Tokyo commuting in tough times

Many Japanese companies have implemented telework or flex time during the COVID-19 crisis so that employees can avoid Tokyo rush hour. My office has shorter hours so I take a later train. Tokyo train commuting has become a little surreal over the past week. Seats are actually available on the inner Yamanote line from Shinjuku before 9.

Most people wear face masks and don’t talk on the train but masks are still in short supply at the local drug store. I have to line up before store hours to get a box. Fortunately my partner, a doctor, bought hand sanitizer and mask sanitizer back in January before supplies disappeared. I use, and re-use 2 face masks with mask sanitizer and also have carry spray bottle of ethanol for hands. I don’t touch anything if at all possible, I lean on something instead, but the hand spray comes out the moment I go out the transit gate. There’s also my regulation hand wash and gargle routine when getting to the office, or returning home. I recommend Apple Pay Suica on Apple Watch if that’s a commute option, it removes the necessity of touching the iPhone.

If you have to commute for work like me, I suggest dressing on the warm side or have a scarf handy. Dressing for a comfortable commute is always a challenge but most cars now have a window or two open for good ventilation. On the Tokyu Ikegami line the staff are opening half the car windows 5 cm or so. It can be quite chilly even with the heat on.

Have a safe and healthy commute.

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The Mobile PASMO Super Suica Challenge

The recently announced Mobile PASMO has some serious limitations lucidly explained in FeliCa Dude’s ‘Mobile PASMO – something we shouldn’t need‘ reddit post. It shines a light on the unfortunate petty politics of Japanese business culture, a catch-22 that ends up killing the very opportunities Japanese companies work to create. Mimicchii is a good Japanese word for it: so obsessively stuck on pointless small details that one completely misses the big opportunity. The PASMO association knows they will loose out, eventually, but hang on to their one and only advantage, commute passes, in the hope they gain a better losers bargain in the end. But how much opportunity is lost by then?

As FeliCa Dude points out, Mobile PASMO is a pointless waste of money and system resources to replicate what Mobile Suica already does:

PASMO is inferior to Suica in many respects, the idea of deploying Mobile PASMO and removing the user’s ability to choose Mobile Suica is fairly short-sighted. Such a development likely cost many hours and much money, but is effectively a boondoggle and a monument to the stubborn failure of JR and the PASMO Association to sort out a way to issue commuter passes on each other’s cards.

Taken to an extreme each transit card player would build its own mobile service but this is impossible in an era of shrinking ridership and resources.

Come together into one mobile service please…

The next generation 2 cards in 1 Suica due in 2021 aims to fix the current state of affairs. Architecturally I expect the problems will be solved, but corporate politics are another matter. JR East will have to offer enough cost saving incentives and flexible extras for the other major transit card players to host their service assets on Mobile Suica: commute plans, Shinkansen eTickets and more. It’s certainly in everybody’s best interest to do so. Time to put aside the mimicchii politics and duplication. If Japanese transit companies can’t come together to build the future, everybody loses.

In Praise of Disappearing Japan, served on pizza toast

Pizza toast and Neapolitan spaghetti made with ketchup are Kissaten staples, don’t forget the Tabasco

Alan Booth’s The Roads to Sata created a modern English language book genre, Disappearing Japan. It’s an endangered species that has been disappearing for decades, aka “the real Japan.” Whatever that is.

I read Roads to Sata long ago and liked it, but that was before I had experiences to compare, i.e. a frame of reference. Later on after many adventures working summer mountain lodges in the Southern Alps I read Booth’s companion book Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan and liked it, much less. Travel books and writing are like travel companions, most of them drive you crazy, only a rare few make truly good life long companions. After 30 years in Japan I don’t care to travel with Alan Booth anymore or emulate his gimmicky patchwork style that mixed evocative narrative hooks with black comedy, embarrassingly wrong cultural “insights” and a decidedly narcissistic take of Japanese history that cleverly camouflages good old western style cultural snobbery as ‘outsider viewpoint’.

The Alan Booth Japan travel writing style is alive and well in Craig Mod’s I Walked 600 Miles Across Japan for Pizza Toast, it shares the same kitschy patchwork walkabout formula explaining Showa era Kissaten culture. It’s not my cup of coffee but it’s a fun informative read for people who don’t know Japan or haven’t lived here long. Brushing past a few embarrassingly bad ‘hooks’ like the Pachinco mamas leaving infants in the car parking lot reference, old timers probably see a different narrative lurking in discarded details like the abandoned but unexplained karaoke parlor coin laundry picture, a quirky Gifu sight familiar to anybody who knows that area and history.

Kissaten culture will not disappear. I like pizza toast, blend coffee, neapolitan ketchup spaghetti, green cream soda with a glow in the dark maraschino cherry, oshibori and nice clean glass ashtrays. Lots of people do and the growing number of older people in Japan with lots of time to kill need places to go. I remain hopeful that visitors to Japan will venture out of overpriced Starbucks and discover the joys of classic Japanese Kissaten.

Japanese Text Layout for the Future* (hint: there isn’t one)

I finally had time to catch Adobe Nat McCully’s ATypl Tokyo 2019 presentation. He covers the topic that I have covered in depth many times before: the (sad) state of CJK typography. As Nat points out most software developers and system engineers talk about CJK support as typography without any idea of what it means. Throwing CJK glyphs on a screen is not typography, they are not the same thing at all.

The defining feature of CJK typography and layout in general and Japanese typography in particular is that space is an essential composition element equal with text and graphics, with fine space element control way beyond a baseline. Instead of thinking about how much space should be between text, flip it around and think about how much text should be between the space. Baseline font metrics will never deliver great CJK typography because there are too many limitations. So everybody implements the missing stuff on the fly and everybody does it different. Unfortunately the irony of it all is that Adobe played a huge role in how these limitations played out in the evolution of digital fonts, desktop publishing (DTP) and the situation we have today.

QuickDraw GX was probably the only time in computer history that fonts, layout engine and the basic OS came together to solve these limitations for all language systems, all language typography as equal from the bottom up. Parts of that effort survived, such as Apple’s San Francisco variable system font based on the TrueType GX model, and the inclusion of the TrueType GX model as the base technology for OpenType Variable fonts. Nice as this is, it’s only a tiny sliver of the GX vision pie that survived, all the other baseline font metric and CJK typography limitations still exist. Outside of a handful of people like Nat at Adobe, and the Adobe CJK typography ghetto approach of keeping all the good stuff corralled in InDesign J, very little is being done to address them.

Call me a pessimist but after 20 years of watching things slide sideways, I don’t see much hope for the future evolution of great CJK typography on digital devices. Most western software development people think that having CKJ glyphs on a screen is ‘good enough’ CJK typography, end of story.

Already I see the OpenType Variable Font effort devolving into a bauble for web developer geeks, always stuck in demo-hell, never going mainstream. It is the same story for quality CJK typography on digital devices. When the current Adobe CJK leaders like McCully and Ken Lunde reach retirement age, whom have devoted their careers to fixing these problems, I think it will be the end of an era. In many ways we are already there.

Apple prides itself on having good typography but cannot be bothered with such Japanese typography basics as not mixing Gothic and Ryumin Japanese font styles seen here in the Photos app

UPDATE
Ken Lunde posted a wonderful overview of his Adobe career to date, also his ATypl Tokyo 2019 presentation.

You thought the Apple Pay Octopus launch was taking too long? Just ask EasyCard

Japanese transit companies like the JR Group (JR East, JR Central, JR West) are often criticized for being opaque and buddy buddy with politicians, but every transit agency around the world has to deal with politicians and governments on some level. That just comes with the job.

Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan are unique transit markets with tight integration and highly evolved transit card systems. Hong Kong and Taiwan have it easier than Japan in some ways as smaller usually means less baggage to carry going forward. But, being smaller has a downside too in that the breathing space between transit companies and government agencies is uncomfortably small, and sometimes suffocating.

Because of this, Hong Kong residents occasionally have a sarcastic distrustful view of Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) management, despite the fact that OCL delivers best of class services. Witness the frustration of OCL dragging out the Apple Pay Octopus launch details announcement. As one Hong Kong iPhone user told me, “I won’t believe it (Apple Pay Octopus) is really happening until Apple (not OCL) announces it.”

A similar situation is happening with Taiwan’s EasyCard. In mid August 2018, service updates for Mastercard kiosk recharge indicated that MRT was preparing some kind of mobile service. I assumed MIFARE was coming to iOS 12, bingo, and that Apple Pay would add EasyCard and iPass, but Samsung Pay snagged EasyCard with a formal announcement on April 11 and that was the end of it. Or so I thought. The reality is that EastCard has yet to launch on Samsung Pay and will start ‘testing’ from October. What happened?

A few days ago an older post about SuicaENG and the Wallet UI suddenly got lots of hits from Taiwan. I was scratching my head as Taiwan traffic is usually smallish and tried to Google Translate the Taiwanese site generating the traffic, but the result was incomprehensible. Fortunately a reader from Taiwan living in Japan kindly provided an explanation of EasyCard politics:

OK, EasyCard Corp is catching flak for…being slow to launch a mobile transit card service, on their own, without Cubic running the show? Being slow to launch a mobile transit card is not unique. Just ask the companies that run ICOCA, Toica, PASMO, etc., they don’t have their transit cards on mobile either and have far larger infrastructure budgets. This stuff takes time because everything transit absolutely has to work perfectly all the time. 7pay fuckups are not an option.

I can understand why Hong Kong iPhone users are frustrated with OCL taking their sweet time to launch Apple Pay Octopus, but when it finally launches, the tidal wave of iPhone users will make Smart Octopus on Samsung Pay look like the tiny beta test group that it is. Let’s just hope that Sunny Cheung and OCL are on it and working hard. And you are working hard on it, right Sunny?