Monday, March 22, 2010

Frum on Republican Party's Waterloo

An interesting post by former Bush speech-writer, David Frum, on what the Republican party's posturing in the healthcare reform debate means heading forward.

A quick selection:

At the beginning of this process we made a strategic decision: unlike, say, Democrats in 2001 when President Bush proposed his first tax cut, we would make no deal with the administration. No negotiations, no compromise, nothing. We were going for all the marbles. This would be Obama’s Waterloo – just as healthcare was Clinton’s in 1994.
Read the rest here.

And while you're at it, read Karl Miller's dissection, culinary-style, of Krauthammer's thoughts on 'Obamacare'.


Friday, March 19, 2010

Business Names

I walk by this shop all the time when I'm in the area, but it's usually at night when I'm on my way to a restaurant in the area. I finally walked by during the day when there was enough time to take a picture of this business's name. Translation: POS System Register.

This makes me chuckle every time I walk by. And what makes it even funnier is the rest of the stuff, old school cash registers and the like, displayed in the window. The various devices look like they were made in the 70s or 80s and haven't been touched since then.

So I guess the company's name is apt. Hopefully everyone knows what "POS" stands for. If not, click here.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

USA Passport Renewal

Updated! [3/26/10--see bottom of post]

Updated again! [4/6/10--see bottom of post]

The good news about passport renewals is that many people can do so through the mail. Get the right-sized photos (currently 2 inches by 2 inches for American passports), fill out the forms online, print everything up, and then head off to the post office.

But that's where it gets a little tricky.

I personally found that he information on the US Embassy of Japan's website was a little misleading and could be simplified in several ways. It seems rather obvious that whoever typed up the guide on this site has not tried to renew their passport through the mail in Japan before. Or at least not recently at any rate.

Here's what I learned about the process.

Even though the website linked to above states that an Expack 500 should be used, I was informed that you are not allowed to send passports using them. I don't know who's correct on this one, but the people at the post office are generally pretty knowledgeable about sending valuable items. Instead I was directed to stick a registered S.A.S.E. envelope inside of a larger registered envelope addressed to the US Embassy in Minato Ward, Tokyo. I assume that the US Embassy in Tokyo plays the middleman on this exchange, but I have yet to receive my new passport in the mail. I'll update this post when I have the new passport in my hands.

Another thing to pay close attention to is who the 'payee' for this transaction is. For those of us living in and around Tokyo, the US Embassy Tokyo is the payee. Their address, if I'm not mistaken, is: 
Unit 9800 Box 114 APO AP 96303-0114 USA.

The above information is necessary when filling out the required paperwork for an international payment and declaration. 

This is confusing because the payee appears to be residing in two countries at the same time. No explanation is given for this on the US Embassy of Japan website. The important thing, however, is that you don't actually send the parcel with your soon-to-expire passport to the payee's address as written above. Or at least that is how I was advised in an e-mail from someone at the embassy.

Instead, you must send your registered parcel to the following address:
American Embassy Passport Unit 1-10-5 Akasaka Minato-ku Tokyo 107-8420

I'm interested to see whether my passports (one new and one old) will be returned to me in the registered envelope I sent, or if the US Embassy will break the rules and use Expack 500. 

Hopefully what I've written here will help someone else who is having a hard time deciphering the information on the US Embassy of Japan website. It would be really helpful if there was a step-by-step guide--one for military personnel and a completely separate one for civilians. And both of those guides should be completely separated from information guiding current American residents who also wish to renew their passports. 

Unfortunately, in some cases, the information overlaps or is presented side-by-side. I guess the bottom line is that you need to read everything on that website carefully. 

Additional notes for American citizens (civilians) residing in Japan:

  • an international postal money order is called a kokusai yubin kawase in Japanese.
  • there is a 2,000 yen fee for this service.
  • the passport renewal fee (US$75) plus the optional quick service fee (US$60) works out to a little over 12,300 yen by today's exchange rate (91.39 yen to the dollar). That's just a bit under 15,000 yen all together. [updated 3/26/10]
  • make sure that your photos are taken on a white background.
  • don't staple your photos to the application form even though it clearly says to do so.
  • write your name very lightly on the back of the photos so that you don't put grooves that show through on the picture side.

Update 3/26/10: My passport application was returned yesterday. The problem was that my postal money order was rejected on account of being for too much money. "Expedited" service is apparently not available for non-US addresses.

This is annoying, to say the least, because this fact is not mentioned anywhere on the embassy's website. Furthermore, you are allowed to select the expedited service option while filling out your documents online, and the $60 fee is tacked onto your bill.

More annoying still is the fact that I had to repay the 2,000 yen processing fee for having a second postal money order issued, this time in the amount of $75 dollars.

The US Embassy in Japan would do well to indicate this important point on its passport renewal instructions page.

Oh, and the two photos I sent were returned to me not in their small envelope, but rather paper-clipped to my application. That left a nice crease down the left side. I'm now predicting that my application gets returned to me next week due to this new problem (I opted to use the same photos again as it costs 700 yen to get new ones).

Update 4/6/10: I just received my new passport in the mail. That was fast--basically a week and a half from the second time I shipped my passport. All told, including the misstep in the first update to this post, the process took less than three weeks. That's still much faster than the four to six commonly cited on the embassy website.

And I can confirm that NOT using an Expack 500 will still get your documents back to you in one piece. Just make sure that you register the S.A.S.E. envelope that you tuck in the original package with your soon-to-expire passport. Also, make sure that you put enough postage on the return envelope to carry the weight of both your old and new passports.

Oh, and they returned one of my two passport photos. Not sure why they needed two in the first place...


Sunday, March 07, 2010

Hot Music Videos

I'm still on a pretty strong Grizzly Bear kick at the moment (click here for my last post about them). I just love it when bands (and their labels) make it easy for you to obsess over them by posting lots of freely viewable and embeddable videos online.

And Grizzly Bear is a good example of this. You can find their music videos and other random performances on video sites such as YouTube and Vimeo. By the way, after you watch the official Grizzly Bear video for their hit "Two Weeks", go ahead and watch this fan video as well. Ho. Lee. Crap.

On to my newest discovery, this time from a band called OK Go. They just released an absolutely ridiculous video for their song "This Too Shall Pass" that simply entertains, amazes, and brings you back to your high school science class days all at the same time.

Without further ado:

Most of the videos mentioned above are available in HD (high definition), so if you'd like to see better quality versions, they shouldn't be hard to find.

And a quick hint for any record label execs who happen across this blog for some strange reason: this type of thing makes me buy CDs, write about what I paid money for, and generally become passionate about your product. If I can't embed the videos that I like in my own site and share my interests with others, guess what? I'm not going to pay money for the stuff that you're flogging.


Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Cheap Red Wine

Drinking wine from a box is something that a lot of people do. Myself included. I clearly recall the days (read: college) when many small get-togethers with friends involved at least one three liter box of the stuff. The wine wasn't phenomenal, but at that stage of my life I didn't really care. I believe my style of thinking was more along the lines of 'Three liters of wine for under fifteen dollars? OK, I'll take four, please.'

And that style of thinking is still with me to some extent, although I'm sure it resurfaces less frequently than my wallet would like.

One such instance was this past weekend when I picked up a 600 yen bottle of red wine housed in a plastic bottle. Apparently beverage behemoth, Suntory, has teamed up with a winery or two in France to produce a red and white Cocovin. They both come packaged in plastic.

Yes, plastic.

Big deal, right? Haven't we already gotten used to screw-top caps due to the cork shortage? Aren't we destined for packaging techniques that reduce shipping costs? Hell, some of the Beaujolais Nouveau sold this year in Japan hit the shelves in plastic. Not that the stuff was great wine or anything, but you get the picture. And I believe that was a pretty faithful rendition of what was going through my mind at the time.

Well...I guess I should have known better. As you probably guessed, the wine was a little bit...interesting. I'm now slightly suspicious that the wine shipped under the Cocovin brand has leftover Beaujolais Nouveau mixed in with it. It has that same kind of brash floral aroma that vaults out of the bottle as soon as it's uncorked unscrewed. And it's just as floral on the palate, but coming from me that's not a compliment. I started to get the feeling that I was sucking on a lilac bush. And the taste lingered for quite a while after I had gulped. Yikes.

White wines are the ones that have more acidity; it defines them, gives them a presence and a backbone that is expected and appreciated. However, the Cocovin red, for whatever reason, is light on tannins but heavy on acidity, especially in the finish. The result is a rather flowery-sour aftertaste.

That said, you get what you pay for, and I certainly did. For those who wish to head down this route, I would highly recommend putting the red in the fridge for at least an hour before opening. After the mercury drops, the aroma calms down and the aftertaste diminishes noticeably. At that temperature, you could argue that it's worth 600 yen.

Oh woe is us. Is this what we're in for? It seems fairly obvious that in order to sell people on the whole 'wine in a plastic bottle' thing, even if it's going to make our hooch cheaper, a lot of said wine better be pretty damned good. Otherwise we're not going to buy it. We'll be headed straight down the whole rosé path again (nobody would buy it until it was renamed blush, remember?). Anyway, message to Suntory: please try again.

But I digress. Come to think of it, two extra seconds of brain usage and I would have realized that I haven't bought wine in anything other than a glass bottle for a good 10 years. There's obviously a reason for that.

Lesson learned. I guess I actually care about what I drink now. The extra 300 yen per bottle is well worth it.


Monday, March 01, 2010

How to donate to the relief effort in Chile

Typing from a part of the world that experiences earthquakes on a regular basis, I think I can say with confidence that Chile just got rocked by something that the world rarely sees. For those who reside in locales not prone to major shakes, let me assure you that even the small ones, threes or fours on the Richter scale, can be downright terrifying. Add to that crumbling bridges and tumbling buildings, and what you have is perhaps the most destructive 60 seconds that nature is capable of.

It's time to help out. The mess in Haiti isn't even close to being straightened out, but we can, indeed we must, donate to the relief efforts in both countries.

Mobile Giving is again making it easy for people in the United States to use their mobile phones to donate:

Text the word “CHILE” to 25383 to donate $10
On behalf of the Habitat for Humanity

Text the word “CHILE” to 20222 to donate $10
On behalf of World Vision

Text the word “CHILE” to 52000 to donate $10
On behalf of the Salvation Army

Text the word “YOUTH” to 20222 to donate $10
On behalf of UNICEF

Online donations
It is also possible, and very easy, to donate online. Here is a short list of links if you want to use your credit/debit card to make a difference:

American Red Cross
Doctors Without Borders
Google Crisis Response
Oxfam (UK)
Unicef (Australia)

So let's get to it. The five links above are sometimes aimed at a specific country, but you can often navigate to the international site and then make your way to the page that is dedicated to your country of residence. And of course, if you know any other portals for making donations, please list them in the comments section below.