Japan 2019 – Retrospective

This post is not about any specific day from the trip. Instead, my plan is to think outloud about Japan and reflect on things generally. It’ll probably be very dry since there aren’t really pictures.

Blogging

First, I some comments on the blogging. I thought it was a good idea before, and I mostly feel good about it. The first few days were great, and I liked reflecting on the day before going to bed, when I wasn’t too tired. When Google Photos stopped being in order though, blogging felt like a chore. I won’t commit to it in the future, but I will most likely give it a try and keep at it as long as Google Photos behaves.

Japan and Cleanliness

In my first / pre- post I mentioned that my first impression of Japan was not of cleanliness. I have a slightly different view after finishing the trip. The excitement with which the cleanliness was conveyed to me implied it was pristine, which is definitely not the case.

That said, you can tell it’s clean by how rarely you see pests – flies, gnats, rats and even pigeons. But the cities still had a fart / “dirty water” smell anytime you walked around enough, there were still water stains / rust, and anytime I looked for them, cigarette butts.

What I did see though was that there was a lot of sweeping, a lot indoor dusting, and at one of the gardens I saw someone trimming a perfectly good tree. So it does seem like, for certain things, they seriously get ahead of any messiness so that it doesn’t even come up.

I’ll talk about trash here too, including a little bit more generally. I mentioned this previously, but public trashcans are rare. They have them at train stations, but I don’t recall seeing any of them just on the street. I think my experience there would have been a lot better if I spent less time worrying about my trash. On a related note, they seem pretty serious about recycling, which is good, but it was super confusing at first. I’m not going to provide details here, but I would recommend you read up on trash in the cit(ies) you’re going to before visiting Japan.

Lastly, I’m going to just say briefly that I think smoking is absolutely disgusting and I’m genuinely surprised that it’s so common in a culture which values cleanliness. I believe I read somewhere that ~90% of Japanese smokers consider themselves addicted, and I want to be compassionate toward that, but it was frustrating enough during the trip that I’m mostly just annoyed – being an addict doesn’t mean you need to smoke inside a restaurant. I literally don’t want to go back until they modernize on this point.

Crowds

I planned certain things for week days specifically expecting fewer crowds. At no point during the day did it really seem like fewer people were out and about though, and it was enough adults and families that it didn’t feel like a spring break thing. The trains were always at least a little bit crowded, and I was in for a rude-awakening when we were on a truly crowded train where people were packed in like sardines.

The street crowds weren’t too bad, but the ones at the zoo and the last aquarium made things much less enjoyable. I felt like both were chaotic, you just had to push your way forward rather than there being an orderly line, which again for me doesn’t jive with Japanese culture overall.

They crowds were bad enough that I would make an effort in the future to plan around them, as much as possible, and to know when I wouldn’t be able to so that I can be mentally prepared.

Other Random Observations

Here are a few things which didn’t really deserve a whole section:

There were vending machines everywhere. They all accepted coins, and many accepted the train card. They rarely had food, which was a surprise based on what I recalled about my reading.

I don’t recall seeing any cigarette ads. I’m used to that in the states, but I was surprised about it in Japan given that the government owns a large stake in Big Tobacco there.

I strongly dislike what I saw of bicycle culture. Basically, people use the busy sidewalks. I definitely take bike lanes for granted sometimes, but at least for what we saw of Japan I wouldn’t be very comfortable cycling there.

Japan is conveyed as “high-tech” oftentimes and my evaluation of this is similar to the cleanliness. Yes, it’s true to an extent, but it’s not as exaggerated as one may expect. One thing which might factor into this view is how complex some things are, e.g. I had a hard time figuring out how to take a hot bath, and accidentally made noises in the living room while trying. My view on that though is that technology should be elegant, you shouldn’t need Google Translate to take a bath and they don’t get any tech-points from me for over-complicating things.

The clothes washers don’t have driers. That was an unpleasant realization, though not a big deal. It was weird though, having let the clothes dry by themselves meant they felt crusty, which to me is at odd with Japanese culture and cleanliness, but I guess they don’t see it that way.

I felt like light switches weren’t very intuitive. I figured out eventually that they tend to be outside of a room instead of inside, but I still felt like I had a hard time predicting which, in a cluster of switches, might do what I want.

Money isn’t handed directly to someone, it’s put in a tray as a middle-man. Same with the change and with credit cards. Haven’t looked into this, though it was interesting though.

Splitting lines is common. In the US, if a line gets too long, it just becomes awkward. In Japan it was common when a line got too long to have someone who worked at the place create a gap, and manage it so that the line wasn’t as disruptive. That was cool.

I agree for the most part that Japanese culture is very polite. I feel like smoking in public (especially in restaurants) causes them to lose a point, and crowds didn’t feel polite, but the only direct / personal issue we had was at the hotel check-in, and that seemed unusual.

Face masks were very common, though I don’t think the majority of people used them. I’m too lazy to provide a link here but I read that there’s not really much science behind them being particularly useful. Overall, they seem unnecessary to me but I don’t blame people for being conservative about it (except for the smokers).

I like their escalator culture. There’s enough space for two people side-by-side on just about every one of them, and people were good about staying left and allowing walkers on the right. Two out of the three times I saw this violated, it was by someone blond, so they were probably not Japanese (and a little clueless unfortunately).

I didn’t meditate regularly during the trip. I do so for 10-15 minutes every week day at home (and often on weekends). I felt like I was mostly very mindful during the trip though, especially of when I was hangry or in a bad mood which the guys were never responsible for. I realized fairly late in the trip that during all the walking around, there was a blind spot to my mindfulness which was bothering me. No details on that here, but the trip would have been better if I had handled that part better.

Suggestions

Make sure you have Google Translate installed before the trip, along with the Japanese language pack. While there are real-time translation features, I would recommend translating anything ahead of time when you think there might be an issue, since back-and-forth is rarely necessary.

I regret not making an effort to learn some Japanese before going. I thought I would get along fine, so it wouldn’t be an issue, but that was only half true. I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t made the effort, because clearly so many Japanese people we interacted with did make an effort. In the future, I plan to at least go through a Coursera course or something on the local language before going somewhere new.

Visit teamLab Planets, it’s great!

Be mindful of IC-card (e.g. Pasmo) use at vending machines. We nearly ended up having to leave several more dollars than necessary on our cards because we had to reload because we used it on vending machines, which itself may entail hitting an ATM which has a minimum withdrawal as well as any fee(s). Instead, I would have stuck to change. The other thing is that it means that all three of us would have had the same balance, instead of having to figure how much needed to be added for each card individually.

Things That I Missed

I have a heavy blanket on my bed at home. Cats. Just feeling comfortable at home. Driers. Easy bathes. Wall sockets which reliably have ground. By the end of the trip, I was very ready to be home.

Overall

It was a great trip, and I would do it again. I still don’t plan on revisiting Japan until they modernize on smoking, which I expect they will. The guys were great to travel with and the worst part was when I snapped at Mikel which he didn’t deserve, but they really were great. I might plan for a slightly shorter trip in the future and a day off of work before going back in. I’m happy about the blogging, which I expect to read when I’m older even if no one else does.

My first few weeks with a 3D printer

About 3 weeks ago my Micro 3D Printer arrived from their Kickstarter campaign. Needless to say I was absolutely ecstatic. I came home from work, ripped it open, and pulled out an old laptop with Windows on it (their software is Windows-only for the moment). Once I got everything set up, the first thing that caught me off guard was that there were no models to print provided by the software. The Unofficial intro video was nice, but I was overly excited and didn’t notice the description provided a model; I expected a model in the “downloads” section of the site or even pre-loaded with the software. In fact I didn’t realize that model was there until just now as I went to write this blog post. Derp. (It’s nearly finished as I’m about to publish this post.)

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My initial attempts to print didn’t go great. I didn’t feed the filament in properly, so it began to print but stopped. I was using black plastic, so I thought it was just hard to see against the black print bed. Nope! I switched to blue and really made sure it got in there; you can feel it pulling when you insert it. It seems so obvious now. I’ve had the same kind of failure happen a couple of times but I just watch it toward the beginning and it usually goes well.

The first thing I printed was a “pencil holder” mostly because it was the first thing I found that was acceptable in my mind to print. It would have taken forever (8 hours) at its real size, and I just wanted to hold something in my hand, so I scaled it to 25% in each dimension. I didn’t realize it, but that means what I printed was ~1.6% the designed volume (0.25 cubed). At 1.5 hours estimated I was happy with how it turned out. The estimates are always low though, sometimes by 50%.

Lizard Print

People might wonder about an odor, and my experience is that it’s detectable but not bothersome when on my desk next to my laptop. It also prints a flat square thing as the basis and you have to peel it off, and you have to peel that basis off the print bed. That basis takes a bit of time to print, and does use at least a couple grams of filament but for most prints that isn’t a big deal. Another weird thing is that there is a “percent complete” provided on the computer, but it drags on slowly as that basis is printed and speeds up considerably once it’s done. You also can’t unplug the printer from the computer during printing.

After this proof-of-concept, my next goal was to make the process simpler. I was using the “external” way of feeding the filament into the printer, but I wanted to use the “internal” one instead, figuring it would unspool automatically while inside. After a lot of frustration, and being told by their customer service that they don’t recommend doing it, I have the same advice: don’t even bother. Their software isn’t very forgiving either, so when I couldn’t manage to do it I had to restart the software which required moving the print head around for no apparent reason. I’ll discuss what customer service recommended later.

Next up I printed a Baterang and a Superman thing. All these prints were at “low quality” so I tried a “high quality” baterang which was tremendously more time consuming (at least a factor of 2, perhaps more). The only noticeable difference between the two prints seemed to be a fluke. It definitely wasn’t 2x better, and “low quality” actually did look good. All three prints are also very solid and light, they’re sturdier than they look. Next I printed Tux the Linux penguin. I rigged something weird up with my bike’s U-lock (a recommendation of my roommate) so that it could go overnight, and that worked well as a temporary solution. Tux is what I use as a representative successful print when showing people. It was also my first print where the software automatically added support structures which are meant to gently broken off. I’m very, very happy about it.

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At this point I wanted to go from decoration to useful things. I tried printing a simple toilet-paper holder since I don’t like the one in my apartment currently. The model didn’t quite fit in the software, so I scaled it to 93% on the longest dimension thinking it’d be fine. Noooope. Shoulda measured it. My roommate had the good idea of using this mistake to hold the filament spool for overnight prints. I decided it was worth giving “high quality” another try.

I decided on Tux since it was relatively complex and because it had turned out so well it’d be a great reference. The software estimated 8 hours so it was a good candidate in terms of time estimates as well. It ended up being a relative failure and took over 12 hours. The print stopped working while printing the top of the head, so that was bad news, but the parts that actually did get printed didn’t look any better. Lesson learned: “low quality” is just fine.

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At this point, I contacted support about longer prints. I emailed on a Monday morning and heard back the following Thursday. Saturday morning I finally got to the email. They said not to use the internal thing, which was disappointing; why not mention this somewhere sooner, to prevent my time being wasted? Next they gave me a Dropbox link to a model for a two-part print of a spool holder that attaches on the outside of the printer (pics: without filament, with filament). By the time I went to use it, the Dropbox link was dead. I was really sad then, since the next business day was Monday and then based on experience it’d be another four days. Crap!

I decided next to try to get their software to work in Wine, so that I could get myself off Windows. That was a failure; I haven’t contacted customer support with the error I had, and at this point I have no intention of doing so, at least not while they’re still taking pre-orders. Since Wine was a no-go I then tried VirtualBox with Windows 7 as my guest OS. That was also a failure, but while going back to their site to get their software again I noticed the models were available for download on their site! Whoo! (This was dumb luck though, not customer support.)

Successful print next to terribly failed print.

Successful print next to terribly failed print.

So back to printing I went. They suggested the spool holder for my 8+ hour prints, so I was unpleasantly surprised when the model provided was estimated to take 8.5 hours. Wtf, right? After multiple painful print attempts I eventually get the spool holder working. I went back to trusty Tux for an overnight print (can’t remember if I tried “high quality” or not) and that didn’t turn out well (separate failed pic print). I contacted customer support again, with pictures of my setup and the failed print. After a full business week I haven’t heard back from them. I do realize they’re busy, but it’s not a great experience. Giving them the benefit of the doubt is tough too, if only because they sent me a link that was dead after two days.

As time has gone on, my enthusiasm and optimism have plummeted. Once I got things going, I was planning on extending an open offer for friends to do prints. Filament is cheap, so if I could just set it to go overnight that’d be fine. But right now I feel like I have to watch all my prints and invest a ton of time, so anything that anyone would want to print is going to be something I have really invest myself in.

My printer with the spool holder and a spool (current setup).

My printer with the spool holder and a spool (current setup).

A lot of the possibilities with a 3D printer involves me learning CAD as well, to make my own things (as great as Thingiverse is). With the failure rate I’ve seen, I’m not sure I can stand to spend several hours learning CAD, designing a thing, and having repeated failed prints. Surely someone can tolerate this, but I’m not up for it today.

My general conclusion is: their website is tacky, their customer service isn’t great, and the printer itself is hit-or-miss. I wouldn’t advocate against one if you’re still interested after reading all this, but I was hoping to like it enough to want to donate one to my high school. I’m definitely not doing that yet.

For anyone who really wants to pre-order one and get going here are my suggestions: Stick to PLA plastic (this is the recommendation on their site right now, though it wasn’t when I did my orders), Thingiverse is awesome, print the spool holder right away without bothering with the “internal,” ignore “high quality” prints, remove and re-insert filament after letting it sit cold for more than an hour, expect prints to take up to 2x the estimate, and keep on eye on all prints at least every 15 minutes.

If customer support magically fixes things, or they request taking the printer back for modifications, I’ll probably post back here. Same if any really useful prints come out of it, or if I get into CAD (I plan on trying Blender and Anim8or). I’m still optimistic about this printer and things I might do with it, although my enthusiasm has waned as failed prints have happened.