Kiva Update – Two Loans!

Kiva is an organisation which works with micro-finance organisations all over the world to provide loans to help people move forwards with their ideas and businesses. Essentially, several people, sometimes many, pool their money to extend a loan to a person or group they select from the Kiva website.

I made my first Kiva loan in 2011 of 25 USD to a group in Viet Nam, the second was to a sewing services lady in Colombia, the third was to a man in Kenya, looking to build his motorbike transportation business. I won’t deny my love of motorbiking played a part in that last one. However, this has been that same 25 USD going around, so I’ve added another 25 USD (as well as a small donation to Kiva itself) and made two more small loans this time around.

The first new loan is to another Kenyan motorbike transportation chap, and the second is to a Balinese crafts family. This latter one is the first time then that I’ve lent money into a country I’ve actually been to.

This brings my money-lent level in total to 125 USD, well below the Kiva average of 333USD. One must try harder. Kiva knows this and provides plenty of statistics and badges on your portfolio in the hope it might make you want to cover that last country you haven’t lent into yet.

It’s worth remembering that this is a loan, not a donation, and many recipients are looking to build businesses, or better themselves for their communities, and unlike a donation, you stand a very good chance (98%+) of getting your money back to loan it out again, or even take it out of Kiva.

Give it a try.





Review: Why We Ride

I heard about ‘Why We Ride‘ in the middle of 2013; it’s ostensibly a documentary of sorts about why people ride and love to ride motorbikes. I love riding my motorbike, if that’s any kind of caveat, but that’s not actually why I bought the film, or what this review is about. Also, I’m reviewing the 2,000yen iTunes HD movie, not the BluRay/DVDs version.

To cover the structure, it’s beautifully shot, the camera work and direction are top notch, the soundtrack is fantastic, and as it lacks a central  narrator, the narrative is done via the people being interviewed. One trick the director uses is to not introduce the people speaking, until a sequence which closes the movie. I think this is so as to not distract you and focus on what they say, but I found it a bit confusing in places, because I like to know who is talking, and the end roll, whilst a good idea, comes off as a little bit clumsy in places by comparison.

As you can see from the trailer, it looks beautiful, and whilst much of the road footage looks good, the staged ‘bikers helping each other’ section looks a bit overly staged, and wasn’t really needed. That said, there are some wonderful pieces from the Bonneville salt flats, which reminded me that anyone can go out there and try their bike out, and the place looks truly extraordinary. There is also some time spent looking at training classes, and other skills based exercises, which fit with the theme the film has that motorbiking isn’t the outlaw groups some imagine, and it hits on the old Honda ‘you meet the nicest people on a Honda’ campaign, to show that to an extent motorbiking has grown up, though it goes without saying that it still has a sharper edge.

The film follows some of the history of American biking icons, like Daytona, some of the dirt tracks, some famous figures, and biker culture over the years, including events like the Sturgiss Rally.  One issue then for non-Americans then is that it can seem a bit disconnected. As a non-American myself, I understand the allure of biking to be universal, and some of the background on Daytona to be interesting and informative, but as I don’t follow American motorsports, I didn’t know who some people were, or their larger relevance. It’s not a criticism, just an observation. It’s also odd that they discuss European biking and MotoGP, but don’t seem to interview or go into that at all.

One person I did recognise, and I think the one who came over very well, is Ted Simon, of Jupitalia fame. I’ve read his books, and he’s a fascinating man, whose dual round the world trips inspired the Long Way Round & Down series. As ever his insight was concise and based on personal experience of going around the planet on a bike. I’m biased though; everything he says I find to be interesting.

Even if I didn’t know some of the people, or the relevance of their achievements, the key is really the points they make, there’s a focus on those women who ride, both now, and those who have ridden their whole lives, and how it’s not just about riding pillion, but being the rider. There’s a lot from kids and how they’re safely and constructively introduced to motorbikes, and thus the family and community built around it. It’s endearing to be sure, and so it’s not so much a documentary as a rallying call for those who already ride, and something of an advert perhaps to those who don’t, mainly though it’s about the people – some are champions, some of just people who like to get out on the open road.

One interesting aspect not discussed, but just something I noticed in the shots themselves are the split in those wearing helmets, and those who aren’t. It’s an issue to some, not to others, but in a documentary trying to show how safe and responsible it’s participants are, it’s interesting to see no discussion on this, and plenty of comments about feeling wind in your hair.

For what it’s worth, I’ve always worn a full face helmet on scooters/motorbikes, though I don’t mind what other people choose to wear – its a personal choice, sometimes with personal consequences either way. I remember riding 50cc Zoomers around packed Tokyo streets at night, and how bad the taxi drivers were and how close those trucks got, so any additional protection was a good idea for me. I know in America helmet laws vary by state, but in many European countries (and here in Japan) they’re mandatory.

So who is this targeted at? People who currently have a motorbike for sure, it may also coax some people back, and perhaps get some new converts, or re-assure people they can still ride. Truthfully, I think you could expand that to people who like to see some great cinematography, and listen to people who truly love doing something. In that aspect, it reminds me of the snowboard film “Art of Flight“.

It’s nice it covers so many branches of the biking community – it’s not all speed freaks, or custom bikes, or off-road, it’s a collection of different riders, and so does live up to it’s title, why we ride.

Isehara Camping during Rainy Season

It’s fair to say that I like to get outdoors. Although I’m not a frequent or avid camper, now that the kids are sort of old enough, I think it’s important we all get out and get some outdoors and tent time in.

We first went together in 2012, but for a pile of reasons we missed last year, and so this year we’re trying to make up the trip count. June is  part of Japan’s rainy season, but undaunted I booked a spot at a place I hadn’t camped at before up in the mountains, near a river,called Yamagoya.  It’s only a bit over an hour  from the house, so I thought that if it turned into a complete disaster I’d just have to up sticks and it would be a short drive back.

As the date came up, it was clear it would rain at some point. On the day we drove up it was raining, and when we arrived, I expected the kids to complain, but actually they loved it, and I have to say, they didn’t complain once during the whole weekend.

The site is small, running about 100m along a small river bank. Come the real summer they’re mainly set up with family sized BBQ sites, but right now they just had a few tarps up covering about half of them. They actually only have 3 designated tent pitches. This was the first odd point  – the pitches were away from the river, and broadly flat, but they’d put several layers of stones there, which may have helped run-off and drainage, but made getting the tent pegs in quite a bit harder, and of course the rain makes everything more slippery.  Like the previous camp though, I set up my GoPro on time lapse, and afterwards made a video from it – the kids love watching the tent go up at high speed!

The stones could have been a bigger issue, had I not brought our Thermarests, of which I’ve become a bit of a fan over the last few years, meaning for the kids especially, they could get comfy in their sleeping bags on one of these mattresses, and get some sleep.

Once the tent was up we went in to the adjoining cafe for some lunch. They only have a small menu, very Japanese oriented, which is fine, but not much for the kids. That said, the tofu salad and udon we ordered was excellent, and we could divide it between the three of us. They also do desserts and kakigouri (shaved ice with some fruit cordial), which obviously did go down well with the kids. It wasn’t expensive, given they’re serving a relatively captive audience, but marginally more expensive than a family restaurant.

Tenting in the Rain

As the rain came down gently, it was actually quite picturesque, looking down the river, and off a slight cliff down the valley. The kids were happy with my decision that since they were wet anyway, paddling into the river a little wasn’t going to do any more damage, so we passed quite a bit of time just exploring the riverbank and the site.

One of the best things about camping is cooking outside though, and it’s something my kids like too. For normal meals at home they can sometimes be picky, but when it comes off a BBQ or the camping stoves, there are no arguments. The drizzle had let up a little, so I broke out our two stoves – one is my normal lightweight backpacker stove, the other is a domestic ‘cassette gas’ burner. I found one of the set out tarps which was anchored quite high up, and set up just below and to one side of it – you don’t want to be melting or setting fire to tarps – so we got some rain shelter and played safe. I do like cooking outdoors, and with two stoves, got some spaghetti bolognese going.

One thing I was glad I brought is my Gerber multi-tool – I somehow bent one of the guide lips on my camping stove, and had to gently bend it back into shape with my pliers.

There wasn’t any showers that I noticed, but the toilets were clean enough for a camp site, and part of a concrete building, so the kids weren’t too fussed about it. It’s still odd to me that the same kids who complain about a small mosquito at home, don’t seem bothered by much bigger insects when they’re camping.

Let’s talk about insects. I don’t really have a problem with insects when I’m outdoors, with the possible exception of the midges in Scotland. Insects live outside, it’s what they do. However, twice over the weekend, I must have looked like a tempting and tasty target to Yamaburi, which are Japanese mountain leeches, and I had to remove them both forcefully, but safely (well, safe for me, not so much for them). They’re hardy things I can tell you.

I should probably discuss something about the staff at the site too. They’re very nice and polite, but a little slow, and aren’t entirely intuitive. I noticed this when I booked the site as I booked over a week ahead, confirming everything down to kids ages, arrival and departure times. When my wife called a few days before to check on things (if they rented towels etc.) she got into a weird conversation that the booking was somehow not complete. Finally she got confirmation that actually it was all booked. We still don’t know what the story was there. If it wasn’t complete, why hadn’t they called the mobile number I’d provided. I wonder if they’re the off-peak part timers?

All in all then, a good, simple one night camp. I think we’ll go back later in the year, and take advantage of one of the BBQ spots, as well as the tent pitches, as that would be fun. All that remains is for me to find out how to dissuade the local leeches, or a better way to remove them (if you have any ideas, please add to the comments).

New Arai Astro IQ helmet!

After probably too long with my old faithful Arai Rapide Or matt black helmet, a couple of months ago I got around to getting down to NAPS and getting myself a new helmet. After trying on quite a few, as always, I actually went with another Arai helmet, the Astro IQ in a matt white going by the seductive name of ‘silk white‘. I went for the white as my current bike is black and quite a lot of my gear is, so for the sake of visibility, I’ve gone for the lighter coloured helmet. That said, the one thing to remember about helmets: fit is everything. My fit apparently is XL, due to the size of my cranium or something.

This model forms part of Arai’s R75 technology range, making a rounder helmet, which along with the Facial Contour System should make the helmet safer in crashes, and more comfortable in use, including making it easier for emergency services to get the helmet off after a crash. Lot’s of marketing talk, but how does it feel out in use?

Astro IQ

I have to say that I wasn’t expecting it to be that much different to the old helmet, but after a few hundred kilometres around town, on the expressways and into the mountains, I was really impressed – more comfortable, quieter, and much easier to turn my head in at speed to check behind.

Some of this I’m sure is the new design, but some I suspect is how worn and settled my old helmet was, and whilst it’d never had an impact, the padding especially had settled a bit.

The IQ does indeed feel rounder, and lighter too, and I take it as a great sign that I began to wonder why I hadn’t bought a new helmet sooner. The ventilation is impressive, with a good selection of vents made of solid slides and switchers, which are broadly adjustable with your bike gloves on; this is definitely an improvement over the old helmet – the ventilation wasn’t bad, but it couldn’t be practically adjusted with gloves on.

So that’s it, I’m very pleased with the new helmet, and the only real downside is that huge Arai logo on the front.


Simple Utilities Round-up

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything about computer stuff, so I thought I’d put a post together about those  those utilities we don’t really use that often, but when we do, they’re a real life saver, so in no particular order:

Heidi Eraser (Windows) -This is a solid disk eraser allowing for a variety of different types of wipe, so whenever I retire an old disk, or it’s failing, I give it a thorough erasing using this.

Putty (Windows/Linux/MacPorts) – if like me, you do a lot of SSH, Telnet or even COM work, you should get this – it’ great for setting up bookmarks of commonly accessed machines, and keeping your own local log of each session.

Universal USB Installer / YUMI  (Windows) – if you need to create a USB stick installer for a Linux distro on Windows, you should get one of these apps. The difference is that YUMI lets you put several distros on one stick, and then select from a boot menu, whereas the Universal installer allows you to make a bootable stick to install one from.

Win32 DiskImager (Windows) – This utility is used to write disk image files to and from SD and USB cards. I use this a lot for backing up my Raspberry Pi. A niche need I know, but priceless when you can.

Exact Audio Copy  (Windows) – as it’s name might suggest, this is a CD ripper. Why use this instead of iTunes? Well, for one I tend to rip to FLAC, and I like to make sure I’ve got a good rip. The only issue I have with this is sometimes it gets the Japanese text encoding wrong.

Hugin  (Mac/Windowsa) – This is a Panorama stitcher, and though there are plenty of these around, I’ve not seen one do such a great job. A warning upfront, the UI is convoluted, but it really knows it’s business about joining photos.

keka  (Mac) – This is a file compression especially 7zip, which is really helpful if you have a few things using that format. The app icon is a little creepy though.

mp4 tools (Mac) – This is a lossless video cutter/splicer which is really helpful for me to cut up GoPro videos, which otherwise would have long unneeded sections, without re-encoding.

xld (Mac)-Built on top of OS X core audio and some open source elements, this is audio converter & ripper which fits well with my FLAC audio files to make compressed version for iPods etc..

testdisk & PhotoRec (all platforms) – A couple of great data recovery tools which work well on SD cards etc..

rsync (all platforms) – a powerful but simple command line file copy and syncing tool.

Nexus 7 as a laptop?

Over the last couple of years, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of my Nexus 7. Recently I wanted to do more writing on it, so I picked up a cheap BlueTooth keyboard from Anker and yes, I know it’s chunky, but it’s very decent to type on, and gets a lot from its two AA batteries.

This made it much more usable as an input system, but somehow I now wanted to use a mouse as a pointer instead of leaning in to touch the screen from the keyboard sit-back position, and then I remembered I bought a USB OTG cable a while back to play with USB stick file systems on a rooted system. On a normal Nexus 7, you can’t use it for bulk storage, but it does work for a mouse, even an old Microsoft mouse you bought a decade ago in a bargain basement in Akiba.

The Android system is surprisingly navigable from a keyboard, and the mouse makes it pretty much like a laptop, albeit with limited right-click. Yes, I know I’ve negated much of the point of having a tablet over a laptop, but this was a cheap conversion, and I only need to take the parts I want.

Nexus 7 as laptop

For those who are interested, a note that I’ve changed host … slightly.

For a while the site has been on Pairlite, which is a hobby focused product from Pair, but now Pair has a new lower cost offering so I’m moving back. With the exception of a year or so on, Pair has been the main home for most of my sites for over a decade I think, maybe longer.

Anyway, back on Pair, and no longer getting a random error on the WordPress news dashboard panel!

Enoshima on Shonan Press

A few of us who live in this area of Japan (Shonan) are putting together a small blog about the place, and write some bits about locations, shops, foods, festivals and all of that and we’re calling it Shonan Press. I put my first piece up on there regarding Enoshima – it’s a great place to visit, and I’ve included a decent variety of photos from the place. I’m looking forward to getting more content up there! Feedback appreciated.

Fuji from Enoshima
Fuji from Enoshima

That Old Skyline Again

Whenever I get a half day to take a run out on the bike, there’s always the decision to be made about whether I should go somewhere new, take some random turns, get off the beaten track, or go somewhere I know, tried and tested. Not always, if ever, an easy decision.

Earlier this week then, when I got that time, I went conservative and decided to do a run I know I can get through in about 6 hours, even with some vital stops for tea: down the Pacific coastal route 134, then up to the Dammtrax Cafe near Hakone in the mountains, then down the toll based Izu Skyline. Then back pretty much the same way.

I’ve written about this route before simply because I really like it – I even did a video for it over a year ago:

A Quick Run to Izu in the morning from Nanikore on Vimeo.

For me it kicks off with some nice straight and fast roads down towards the beach with great head-on views of Mt. Fuji in the morning mist, then out along route 134.

At 7am, there’s not usually much traffic, but since they’re widening the whole thing right now, there were some road works, but those of us on two wheels can usually get down the sides without too many problems – it’s worth noting that the vast majority of Japanese car drivers are quite happy to stay away from that left hand curb and give riders some space. Unless you’re being really obnoxious anyway.

It’s a mix of toll roads – none of them too expensive – until this point, but I usually take them over the free local routes to get that nice elevation above the beach and ocean. You can ride along, see the early morning fishermen on the piers and the beach, the waves coming up the beach – it’s very relaxing. Along this section there’s a service area often used as a meeting point for bikers, so if you’re looking for a quick drink and a chat with like minded individuals, it’s great. I remember stopping in early one February, the kind of morning where ice was forming on the front of bikes – chilly. Unlike on those spring and summer days when the place is packed, there were just three of us, all out on our own, clutching hot drinks next to the bikes, generally not understanding those who don’t ride year round, and also realising it was likely us that were a bit nuts

That beach section, like most roads here, is in good condition, but as it’s been assembled in concrete sections, you get that rhythmic bounce at each join, like a train on it’s tracks.

There are a few routes into the mountains, but the two I usually choose between are the Toyo Tires Turnpike, and the Hakone Pass. The latter is free, but the Turnpike takes you straight to the cafe, and I think is a more entertaining ride up.

Either way, from here on out, it’s twisties, twisties and more twisties.

The Dammtrax cafe is a part of a general service area – it would like to be the smaller sibling of the famous Ace Cafe near London – and has a lot of photos and memorabilia from that place, but it’s not, it’s a corner of a food hall which also offers ice cream and ramen. That’s not to say it doesn’t have the idea – the staff are great, you can buy random biker items, and on most days, you’ll be sat with a bunch of bikers. The car park is huge though, and in the spring and summer months, owners clubs, manufacturers and other motor vehicle related vendors set stands up to sell their products and often have giveaways. In peak season you could probably spend a couple of hours just looking around at all the cars, bikes and talking to the people.

From here though, it’s a short run down route 20 to the upper entrance to the Skyline, and from there, it’s just over 40Km of fun. There are places to stop along the way, and at the halfway mark there’s a service area which sell the usual Japanese selection of gift foods and vegetables and food.

One odd thing along the route, a few kilometres from the beginning is an abandoned building, claiming to be an Energy and Environment Building, if you’re into abandoned building (‘haikyo‘) then this one might want to go on your list. I didn’t go inside, just walked the perimeter; I like the design, and that there’s a drive in ramp (though not I suspect for vehicles really). I’ve ridden past it so many times, but never stopped. Next time I’m up there I might take a closer look at the ramp.

The Skyline is a great road though, good surface, plenty of slopes, turns and enough straights that you can escape slow cars and buses if you get unlucky enough to be behind one. Don’

There’s also a lot of places to pull over for photos, since the road gets you great views of Fuji on one side, and the ocean coast on the other. If you keep your eyes open (so to speak) you’ll also see the odd farm track leading off the road – I’ve followed a couple of these, and they are a lot of fun. This time I rode up one for a few kilometres, and it was great to see a camp site I didn’t know existed, and a really nice stream and some waterfalls- a good place for a cup of tea from the flask.

The end of the Skyline is always a bit of a let down – there’s nothing there after the toll booth – just a long closed down restaurant place. A weird anticlimax, it’s also not very photogenic, though like the Energy Museum, I should probably look into it’s history.