." It's my impression that this does help appreciably. When I went through my first bout of chilblains, it was excruciating. During the two subsequent bouts, I applied myself mentally to reducing the inflammation and discomfort from the itching and the two bouts that followed were each greatly less bad than the first one.

One of my motivations for this was the fact that I discovered during my research on back treatment that 1/3 of all people suffering from severe back problems in a controlled study got better with no treatment which is equal to the number of people who got better with surgery or non-invasive therapy (medication, exercise, topical treatment, etc.).

Another of my motivations was the fact that we communicate with every part of our body through various systems unconsciously. There's no reason to believe that we cannot communicate with them consciously or willfully as well except for the fact that we don't tend to believe it is possible.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

My Computer is Freaking Me Out (Little Help, Please)

The PC that seems to have a ghost in the machine.

About halfway through my evening lesson, I started to hear what sounded like a tapping noise behind my television. It was raining outside so I thought it was some sort of referred sound from water dripping or that there may possibly be a leak such that water was dripping between the walls.

About 10 minutes later, the old PC that I keep under the television spontaneously turned itself on. It has a very loud fan so it's impossible not to notice that it has revved itself up. I mentioned it to my student and made a joke about a ghost turning it on. I reached over and turned it off. Very soon thereafter, I heard the tapping again and this time I noticed that the power light on the USB speakers attached to this particular PC was flashing and then the PC turned itself back on again. The second time, I let it go since I didn't want to disrupt the lesson. As soon as the lesson was over though, I unplugged my self-starting PC.

I've never had this sort of problem with a computer before, but I have to imagine this isn't good. This particular PC is about 6 or 7 years old and I'm guessing there is some sort of power supply failure going on, but I'd really appreciate any advice or feedback from others who have more knowledge of the electronics of a computer and what might be causing this.

I had planned on re-formatting this computer's hard drive because it had been acting wonky when connected to the television (which is all it does now). It was having a weird crash where the T.V. would blank out and we couldn't get the screen back unless we restarted. I thought it was a software issue, but now I'm starting to wonder if it was something else.

So, is this computer ready for the happy hunting ground?

The Art of the Oven Fry

If you visit any of the popular food porn sites (e.g., Food Gawker, Tastespotting), you'll notice that certain choices tend to spread like that annoying Faberge shampoo commercial where someone tells two friends and so on and so on. If you're too young for that commercial, it's on YouTube here. That is to say, once a popular and approachable dish shows up on the food porn sites, you see a small explosion of more people making it. And if you don't know what a food porn site is and you've got visions of nubile, naked babes lounging amongst grapes and bananas seductively, think again.

About two or three weeks ago, the big fad among food bloggers was eggs in the hole or whatever you grew up calling cooking an egg in a hole in the center of a piece of bread. That mundane recipe, which was an old camping favorite due to the efficiency with which it cooks both the egg and bread in one pan over a camp fire, showed up again and again in tasteful shots by food bloggers who jumped on the bandwagon. Each one carefully wrote out a "recipe" and a description and took an artful picture for something which is essentially 'poke a hole in a piece of bread, break an egg in it and fry in butter.'

Though the "explosion" has been far smaller, oven fries seem to be the new mundane recipe that everyone is making and showcasing. Unlike my bland plate of boringly horizontal fries pictured at the top, their fries are artfully arranged (usually vertically or with a few of the sexier fries sticking out at odd angles) and look like the real deal, the ever appealing french fry. They also attempt to put a new spin on the recipe by using different spices or different types of potatoes, but the method is pretty much the same - fries tossed with some sort of oil, seasoned, then baked in the oven.

While I don't presume to know all there is to know about "perfect oven fries", I do know a few things that I've learned which don't seem to be reflected in the "recipes" I've been seeing. Here are a few pointers:
  • Don't spray the cookie sheet with non-stick spray and place the fries on them or put the fries on the tray and drizzle them with oil. Unless you have good non-stick cookware, they're probably going to stick a bit if you do this. I get better results by heating the tray during the oven's preheat cycle and placing the fries (which have been tossed in a bowl with oil) onto the hot baking sheet. As Jamie Oliver has said in his cooking show, heat stops things from sticking (if the food already has oil on or in it) so you don't need to grease up the sheet if you pour the fries on a hot sheet. For the record, most Japanese ovens come with cookie sheets that are custom fit to the ovens size (not the standard oven racks you get in the U.S.) and they are not non-stick. My first trays were enamel-coated metal and my current ones are ceramic and my oven fries always stuck (even when both the fries and sheet were oiled) before I used the "heat the ungreased tray" method.
  • Soak the raw fries in cold water for awhile first to remove some of the outer gum. This is less important if your potatoes are new, but most of what I get in Japan is clearly not freshly dug up. Soaking makes the texture better though it does leach out the potassium which may be a good or bad thing depending on your diet.
  • The type of potato you use matters a lot, but so does the type of oil. In my experience, Canola oil browns better, but olive oil imparts more flavor. I usually use olive oil and settle for paler fries.
  • Always dry the potatoes very well, coat evenly in oil and then salt and season. Never salt then add oil as the salt will leech moisture out of the potato and make it harder for the fry to be evenly coated. It also increases the chances that the potato will stick to the pan you use. This was a mistake I made for a long time.
The potato has gotten a bit of a bad rap since the Atkins low carb revolution, but they're really quite nutritious (and tasty). They're 80% water so you get a lot of satisfaction for the caloric content and they're cheap.

For those of us living in Japan, the main problem is that most of the potatoes are tiny, and russets, which are highly desirable, are almost unheard of in Tokyo. It's a lot of effort to peel a lot of little potatoes compared to one big fat one. I usually pre-prepare them earlier in the day when I have time and just keep them in cold water in a sealed container in the refrigerator until I'm ready to use them. If you're got the time and energy, it's really worth it and a nice variation from rice-based dishes which are so often de rigueur in Japan.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


When we were kids, one of the tests of our concentration and dexterity was to simultaneously pat our heads and rub our stomachs in a circular motion. I'm not quite sure of what is involved in accomplishing this feat, but most people can do it (for awhile, at least) though there was always a kid who couldn't manage it in a group that gave it a try. Given that most kids couldn't keep it up for long, I imagine it's about focus.

Over the weekend, my CH demonstrated incredibly good concentration as he was relaxing and playing one of our favorite multi-player on-line games, Diablo II: Lord of Destruction (LOD).

If you look at the picture, you can see that he's got each hand on separate mice controlling two characters on two different computers simultaneously. I have enough trouble controlling one mouse with my left hand, let alone keeping tabs on a mouse's action in a game. The only thing that makes this a little more manageable is that the characters he controls move close enough to one another that he can track them both on one screen.

My husband was controlling two characters at once because he wanted to "rush" them. Rushing means that the player wants the characters to advance and develop as quickly as possible. This is a fairly common thing to do when someone has played a game for a long time and no longer enjoys the lower level play as it isn't very challenging once one becomes proficient in the game.

In Diablo II: LOD, one of the fastest ways to rush is to join what are called "public" games because the experience comes faster if the game has more players (8 is the maximum). A public game is open to anyone who wants to join so you end up playing with strangers. Playing a multiplayer game with strangers can be a very enjoyable experience or immensely disheartening. Sometimes you get chatter which is witty and fun and sometimes you get ugly, racist nonsense or unnecessary criticism of other player's playing ability or character "wealth" (or lack thereof).

The biggest pitfall to playing a game with strangers is that many multiplayer games have the possibility of allowing "griefers" to ruin the game experience. A griefer is someone who goes out of his way to cause difficulty or destroy the game playing experience for others. One of the most common ways this is done is for a vastly higher level character to enter a game with new characters of very low level and declare hostility on them. The high level character is well-equipped and has between 10-20 times more life (hitpoints) as the characters he's trying to kill. There's no challenge in killing the other players for griefers. In fact, they aren't interested in challenge, they are only interested in causing others to suffer.

In Diablo II: LOD, there are several ways to grief. One is to go hostile on players and hunt them down and kill them or to go hostile and cause a bunch of formerly cooperative players who were enjoying a good game together to abandon the game. Another, more subtle and insidious way, is to find out what sort of quest a player is doing and then complete the last portion before they can fulfill the steps leading up to the final challenge. Doing this disables their ability to complete the quest. Last night, my husband experienced this when someone blocked the entrance to a chamber where players were to face a big boss that had to be killed. A team of griefers actually performed this. One of them went down stairs to kill the boss and the other stood in front of the entrance so other players could not get through.

I've often wondered why griefers do what they do. Why would anyone extract pleasure from spoiling the fun of others? When you don't operate from a similar mindset, it's hard to grasp their motivation. I've always concluded that it's just like any other form of bullying where a person preys on a weaker party to feel powerful and compensate for their feelings of low self-esteem and self-worth. A lot of griefers justify their behavior by claiming they're "training" people for the fact that they'll have to deal with jerks in real life. However, I believe this is a weak justification and is telling of the fact that the griefers themselves have suffered unfair attacks in other areas of their lives. They seek to rationalize their pain by viewing it as a helpful process rather than their projecting their anger onto innocent targets just as someone else has done to them. It helps them distort their reality so they don't have to feel like victims and gives them a feeling of power to couterbalance the helplessness they felt when they were victims.

When I've discussed this on occasion in gaming forums, I've been accused of making too much of anti-social behavior in situations which "don't matter." That is, behaving poorly in an arena which is virtual and has no real consequence aside from upsetting people who are trying to relax and have fun isn't the same as behaving badly in real social environments or "real life." I agree, but not in the way the argument is meant.

I believe that real morality and personal ethics are conveyed only in situations that are of little or no consequence. If you have something at stake (social rejection, promotion at work, possible arrest), your ethics are not under any real test as you are acting for reward or out of fear of censure and not from your moral center. I think that the way you behave when no on is looking and when you can't be held accountable is a reflection of your true ethics.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Burying It

Last week, I was talking to my friend and fellow Carl "the wombat stuffer" about a recent post on his blog, Carl's Kitchen. The stuffer's blog is about his food experiments and sometimes things don't go as hoped. I value his blog both because he writes in a very amusing style and because I believe that his is a rare food blog in that it's honest about everything in the cooking experience. Where other people showcase their best results and either fail to mention any of the recipe's shortcomings or gloss over them, he is completely upfront about what goes wrong and isn't afraid to show the unfortunate outcomes as well as the fortunate ones.

While discussing his most recent post about a recipe which was about a bit of a disaster (his loss is my gain since the post is funny), he mentioned that he expects to bury it by making another post soon. I'm sure he was joking about "burying it", but it reminded me of something that used to happen to me back when I was still reading my brother-in-law's blog.

As you know from one of my earliest posts on this blog, he had a hand in the death of my former blog. The whole truth is complicated and not something I'm prepared to air in its entirety right now, but he and I never got along very well. Part of the problem is that he's an opinionated, highly reactive person who reaches conclusions and spouts off about things that he doesn't know much about. Another part of the problem is that I'm an aggressive arguer who doesn't hold her tongue when someone spouts off about something which they don't know much about. The bottom line is that if he was wrong in my estimation, I pointed it out. I didn't do it in a nasty fashion, but I also didn't sugar-coat it or beat around the bush. I was forthright and I backed up what I said with facts and supporting arguments. It may be fair to say that I argue "like a man" in some ways as opposed to "like a woman" who may be more inclined (through socialization) to consider the other person's feelings first and hers second in such discussions.

The problem with this was that my brother-in-law doesn't like to be disagreed with. It's not just me that he dislikes providing counterpoints to his points and asserting that his conclusions aren't well-based. He doesn't like it from family either, but maybe he tolerates it better from them or they, knowing his character, are able to tiptoe around his hot buttons when they argue with him. I know that they argued with him enough about the imprudence of investing a large chunk of his life savings in one company that the mere mention of the topic from the CH and I was met with much arm waving and excited refusal to hear anything further on the topic from anyone. Clearly, even his family were capable of stepping over his (considerably short) limits on occasion.

At any rate, I'm no angel in the conflict with my brother-in-law. Even my saintly CH had problems dealing with the aggressiveness of my arguing style early on in our marriage. And when I say "aggressiveness", I'm talking about intensity and energy, not language. I don't insult or flat out say anyone is wrong (except in jest to break tension and generally only with the wombat stuffer or the CH), but I am a person with passion and that passion can't always be contained in a debate about an issue. That being said, I've learned a lot more control over the years and am a lot more reserved when I speak in such discussions. I am a lot less aggressive than before in my manner, though I still prefer not to be circumspect as it smacks of trying to avoid expressing true feelings.

I've changed a lot, but I'm pretty sure my brother-in-law hasn't noticed as his image of me is frozen at the person I was nearly two decades ago. I will note that seeing my CH and I as who we were instead of who we are is a problem we have with his family in general because they have so little contact with us (being in two different countries and all), but it's a lot less understandable with the CH's brother who lives in Japan. In fact, I suspect the fact that my brother-in-law has lived on and off in Japan (mostly on) since the age of 19 has a lot to do with his problems handling disagreement. He's not spent much time in a culture where people debate or quibble over points much. Japanese people tend to keep their opinions to themselves as that is the expectation in their culture. Though certainly that is not true of everyone by a long shot as I've met some very opinionated Japanese people (and have delighted in dealing with them by and large), it is usually the case, particularly with women.

Getting back to the point that I had started making at the beginning of this post about "burying" posts, I had no small number of experiences when I was reading my brother-in-law's blog where he clearly "buried" any comment that I made which pointed out how he was incorrect or that his conclusions weren't considering all the facts. He moderated comments and any time I agreed or offered a neutral aside, the comment was posted rapidly. Any time I disagreed or offered information that said he was reaching a hasty conclusion, he wouldn't post the comment for at least a day, and only then after he'd posted either one super long post or several short ones on top of the original post that I'd had an issue with. In other words, he buried such comments deep beneath his latest rant.

Another commenter of his once pointed out this tendency to bury dissenting voices to my brother-in-law and his excuse was that he was in Japan and time zones were different so there was a delay if they posted in the day-time for them and at night for him. Also, he said that he worked and didn't deal with comments for long periods of time if he was busy. The problem with this excuse was that it didn't apply to me since I'm in Japan and in the same time zone and I know for a fact that he has his notebook computer with him at all times. He'd also posted to his blog from work before and can send e-mail from there. It's a credible-sounding excuse, except when you know his habits, and there was too consistent a pattern between delayed and buried comments being of one particular type and promptly-posted ones being of another.

I often wonder why he didn't just decide not to post dissenting voices at all since they were so frustrating or embarrassing that he buried them. My guess is that a wish to believe he could handle disagreement wouldn't allow him to admit his ego couldn't take the dissent, but the desire to see himself as balanced and fair-minded didn't extend far enough to leave a comment expressing disagreement sitting there below a post at the top of the page.

At any rate, I have been endeavoring to put the whole situation behind me and lay the past to rest because I wasn't supposed to have any relationship with my brother-in-law anymore. A "truce" of sorts had been worked out through my father-in-law who suggested we essentially act as if there were a restraining order keeping us at least 500 yards apart at all times between us so that conflicts wouldn't arise. The truth was that, on my part, I only continued to have contact with him because there was concern that cutting off all contact would upset my mother-in-law and father-in-law. I was pretty happy when he suggested we not speak or read each other's blogs at all in order to keep the peace.

If you're wondering why this is on my mind again after this "truce" was worked out, it's only partially because the wombat stuffer joked about burying a post which he felt detailed a disaster. It's also because my brother-in-law called our apartment several weeks ago when only I was home. I don't know if his father didn't relay the message that I wasn't going to talk to him anymore in order to ensure peace or if the fact that he is holding a wedding reception in Japan and wants my CH to be present selfishly made him decide to just call and pretend he and I don't have an issue so he could get what he wanted.

If all of this sounds painfully petty and juvenile to you, well, I'd probably have to agree with you there. However, some personality types aren't a good mix and he and I are not. I can't stand having conflict hanging in the air with someone and not working through it, but he likes to just pretend there's no problem. I like to hash everything out and he likes to put up a defense and not talk about it. I will argue an intellectual point if I feel my argument is better grounded than someone else's and he's sure he's smarter than me. I'm a spiritually-minded person and he's an atheist who likes to mock all forms of spirituality.

We simply can't get along and I thought that was part of the test or the lesson for me in life is to accept that there are people who I'm not going to get along with and I have to be okay with that. Unfortunately, circumstances seem to be indicating that that was not the test. I'm starting to think that the real test is accepting not only that there are people I can't get along with, but also that I have no choice sometimes but to allow them into my life anyway.

Monday, August 25, 2008


Today is my birthday. Please don't take my announcing that as any indication that you have to flock to the comments section and wish me well.

One thing about getting older is that you learn a lot about being younger. For instance, you learn that it was no great accomplishment to be in your 20's despite the fact that you thought that you were so much greater than your parents and all the other boring people who you thought you were smarter, prettier, and more interesting than. You realize that what you really were was more shallow, immature, and out of touch with the reality of being on this planet for an extended period of time.

The other thing about it is that, you know that trauma you're supposed to feel about aging which people make a big deal about in their 20's and 30's? That trauma goes away after awhile because you just learn to accept that those numbers don't matter to you as much as they matter to everyone else. Past a certain point, you stop trying to cling to the concept of youth and just let such neuroses slip from your fingers and it is good not to try and hang on anymore. Of course, I can't remember when I let go, but I think it was actually quite awhile ago.

There are some things I've come to realize that do matter about getting older. One is that your memory definitely gets worse no matter how smart you are or how hard you labor to keep yourself mentally stimulated. Lately, I've gotten worse at keeping track of what student has told me what detail of their lives and I find myself asking them questions that I asked the week before. Of course, that could be more of a reflection of the fact that I have so many students now compared to two years ago that I can't keep so many people's lives straight in my head. At any rate, I am starting to understand why older people keep telling the same stories over and over again. They do it because they forget who they told such things to yesterday or last week.

The other thing is that death, while still scary in the way that all great unknowns are frightening, becomes less of that "I can't sleep at night because all I can think about is that one day I'll actually die" sort of concept and more of a mystery that you're going to find out the answer to one day. Mind you, like most people, I have my guesses at what occurs, but I'm never certain. I think that it's more terrifying to consider dying when you haven't lived than when you've had quite a few decades under your belt.

I don't approach my birthday with any sort of dread nor with any sort of particular joy, though my CH is pampering as best he can (and he is a true blessing). Mainly, I'm just tired because I woke up at 6:00 am and couldn't go back to sleep, but I guess that's another part of getting older as well. I'm just one step away from banging around my apartment at 5:00 am waking up my younger neighbors like the old(er) people living next door to me.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Twinkies and Krispies

America has an interesting relationship with the Twinkie. It is held up as a nutritional scourge and those who consume it are viewed as polluting their body by ingesting one the deadliest of high fructose corn syrup and sugar delivery methods. All that being said, Twinkies seem to sell pretty well and remain a favored bit of junk food. If their nutritional value had anything to do with sales, they'd be long gone by now.

Personally, I've never been a huge Twinkie fan. When I was a kid, I recall eating them at exceptionally infrequent intervals because Hostess snack foods were far too expensive for my family. In fact, having much of any sort of pre-made snack cake around was rather rare for us because of the cost involved. On most occasions when we did have such types of snack cakes, they were store brands, "Little Debbie" or Hostess knock-offs. The only time we had the real deal was when Hostess goods were purchased from the "day old" bread store where semi-squashed and almost outdated baked goods were sold at bargain basement prices. For me, I can enjoy a Twinkie once in a blue moon, but a box doesn't beckon to me. There isn't enough creamy filling and the cake is a bit sticky and a little greasy for my tastes.

My CH, on the other hand, really likes them. When one of his students said she was going to the U.S., she told him she'd bring him back Twinkies or Reese's Peanut Butter cups. Since we can get Reese's (miniatures only) from the Foreign Buyer's Club, he requested the Twinkies. Getting any sort of Hostess snack in Japan is very difficult or prohibitively expensive so this was a very rare (like, one time in years, literally) chance to enjoy a favorite from his childhood and young adulthood.

There's something very peculiar about seeing American-made goods like this after so many years in Japan. The packaging seems much clearer, bolder, and more eye-catching than Japanese package design. I've been told that one of the reasons for this is that the Japanese designers design with an eye toward getting as much information as possible right in front of the customer without forcing the customer to look around. I noticed a similar difference in packaging with imported U.S. butter which is being sold for an absurd price at a local market. The design of a lot of U.S. packaging is bolder, cleaner, and more vivid than Japanese packaging in many cases.

Apparently, their services are not required in Japan.

The same student also bought my husband the exceptionally plain-looking box of Rice Krispies pictured with the Twinkies. Rice Krispies are not sold in Japanese stores and the student bought this through a special outlet which caters to restaurants or other businesses. I guess that such businesses don't need the added incentive of seeing "Snap, Crackle, and Pop" to encourage them to purchase the cereal.

The fact that Rice Krispies are offered to restaurants or related businesses (bakeries?) is a curious one to me. I don't think I've ever bought anything made with Rice Krispies that originated in Japan. It is a nice type of cereal just for eating plain though. It's not too sweet and has a good texture, so I'm surprised that it isn't more popular as a regular breakfast cereal in Japan.

The student bought them, incidentally, because she had eaten Rice Krispies squares in America. She tried to make her own in Japan, but they didn't turn out as well. I'm guessing that's because she used Japanese marshmallows which are firmer, denser, and less sweet than American ones. You can't get a good melt out of most Japanese marshmallows and they're a bit rubbery when you eat them plain. You can be down on sugar all you want, but the truth is that it plays a critical role in adding to the texture and moisture content of various foods that it is used in (as well as adding to caramelizing, melting and browning).

We'll probably use some of that box of cereal to make Rice Krispies squares and hopefully at such a time that my CH can share them with the student who gave him these gifts. Of course, when and whether they get made depends as much on being able to get some imported marshmallows as anything else.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Shiny New Chariot For Madam

It's a bit smaller than it looks.

My 6-year old bike recently passed the point in rickety-ness where I could no longer continue to use or repair it. We had it fixed a number of times in an attempt to not create more waste. In fact, I believe we probably paid the entire price of it all over again in various repairs, but the last straw was when the seat coils rusted and snapped on one side. Replacing a seat costs close to half of the price of a new bike, and mine was a rattle trap with a cornucopia of little and medium-size problems. We put the old one on the great Viking bicycle barge to Valhalla and bought a new mount.

The CH had spied some cheap (9,000 yen) city/utility bicycles (aka "mama chari") at a local supermarket a short while ago and secured me the vehicle pictured above. My old bike was orange and that may lead you to believe that it was easy to find in a sea of bikes, but the truth is that everyone buys these cheap bikes and there are only a few colors so there are always a lot of duplicates around of any given cheap bike. As I learned on my new bike's maiden voyage, this silver number is no exception to that. There are tons of twins out there for it so sometimes it's like finding your car in a huge lot in which you've forgotten where you've parked.

Incidentally, I tried to track down why these are called "mama chari" (ママチャリ) and found a lot of different explanations and highly varied translations. I always thought that "chari" was short for "chariot" and the nickname for these low-budget models was rather waggishly offered. Others have claimed that "chari" means "bicycle" in Japanese, but the only word I know for bicycle is "jitensha".

These bikes are decent transportation, but they are clearly designed for someone with a smaller frame than the average foreigner, even the average foreign female. The span of the handlebars is a little too short and the bars themselves relative to the position of the seat are too low. That is, when I put the seat at the proper height for comfortable leg extension while peddling, my knees nearly hit the handlebars. The bike was clearly designed for people with a shorter reach and shorter legs, and I'm not particularly tall or short for a foreign woman. They obviously are designed for the petite Japanese housewife (possibly even with the ever-shrinking older ones in mind), but I'm only running errands, so it's not important that the bike suit me perfectly.

My first major run on the bike was to one of the local markets that specializes in cheap fresh fruit and vegetables. Well, maybe they're not incredibly "fresh" as I believe they are probably cheap because they're not good enough for markets selling more expensive fresh produce. My bike is parked about in the center of the picture above, two bikes away from the bike with a poodle in its basket.

Seeing pets in bike baskets is not uncommon in Tokyo and I always find it troubling for two reasons. First of all, bike parking is always tight near shops because you aren't allowed to park along the sidewalk in many places as its illegal. It's actually illegal to park in this space (that's what the signs say), but everyone does because it's the only space from which this very popular market can be accessed. They only cart your bike away if you park there for over an hour or so. Anyway, because the space is tight and all the bikes have kickstands and brakes on the handles which easily snag other bikes parked as close as possible to them, it's very common for bikes to get knocked over as people struggle to extract them. In fact, the domino effect where one bike goes down and the rest follow occurs on a relatively regular basis. The woman who put her dog in the basket is putting it at serious risk in the event of an accident where bikes all topple over. When I parked, I had to be super careful not to even nudge the bike next to mine lest it fall over and hit the bike with the dog in it.

The other problem is that the dogs are almost always tied to the bike by their leashes and a lead that has been tied in such a way as to be short so the dog can't move around too much. As you can see in the picture above, there's a green lead tied to the bike. If the dog were to jump out of the basket, it could hang itself if the length is just a little incorrect so I think this is really an irresponsible thing to do. I realize that people can't take their dogs into the shops, but I think they should tie them to a pole or some other stationary object rather than leave them in their bicycle baskets like this. Behind this particular market, there is a small park where a dog can safely be tied to a variety of objects, not to mention a pedestrians' only covered shopping street where he could be tied.

Getting back to bikes though, if you look at the parking shot, you'll see a lot of the bikes have huge baskets on the back and the foremost one has what look like black pot holders on the handlebars. The big baskets are often kiddy seats, though sometimes they are extra baskets for carrying purchases. I hate both of these kinds of lumbering monstrosities because they are really hard to navigate around when you park and one of these people comes along and forces their bike into a narrow gap between you and another bike. If there's only a front basket, it's a lot easier to get out in such close, disorganized parking.

As for the pot holder things, in the winter I always think these are to keep hands from freezing, but women use them in the summer as well. My only guess is that they keep them on in the summer to protect their hands from exposure to the sun. Japanese women hate freckles (and tans for the most part), and often wear long sleeves or sweaters in the sweltering summer to keep their skin as white as possible. Personally, I'll take freckles over baking in a sweater in 90 degree (32 degrees C) weather any day.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Don't Make It Any Harder

The other day I was taking a picture of something for this blog when I noticed a fuzzy dark spot was in the viewfinder. I figured a piece of dust or something was on the lens so I cleaned it but the dark cloudy spot was still there.

I zoomed the camera in and out and the dark spec got smaller and darker when it was on extreme zoom. I realized that the spec of "stuff" wasn't on the outside of the lens, it was on the inside.

After noticing this, I got rather frustrated because I don't need a new camera, but this one is about a year past its warranty so I couldn't have it looked after by Nikon without paying for it. Since it's a cheap camera, there's every likelihood that having it serviced would cost at least a third of the camera's original purchase price. I wondered if there were any camera shops out there which specialize in cleaning the inside of cameras and, if so, where they were and how hard it'd be to get to one. I also inspected the screws in the camera and thought about taking it apart and trying to clean it myself. I've never done such a thing though, and I don't know how likely it is that I'd manage to destroy the camera in trying (pretty likely, I'd guess). I considered all possible options and wasn't particularly happy with any of the available solutions.

Later on, I was in the kitchen preparing dinner when something occurred to me. A piece of something was stuck on the lens inside. I didn't have to clean it, all I had to do was get it off the lens. I shook the camera and the dark spot was gone.

Rather than any of the costly, risky, or time-consuming solutions I was pondering, all I had to do was find an effective one. This was a little lesson for me in not making things any harder than they have to be and in looking for the easiest fix rather than the most permanent one. Sometimes, the easy one will do.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Kyoro-chan Cake (Milk)

Back when I was a kid in Pennsylvania, one of my aunts used to make "whoopie pies". For those who are uninitiated in the delights of the whoopie pie, it is generally regarded as a Pennsylvania Dutch (Amish) concoction and is very tasty, particularly to children. The filling is particularly yummy.

I haven't seen or eaten a whoopie pie in decades, but one immediately came to mind when I saw this box of Kyroro-chan (キョロチャん) Cakes (milk flavor). Kyoro-chan, by the way, is famous in Japan as a mascot for a candy called "choco balls". Choco-balls are tiny little fried peanuts covered in glossy milk chocolate and Kyroro-chan is designed after the shape of a peanut with a weird beak attached to it, hence the shape of the ugly bird on the box.

Not content to only attach his visage to small boxes of chocolate-covered peanuts, Kyoro-chan has been branching out and now his image is pasted on various sorts of candies of a similar size and shape to the original choco-ball. The only difference is that the body design changes to match the product. The reason he's looks like the unfortunate offspring of some odd coupling with a toucan and a holstein on this box is that the cakes are "milk" flavored and milk comes from cows.

With images of whoopie pies dancing in my head, I decided to take the plunge and buy this box of cakes. However, I know from experience that any product you buy in Japan that resembles an old home favorite is never going to live up to expectations. Hope springs eternal, however.

Click for a detailed image showing texture.

Six cakes come individually-wrapped in a cow-spotted package. This type of wasteful but very convenient packaging is very common in Japan. I can't remember what I paid for the box but it was around $2-$2.50 (200-260 yen). The cakes are very small, about 1.5 times the diameter of an Oreo cookie. They are exceptionally soft and have a good cream filling to cake ratio, though the filling is not nearly as generous near the edges as the box illustration makes it appear.

The filling is actually pretty good. It's very light without being airy though it has little taste of its own. It could definitely use a spot of vanilla, but it came close to approximating a whoopie pie's filling. One of the reasons for this is that the third ingredient for these cakes is "shortening" and whoopie pie filling has a lot of vegetable shortening in it. Unfortunately, that makes these cakes immensely fatty. One tiny cake is 140 calories.

What they aren't is incredibly sweet (sugar is the fifth ingredient, though I believe "sweet water/sugar water" is the second one). This is a good thing in some ways, but it also makes for a relatively flat taste experience. Cocoa is so far down on the list of ingredients at number 8 that you know that there isn't much chocolate in there. The cake portion has very little flavor and provides little contrast to the filling either as a deeper flavor or as a different texture. So, the super soft cookie plus soft filling with no deep flavors make it pretty disappointing.

I certainly wouldn't buy these again. It's not that they're bad, but just that they are really loaded with fat and high in calories for the portion size so that the pleasure to nutritional "badness" ration makes them not worthwhile.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Postal Confusions

Last night, my husband and I were talking about social security benefits and I remembered some postal mishaps we used to experience early in our stay in Japan. Coincidentally, Joseph at Tame Goes Wild also was experiencing a postal snafu so perhaps we're all on a postal wavelength these days.

When it comes to retirement, the situation for my husband and I is pretty murky. Both of us worked for a bit in the U.S. before coming to Japan and paid into the system and I know from experience that people who never worked are entitled to collect certain types of benefits. However, we're not taking getting any benefits for granted and are socking away our own savings for the future. How does this relate to the postal system? Well, we've pondered as of late whether becoming a permanent resident in Japan screws up one's ability to collect social security benefits back home and the fact that we had an experience which demonstrated that someone living in Japan can get American social security checks came to mind.

A long time ago, our local postal carrier seemed to think that anything with a foreign name on it was ours. In fact, there was a time when anything written with roman letters that was to be delivered in our immediate neighborhood ended up in our mailbox. There aren't that many people getting mail in our area written in English, but we were once delivered someone else's "MacConnection" order. (MacConnection is a portion of the mail order place, PCConnection.) This person, who was also an American as we later learned, lived on the same huge "block" as us and we trekked to his place and carried the package to his door. He wasn't home, so we left a note and the parcel outside his door. Later, he sent us a thank you message for doing what we did and noted that the fact that I left the message on Apple logo notepaper was reassuring as he knew we were "good people". Though what he said was nice, I will say that I don't think platform choice has anything to do with how good a person you are.

There were other small incidents where a few things which were addressed to people in the same building that we live in were left in our box and we just put them in the proper box. The only other time I recall when we had to hand deliver a misdelivered piece of mail was when a social security check from the U.S. was left in our box for a Japanese woman who had a Western last name at the end of her Japanese name as indicated on the check. Obviously, I won't give her real name, but I'll say that it was something like "Rie Saito Smith". Keep in mind that, at least in those days, the type of check that was in the envelope was written such that you could see it through the address window. In my work as a program worker in Pennsylvania, my "clients" (the crazy people I had to deal with in the halfway house) received social security disability checks and I knew very well what they looked like anyway. We didn't have to open it (and we didn't) to know it was a social security check.

This woman also lived on the same huge block that we do and we'd seen her name at the front of her building while taking walks together on occasion (this was before my back got too bad for such simple pleasures). We walked to her place and couldn't work out where her mailbox was so we rang the bell to give her the check. My CH tried to explain to her in simple Japanese that we'd gotten the check delivered to us by mistake, but she was very rude and suspicious of us. I can't recall whether she snatched the check from us and slammed the door in our faces, but she definitely treated us like we'd stolen the check from her mailbox and, for no logical reason, then decided to deliver it to her door rather than like we were trying to be good neighbors and do her a favor. The look on her face was an angry one and her attitude toward us was decidedly hostile.

I'm not sure what went through her head that day, but we decided that we would never go out of our way to deliver mail that ended up mistakenly in our box to a Japanese person outside of our apartment building again, and we definitely wouldn't be trying to help her again. I don't know what we would have done if her mail had shown up again because clearly tossing it in a public mailbox may have yielded the same result (it'd end up back in our box), but fortunately, we soon got a better mail carrier who could deliver to addresses properly even if they were written in roman characters.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Tales From a Japanese Office — A Preface

As readers of my former blog may recall, I worked in a Japanese office for 12 years. From what I've learned about Japan, you can break office experiences down into (quite) roughly two types. One experience is with a company with a corporate culture. This usually occurs when you work for a big company with multiple offices. In such cases, workers tend to be pressured pretty hard to achieve and will often move around to different departments throughout their years of work with the same company. Opportunities for advancement are present, particularly for men who join the company right out of college. These companies are often at the heart of the typical "salaryman" experience which people imagine is the case in Japan.

The other sort of experience is no less common, but rarely talked about or seen as a model of employment in Japan. That is the experience of working for a small company which tends to have only one office or occupies multiple offices in the same building. Working for such places often involves being subject to the idiosyncrasies and whims of the president of the company as well as having limited opportunities for advancement. It's also common to witness a fair amount of nepotism and funneling of company profits to employees related to or who are friends of the president as a means of keeping as much money as possible in the hands of people he knows or loves. I worked in one such company as have many female students I have taught privately. Even if women work for bigger fish now, many of them cut their teeth at minnow-size companies.

I feel it's important to establish these two types of places before I start relating what I'm sure will be a sequence of tales from a Japanese office for two reasons. First of all, I don't want people to believe my experience was highly unique and atypical. If I am to believe my students' experiences, there are a wide variety of these small businesses being treated like personal fiefdoms all over Japan in addition to the more well-known corporate entities employing their drones. When students have related their own tales, I'm often shocked at the way their experiences so closely mirror my own because I had been under the misimpression that my experiences were unusual.

The second reason for this preface is that I want to chip away at the notion that working in a Japanese office is a guarantee that you're toiling in some slick, high-tech, hyper-efficient, super professional environment which is what I get the feeling foreigners imagine when they think of places like Sony or Toyota. You'd be surprised at how boring and grubby many places are. Also, the image of "worker ants" who labor late into the evening doesn't apply to such places. Since small places offer little or no chance to advance, the incentive to work until you die from karoshi (the Japanese term for death by working too much) is quite low.

You don't even have to work in a company to get a glimpse of the kind of company I'm talking about. All you have to do is ride the Yamanote line or Chuo line through a major district and look in the windows of some of the buildings. You'll see rows of desks facing each other and stacks of papers climbing the walls. It's all grey, boring, cluttered and cramped. That's the real world of work in Japan for many people. They don't even get cubicles for their own space or privacy. They're in what is sometimes called an "open office" or "open plan" where desks are placed side-by-side and directly across from each other so that the extent of your elbow room is the length of your desk and someone is always looking over your shoulder and across at you.

At my former office, not only did employees have no space other than the length of the desk, but the desks were quite short (about 80 cm/2.6 feet) and a short file cabinet was jammed under each desk so that people had somewhere to store documents. The amount of free space under the desk was about the width of the chair plus about half a foot (15 cm). This sort of layout is used to keep the workers in touch with each other and to foster teamwork. It also, almost certainly not coincidentally, made sure everyone was out in the open and could be scrutinized by others. Privacy was only afforded the president who had his own office with a door, though he usually kept it open so he could keep an eye on everyone.

I want to chronicle my experiences here so that I'll have a record of them as my memory fades. I will caution my readers that many of the experiences which I'll be relating will be strange or perhaps considered "bad" because those are the things which are of interest and which stick out most in my mind though I'm going to make an effort to remember the good things as well.

That being said, the primary benefit of my former job wasn't the fact that it was in a Japanese office but rather the fact that I had a lot of down time during the non-busy periods and was able to build my skills and indulge in a lot of self-training (and at times, my own personal interests). I was able to do this despite being in a Japanese office, not because of it. The truth was that the president had no interest in the foreigners advancing their skills and would have preferred to have kept us busy constantly, but the schedule simply was too lax at times to ensure this.

As I conclude this preface, I will note that I think that some of the problems were unique to working in Japan, but some of them also were simply the type of problems you have when you work in a small profit-driven company where notions of how the business is run are highly subjective and those in power feel free to manipulate others in accordance with their whims. Some of my experiences, I'm sure, could happen at similar companies anywhere in the world.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

My History As a Mac User

There was a time when I was a rabid, drooling, Mac fanatic. During that time, I hungered for every new Mac model that came out and (I believe) bought a new computer once every year or year and a half. It's reached the point where I can just barely remember the parade of machines bearing a little Apple icon with a bite taken out of it. I still prefer to use a Mac by and large, but I'm no longer Apple's bitch.

I realize this is probably the geekiest post I'll ever make and be of limited interest to those who aren't all that into technology (or Macs), but it'll go some way toward explaining how I went from trying to sell everyone on Macs to being indifferent. It'll also give me a reference point as my memory of my Mac experiences continue to fade.

Note: I don't have pictures of my ancient, discarded Macs so many of these were Google search photos.

Mac Classic

When and Where I bought it: My husband and I bought it secondhand from my father-in-law in 1988 or 1989 for a sum I can't quite recall, though it wasn't cheap. I think we paid about $500 for it. It had been upgraded with more RAM and a hard drive which was an Apple-made box with the same footprint as the computer which the computer itself sat on top of. We bought this mainly because my husband wanted it. I wasn't incredibly interested in computers at this point.
Why: At that time, we were selling secondhand KISS records that my husband had brought back from Japan after he'd spent a year here. We used the computer to keep tabs on correspondence and make lists of items.
How I used it: I used it to run Photoshop 2.5, Pagemaker 4.0 (maybe...), Microsoft Word, and some ancient games. I think we played Prince of Persia and Civilization (the original) on it. My husband and I also used GEnie to take part in on-line communities and to handle e-mail. The interface was all command line (no pictures, no web as we know it). At the time this was our main machine, we used to take part in a sumo community on GEnie and made epic posts about bouts we watched as we were avid sumo fans at the time. We also used it to make little catalogs of our expanding KISS business selling Japanese collectibles and to write correspondence to customers.
Where it ended up: I sold it to a co-worker. We actually carried it over from the U.S. when we moved to Japan and used it for several years here.
OS: I believe it started off with OS 6 and we later upgraded it to 7, though I was not proficient enough to do it myself. My brother-in-law talked us through it.

PowerBook 145B

When and Where I bought it: I believe we had it sent over from the United States by my in-laws. I can't recall when we bought it, but it must have been in 1993 when this model was released (or possibly 1994).
Why: I had been working in a Japanese office for about a year and there was considerable down time during the off-peak season where I had little to do but sit in my cubicle and read or write. I wanted something to write letters on as well as toy with graphics and layout.
How I used it: This was the computer that ushered me into understanding how Macs worked. When I first bought it, I didn't even know how to turn the sound off on it and recall having a Star Trek (TOS) screensaver that would kick in and embarrass me by making weird sounds. After having this for awhile, I started to buy every Mac magazine I could (MacUser and MacWorld) and read up on how it all worked as well as did the aforementioned correspondence, graphics, layout, business work, and simple gaming. I don't believe we bought a model with a modem so we couldn't use it to get on-line.
Where it ended up: I think I sold this one to someone as well, possibly to my former boss, but my memory of what happened to it is exceptionally hazy.
OS: 7.x


When and Where I bought it: At an electronics shop (possibly Bic Camera) in Shinjuku, probably in 1994. At this point in time, Mac models in Japan ran about a year behind models released in the U.S. I think we bought this later in the lifecycle of this model. It came with a Japanese Mac OS, but I replaced it with an English one. By this time, I knew how to do that, but the process was still a little intimidating for me. It also required quite a few floppy disks.
Why: We wanted a primary desktop computer with color capability as well as more power. I wanted to run a newer version of Photoshop (3.0?) and we were becoming more interested in running games in color. We chose this model because my brother-in-law had the same one and he recommended it. The "pizza box" footprint was actually pretty good design for the time because you could put a CRT monitor on top of it, but it was pretty low profile.
How I used it: Pretty much the same as before. I bought a SCSI scanner to use with it for about $500 at a Canon shop in Shinjuku. It was substantially discounted, and I really wanted to learn more about graphics as well as start making illustrated catalogs for our collectibles business. I scanned in a lot of KISS record covers. We also used an external (14,400?) modem on this.
Where it ended up: I don't remember. I do recall trying to sell it to a third party through what eventually was called "Metropolis". Someone came over and looked it over, but I don't remember if it ever actually sold.
OS: 7.x

PowerBook 540c

When and Where I bought it: We had my father-in-law buy it and send it over in 1994. Nowadays, a laptop can have its keyboard swapped out at the shop so you can get a Japanese or English one, but in those days, you were stuck with what you got. If you've ever used a Japanese keyboard, you know that the bottom row is different so it's confusing for touch typists. The space bar is smaller and there are one or two extra keys so those of us who don't have to look at the keyboard or hunt and peck are completely thrown off by the differences in size and layout.
Why: We had bought old models or low end models up to this point and I was ready for something higher end. At this point, color screens were not common and high quality ones even less so. We bought this computer with the idea that we'd go top of the line and it'd last us awhile. It cost $5000. We were so naive.
How I used it: Pretty much as before, but I do believe I was able to connect a scanner and external CD-ROM drive to this. I recall buying a variety of very expensive SCSI to PowerBook adaptors to be able to connect devices to this. Apple's propensity for proprietary connectors was a costly thorn in my side. I believe I ran Photoshop 4.0 a lot on this and spent a lot of time digging ever deeper into how to really make things work in that program.
Where it ended up: When it was rapidly surpassed by leaps in technology, we kept it around the apartment as a back-up, but made the mistake of storing in a shelf under our air conditioner in the bedroom. One day, the air conditioner dripped water all over the shelf and the computer was destroyed.
OS: 7.x and 8.x

Performa 6300

When and Where I bought it: Akihabara in 1996 or 1997. This was another machine on which I replaced the Japanese system. By now, it was becoming old hat and I was thoroughly comfortable tweaking and messing with the system. I think I may have put up with the keyboard for awhile, but eventually replaced it.
Why: At this point, my CH and I were seriously in need of two machines at any given time and neither of us wanted to use a significantly older machine. The LC III was showing its age and I wanted a Mac that used a PowerPC chip instead of the old and much slower 680x0 series. The prices were going down and the speed jumping up so, we took the plunge on this machine.
How I used it: Same as before, but I think this may have been the first machine we started to seriously game on. I believe that Warcraft II and Diablo (the original) were heavily played on this machine. I recall this was the first machine on which I upgraded the RAM myself. I recall spending a whopping 64,000 yen (about $600) for a 16 MB chip in Akihabara. Obviously, this was another Photoshop machine since I needed more memory.
Where it ended up: This was easily the crappiest Mac I had owned to date. It was the first one which had had a component fail. The hard drive failed and I had to have it replaced. By the time I had stopped using it, the CD-ROM drive had failed as well. I will note that this series was released after Steve Jobs was canned and marked the start of Apple's conversion to much cheaper parts (from SCSI to IDE) in order to compete more effectively with the PC market. When I was done with this, I gave it away to a Japanese salesman at my office. It was too much of a heap of junk to sell with a clear conscience.
OS: 7.x, 8.x, and 9.0

PowerBook 5300c

When and Where I bought it: My father-in-law knew someone at Apple and Apple was unloading these models at a discount and he acquired one for us and sent it to Japan. It wasn't cheap, but it was notably cheaper than its usual price. It had to have been in 1996 since the model was discontinued in September of that year and we bought it just before Apple stopped selling it. The computer had early difficulties with batteries and cracked cases which tainted perceptions of it such that Apple was keen to unload them, but later versions were trouble-free, if equipped with somewhat crappy screens that looked a bit washed out.
Why: Our former color PowerBook 540c was top of the line, but it had an outdated processor. We had this chance to pick up a PowerBook with a PowerPC processor for about $2800 so we went for it.
How I used it: This machine was mainly used by my husband for e-mail and Internet-based tasks as well as the odd game. At this point in time, we were rapidly developing into a pattern where I always used the desktop because of all my add-ons (scanner, tablet, etc.) and he usually used the laptop so he could lie down in bed and use it.
Where it ended up: We sold it for a pittance (about $50) to a coworker.
OS: 8.x, 9.x

G3 DT/266

When and Where I bought it: Akihabara in 1998. One shop had English language models for sale at a cheaper price than Japanese ones. I recall that this was the first time my husband and I sat down and really questioned the necessity of spending the money on a new computer. I even have a vivid memory of us sitting down on the curb in Akihabara and talking it over for awhile. I had a hard time justifying it to myself, and maybe the fact that the shine was dulling on my Apple fanaticism was a part of it. After some lemons, I was more cautious and less enthusiastic about Macs.
Why: I was unhappy with my crash-happy, failing Performa and this was significantly faster. I think that I also was into Kai's Power Tools at the time and they wouldn't run on my Performa.
How I used it: For everything, including my first forays into making web sites with Adobe GoLive and some heavy gaming and being involved in I used this computer longer than any other Mac I've owned. It's hard drive and CD-ROM drive failed, but by this time I was able to buy the components and cheaply replace the failed parts myself. This was by far the best investment in a Mac I ever made. It was capable of running everything well and that was the big reason I didn't migrate to OS X for years. Why buy a new machine just to run OS X when OS 9 ran every piece of software speedily on my G3 DT/266? I even upgraded the processor with a 400 mhz NewerTech ZIF upgrade (the first and only time I upgraded a Mac's processor). I loved this Mac and it served me very well for 6 years.
Where it ended up: I gave it to my former company to use as a back-up to their horribly old Macs.
OS: 9.x. I tried using OS X on it, but it ran very badly and was incredibly unstable. I hated OS X because it took my wonderful fast Mac and turned it into a blue-screened, crashfest of sluggishness. Apple at this point was really losing me because they claimed OS X would run on G3's and it seemed they only meant it in the most literal sense. Technically, it ran, but it was so awful as to be useless. I was angry because advance word on OS X at the time I bought this model was that it'd be good to go on G3's. Later, Apple was sued in a class action suit for falsely claiming OS X would work on machines with G3 processors, but I don't think anything came of it.

Note: During the period of time that I used this Mac, I went dual platform. I bought a PC that ran Windows '98 and learned how to use and maintain Windows as well as Macs. I kept my first PC for 4 years then got another one which ran Windows XP which I still have today, though I recently replaced it as a primary gaming machine with a newer model (also running XP). I gave away that first PC to a coworker (it ran for 2 more years then the power supply conked out, but it was a $300 emachines model that ran for 6 years). I bought the PC because I didn't want to have such a narrow user experience. It helped me see how the Mac OS in subsequent versions of OS X was slowly gravitating toward a more Windows-style user interface with every incarnation. Many of the changes were incidental (keyboard shortcuts, shift, option, and command key configurations), but they showed that Apple would choose forcing faithful Mac users to change user interface conventions they'd used for over a decade rather than force "switchers" (PC users swapping to Mac) to learn Mac interface idiosyncracies.

Tangerine iMac (266 mhz)

When and Where I bought it: Akihabara in 1999. It came with a Japanese keyboard which we replaced. It came with one of the stupidest mouse designs ever, which we also replaced. It also came with a Japanese OS, which I replaced.
Why: My husband had been using the craptacular PowerBook 5300c and the iMacs were a cheap way to replace his old notebook with something of equivalent power to my beloved DT 266. He was staying at home during the year a lot of the time at this point so it wasn't a problem for him to use a desktop.
How I used it: Mainly, I fixed it when things went wrong and installed software on it. Otherwise, my CH used it for AOL chatting with friends back home, gaming, and Internet. I had to replace the CD-ROM drive and we sent it to Apple to have the monitor fixed because of a factory defect.
Where it ended up: I also donated this one to my former company after it had done a lengthy stint in my closet. I sent it to them after I quit working there. This one got put aside when my husband got a newer, faster Mac laptop to replace it.
OS: 9.x

Tangerine iBook (original clamshell G3 266 mhz)

When and Where I bought it: Akihabara in 2000. Models with English keyboards were available.
Why: This was purchased for me to continue to expand my knowledge of all things computer while at work. In particular, to open up my graphics vistas.
How I used it: I played a ton of Diablo II on this computer at lunchtime and on Saturdays. I also set up a web site for strategy guides for the game and seriously dived into using Illustrator. In fact, I believe this is the machine I finally learned the fine points of using vector graphics on. I also used it to do all of my work at the company because they were too damn cheap to buy us Macs for our textbook layout work. I even used my own scanner to scan pictures for the company's books. I still have that scanner, which is about 6 years old now, and use it with my PC (the driver doesn't work under OS X).
Where it ended up: I still use it in my teaching (the picture is my desk set-up for lessons today). I use it on the desk to reference articles or course content so I don't have to make multiple print-outs and waste paper and ink. It's essentially a document reader, but it works fine except for the fact that the battery is dead and the CD drive is so wonky as to be useless.
OS: 9.x

dual USB iBook (G3 500 mhz)

When and Where I bought it: Akihabara in 2001. The keyboard was swapped for an English one.
Why: This replaced the CH's aging iMac. It was twice as fast and relatively cheap. By now, we'd learned our lesson when buying computers. It is better to buy low end and expect to have to trade up than to buy high and expect it to last. Macs no longer are built to last like they used to even though the pace of technology has slowed down. The CD and DVD drives always fail or become unreliable within 2-3 years and the hard drives always fail within a similar time span.
How I used it: Again, mainly, I maintained it, but after my husband replace this notebook with a Dell laptop (yes, he went Windows), I used it for awhile instead of the tangerine iBook, but crappy hardware quality eventually intervened.
Where it ended up: It's currently in the closet. The "delete" key fell off. The "shift" key grew sticky and the screen started to go dark all the time unless you squeezed a spot just in front of the keyboard on the left. The darkening issue made it impossible to use unless you squeeze it at relatively frequent intervals. It may still function and I guess it could be used as a reader if my tangerine iBook dies. I think I could rig up an office clip to permanently pinch the spot where you have to squeeze it to brighten the screen (but it could never be closed again). However, it's essentially a doorstop. This was by far the worst Mac laptop we've ever bought. The quality and durability drop between the tangerine clamshell iBook and this fragile model was crystal clear to me given that one was used longer and harder than the other and is still ticking with only a hairline crack in the hinge (which affects nothing) and this one fell apart after far less use.
OS: 9.x though it came with 9.1 and OS X. It ran like a snail (despite having upgraded RAM) under X, so I didn't use X on it much.

Mac Mini (G4 1.42)

When and Where I bought it: In 2005, we had my father-in-law buy it for us. We could have bought it in Japan, but I was concerned about issues with RAM and it was actually cheaper to buy it in America and send it over than to get it here. I'm not squeamish about cracking open computer cases and tinkering inside with them, but the Mini is a different beast that required special tools (which I didn't have easy access to) for the RAM upgrade. So, I just asked my father-in-law to take care of it and he kindly did so.
Why: It was becoming increasingly obvious that I couldn't avoid OS X forever as new software was released which would not run on OS 9 anymore. I didn't want to give up OS 9, but my hand was being forced. I bought this because it was the cheapest entry point to OS X.
How I use it: Initially, I used it rather little since I had an eMachine running Windows XP which was my primary computer most of the time, but eventually, I started doing everything on it (except games). Now, it's where I blog, deal with graphics, chat, do layout, make materials for and keep records of students, and keep my work calendar. I think a big part of the problem was that I didn't like X.3 (Panther) much. When X.4 (Tiger) and later X.5 (Leopard) came along, I warmed up to the Mini.
Where it ended up: It's on my desk. It's showing its age though and its hard drive failed just shortly before its two-year anniversary. I replaced it, but its DVD drive is starting to get wonky enough that I've had to connect an external DVD burner to it to make discs and to read some DVDs and CDs. It's days are definitely looking limited, but I'm resisting buying a new Mac until Apple puts out a mid-range tower (hah!). Instead of buying a new Mac, I bought a new PC which I currently use for gaming, but can use as a back-up if the Mini buys the farm.
OS: X.3, X.4, and X.5

MacBook 2.4 Ghz dual core

When and Where I bought it: Apple Store, Shibuya, June 2008. The Apple store swapped the keyboard for an English one.
Why: The only thing worse than any Mac laptop is a PC laptop. My husband bought a Dell to replace his dual USB iBook then about a year and a half later bought an Acer to replace the Dell which crapped out pretty quickly. The Acer lived about the same length of time and we bought the MacBook because I'm sick of crappy PC notebooks which are about the same price or only slightly cheaper than Macs. Also, now that the Mac can run Windows, it can serve two purposes so my CH can do what he wants.
How I use it: This is my CH's computer. My main function has been installing Windows Vista on a separate partition and installing what felt like thousands of applications on both the Mac and Windows side. I don't use it at all as I could never wrestle it out of his hands. His Acer is in the shop now, so maybe I can do some maintenance on it after it comes back (if it comes back working).
Where it ended up: It's my CH's primary machine for now. We're trying to protect it and bought a fancy shock-absorbent case for $40. Given that it is similar to the old dual USB G3 iBook structurally, I have serious doubts about its longevity and durability.
OS: X.5

The MacBook is actually the smoothest working Windows machine I've ever worked with. The Mac OS side was exceptionally ornery with the software my husband wanted. In fact, no games that my husband wanted to use worked on it at all, even those that should have and had low graphics demands. It's still smooth as silk and speedy for other things, but clearly anyone who games will want to have a copy of Windows on hand to dual boot the Mac.

If you've been paying attention, you'll notice a trend in my experiences. Early Macs lasted longer, had no failed components and were sold intact after use (the Classic particularly lasted forever). Later ones had failed parts which I replaced and the most recent ones started to fall apart to the point where I couldn't sell them and either had to give them away, or sock them away or consider trashing them. This is part of my disappointment with Apple. I'm not comparing Macs to PCs. I'm comparing Macs to what they were before and what they are now.

This article wouldn't have been possible without which allowed me to check the dates and specs on various machines against my memory. It's a really handy resource if you want to take a trip down Mac memory lane.