Library Elf

In modern mythology, Santa Claus is always assisted by his own army of elves. They’re there to create toys in the workshop, wrap gifts and help Santa in every imaginable way possible so that Santa could deliver gifts to little boys and girls who’ve been good all year. I’ve always thought that Santa is lucky to have these long-suffering elves working for him, wouldn’t it be cool to perhaps employ one myself?

If you think I’ve gone bonkers with this talk of elves in the middle of the year, please bear with me. As you may already know, I’m a regular library user. I frequent two libraries, the one in the city and the one in Werribee. As such, I have various books, DVDs, CDs and magazines going overdue at different times in the two libraries and I’ve incurred fines that could have been better spent elsewhere. I’ve always lamented the fact that they don’t these libraries lack a reminder service and would only send you a reminder several days AFTER an item was due to be returned.

Well, I’ve discovered a web-based tool called the Library Elf. Create an account for free then add the libraries you use into a list and provide your library number and library account password. The tool would check for items that are about to be due and send you regular emails to remind you to return them before they are due. You can set how often reminders would be sent so you shouldn’t be inundated with email messages you don’t want. It could also list items that you have on hold waiting for you at the different libraries so that you’ll know to pick them up when you return your items. Simple but functional, the Library Elf does the job although I wouldn’t mind the ability to search the catalogues of the libraries in my list when looking for a particular book and the ability to put them on reserve through this interface would be cool too. Fingers crossed that these wish-list features show up in future versions.

Not quite Santa Claus’ elf yet but it helps me keep track of my library stuff and at least reduces the chances of incurring those pesky overdue fines.

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Published in: on May 31, 2007 at 12:40 pm  Comments (3)  

Three of a kind: Japanese eats

We have been fans of Japanese cuisine even before we even set foot on the Land of the Rising Sun. Since coming back from our holiday there, we have a better appreciation of Japanese food and have been trying some of the fast food shops and restaurants serving Japanese food around Melbourne.

First off is Ajisen Ramen (130 Bourke Street, Melbourne). A well-known Japanese franchise serving up ramen and other donburi dishes, the pork broth they use for the ramen is tasty and would warm you up on any cold day. I had high hopes for their ramen but the noodles itself was nothing out of the ordinary. They serve ramen with some seaweed, hard boiled egg and vegetables with whatever meat you choose. I recommend the Paiku Ramen. If you like lots of garlic with your ramen, a lavish sprinkling from the bottle of red garlic powder at your table should do the trick.

Other than ramen, we have also tried the Omu-raisu (Omelette Rice), which was massive. The rice stuffing turned out to be fried rice, it was okay but not spectacular. Hubby’s favourite is their Sizzling Chicken, which is buttery chicken served on a sizzling plate with some vegetables in soy sauce and rice. Prices are reasonable ($10-12 for mains) and the service fast, if not hurried. The decor is sparse and I think they could benefit from adding more lighting inside. But hey, if you want some comfort food on a rainy day, the decor certainly shouldn’t stop you.
Garlic PowderPaiku RamenSizzling ChickenOmu Rice

Another great place tucked along the Causeway lane is Sushi Monger (Shop 17, 309 Bourke Street, Melbourne, (03) 9663 0899). Serving mostly bento boxes and sushi, the place has always been crowded everytime we wanted to try it. We went in for some early lunch one day and were lucky to get some seats. Staffed by a Japanese family, the service was quick and polite. Prices were very affordable too, with rice dishes ranging from $7.50-$9.80 and bento boxes at $8.80-$9.80.

I had the Ebi Fry Bento with a choice of two sushi while hubby had the Sukiyaki Bento with rice. Both were quite good and we finished off everything, including the seaweed salad and fish cakes! If you’re very hungry and feel like a spot of Japanese curry, they do a very good katsu curry. Arrive early if you plan to have lunch here as they only have limited seating in their small space.
Sushi Monger menuEbi Fry bentoSukiyaki bentoSushi monger shop front

Last but certainly not the least is Horoki (19 Liverpool Street, Melbourne, (03) 9663 2227). Although I wouldn’t classify this restaurant as strictly Japanese since they also feature Western inspired dishes, it’s Japanese fusion at its best. Their limited lunch menu offers the diner a lunch platter consisting of 3 dishes of your choice to be served with either bread or rice. We love their Hamburg steak with mashed potatoes as well as their lightly crumbed chicken schnitzel (katsu).

Although each serving look like it’s small, it’s well presented and would fill you up quite nicely. Dishes are made-to-order so they are served to you fresh and warm, although it may mean several minutes of waiting. It’s well worth the wait though and the service is quick. The interiors are modern and relaxing, with the big, disc-shaped ceiling lights illuminating the cosy space. You would have to book a table or just sit at the bar if you’d like to just walk in and have lunch. The lunch platter would set you back $12.90, a bit pricier than what we’d normally spend for lunch but hits just the right spot when we feel like treating ourselves to very good food.
Horoki shop frontHoroki menuCroquette, Fritto and Hamburg steak setSukiyaki, Hamburg steak and teriyaki chicken set

Published in: on May 29, 2007 at 12:08 pm  Comments (7)  

Free Trees!

In these days of global warming, it’s nice to see local council’s doing their bit to help stop climate change. Yesterday, we took advantage of the Wyndham City Council’s Free Tree Giveaway Program during the Wyndham Water Wise expo. The program was only open from 10 am to 5 pm and each household was supposedly allowed a maximum of two free plants.

We got at the venue pretty late at around 4 pm and was afraid that there wouldn’t be any free plants left for us. We were glad to find out that there were still some plants left. Even better, they were the plants we wanted to get in the first place, Rock Correas (Correa Glabra). It’s supposed to be ideal for the Australian climate (as in dry) as it is a native flora and could even be used as a low screen.

That’s good news for us since we’ve inadvertently killed off two of our backyard screen plants already. That’s right, we aren’t good at gardening. Anyway, we were hoping to replace those with the two plants we would be getting from the giveaway.

We were only supposed to be eligible for two plants of our choice but we ended up with half-a-dozen of them! At the time, I was very hungry and wasn’t thinking straight so I just accepted all six plants thinking I could probably plant the other four somewhere around the house.

We only realised later that we have no place to put the extra four plants we have. So now, we are stuck with four rock correas we don’t really need. I will probably just give them away. And if nobody wants them, I hope they’ll be able to survive in pots.

Published in: on May 28, 2007 at 12:44 pm  Comments (2)  

Why’s Everybody Staring?

Raquel and I had dined out with a couple of friends just the other night at DiCaprio’s, an Italian restaurant at Hoppers Crossing. We had a wonderful time talking about all sorts of stuff (mostly geeky topics) over dinner.

The one thing that bothered me about the evening was that the people sitting around us seem to be staring at us instead of just minding their own business. It was very weird. Someone even had the look of mild shock on his face as he was staring. It’s the same look as someone who was just about to watch Sixth Sense for the first time and was told that Bruce Willis’s character was actually dead for most of the movie.

Was it our topic of conversation that caused our fellow restaurant patrons to look at us so? Let’s see… I think we were talking about whether the moon landing was a hoax or not. Maybe that was it. They couldn’t believe that it was possible the moon landing was a hoax, maybe? (I believe that it actually happen though.) Or maybe they were surprised at my friends revelation that the books of the burnt-down ancient library of Alexandria were all safely hidden underneath one of the Sphinx’s paws?

Maybe it wasn’t the topic at all. Maybe we were just talking too loudly? It didn’t seem like it to me though. Is it the non-Australian accent Raquel and I have when speaking English?

I guess we’ll never know.

Actually, when we ate out for dinner with the same couple a several nights ago at Salsa’s Mexican restaurant in Werribee, I recall the other people at the restaurant doing the same thing: staring at us.

I hope I’m just being paranoid because it certainly felt weird.

Published in: on May 26, 2007 at 11:22 pm  Comments (11)  

Hamthology, Out Now!

You may recall that I involved myself in a comics anthology project called Hamthology last year. As a quick recap, here is a description of the project:

The people of the Ponju “Piggy Farm” online community of webcomic artists, writers and fans (of which I’m a member) has recently started a comic book anthology project. The end product is a book the size of most American graphic novels you’d see in Borders nowadays, but maybe thicker. Instead of one long comic book story, it’ll contain a collection of short comics each created by a different team of people who are members of the community. That includes me.

On top of submitting a short comics story about a young busker girl living in Victorian-era Melbourne, I was also taken in as editor for the publication but had to bow out due to an increased work load in the office (my day job as an IT analyst programmer). However, near the date of printing, I resumed my editorial role and helped proof-read the text in the anthology.

And now, after a long wait, our baby is finally finished and available for sale starting this week! As initially planned, my American colleagues will be selling copies of our book at anime and comics conventions across the US. And for those of us who couldn’t buy them at those conventions whether because we don’t go to those or we simply don’t live in the US, we can buy the book direct from the printing press at Lulu.com.

Here is the description of our book as written in Lulu.com:

Everyone undertakes a quest at some point in their lives, whether it be as mundane as fetching groceries from the store or as grand as researching a cure for a deadly illness. In the first Hamthology: The Quest, the artists and writers of The Piggy Farm forums take you on range of quests in ten short comics.

Join a variety of protagonists as they dodge enemy agents to make a contact, prove themselves in wrestling tournaments, and piece together the story of a silent ghost. From the hilarious to the heartfelt, there’s a little something for everyone in here.

Suitable for ages 10 to adult. Contains mild action scenes, mild language, and some mature themes. For more information, visit http://hamthology.ponju.com.

The Hamthology: The Quest (Volume 1) has the size of your typical graphic novel and is 122 pages thick. And all for only US$9.99!

As a contributor, I’d be getting two complimentary copies of the book via post in the next few days. Raquel and I can’t wait to get our hands on it.

Published in: on May 25, 2007 at 1:01 am  Comments (2)  

Shower head exchanged

We finally got around to exchanging our old, water-inefficient shower heads for new, shiny ones last weekend. Gj was expecting to have a difficult time installing it but it was pretty painless. We’ve been using the new shower heads for several days now and would have to admit that we’re glad we made the exchange. We love that it has 3 settings (heavy spray, light spray and trickle) and matches our bathroom’s colour scheme.

Hubby was curious as to why the water company would give these shower heads for free, especially since we discovered that they sell for about $75 bucks each at the local hardware store. We would have loved to asked the librarian but the one who attended to Gj looks like she was in a (permanent) sour mood. Anyway, I’m guessing the council and the water company just wanted to chip in at making people save what precious little water we have left. For whatever reason that motivated them to do it, I’m glad that they did run the program. For those of you other Wyndham residents who still haven’t exchanged your grubby, old shower heads, today’s the last day so better do it now!

Published in: on May 25, 2007 at 12:20 am  Leave a Comment  

Bought in Japan

We just got our credit card bill in the post recently. That reminded me of the purchases we made while we were in Japan. Here, I’ve even taken a photo of it all. Well, most of it.

On the upper left corner of the photo is a cute small green toy from toy manufacturer, Tomy. We bought this in KiddyLand along Omotesando near the Harajuku station. What attracted me to it was that it swayed its head from side to side all because there was bright light shining on it. Yep, it’s a solar powered toy. No batteries required. There were a variety of these animated solar toys and I wanted to buy them all. But since I really couldn’t do that, I had to settle for this one which we both thought was the cutest for sale.

See it in motion by watching the YouTube video I uploaded below:

I bought the fully posable Saber from Fate / Stay Night, a popular Japanese game, because this character closely resembles a comic book creation of mine: Nadine Strange. The resemblance between the two characters were so uncanny to me that I thought somebody ripped off my Nadine character design when I first saw images of Saber. It was only later I found out that it was actually a character from a game. Anyway, now I have an action figure that resembles Nadine as a bonus.

Look at the similarities below. Admittedly, Saber was better drawn than the drawing I have of Nadine here but you get the picture.

As for the books, we so loved the Japanese food while there, we bought a Japanese cookbook at Narita Airport just before I flight back to Melbourne. The funny thing was that the book was actually available in Australia for cheaper. Ah, well.

You can also see here two white square books. These are actually colour pencils instructional art books. I bought these because I was attracted with the book’s art style using colour pencils. The downside was that it was written totally in Japanese.

I hope to be able to read these books someday and that hope is fueling my desire to become fluent in Nihongo (Japanese). Trying to translate these books word for word by looking at Kanji and Japanese dictionaries would take forever (or thereabouts). So, I figured that learning the language might actually be a faster way to go. Plus, I’ll be able to read Japanese manga (comic books) and watch anime (Japanese animation) in the original Nihongo in the future.

At the bottom right is a nifty little paper stand easel. It’s as big as a 3.5″ disk in its case. Set it up and it can hold a piece of paper erect. Pretty useful. I have an ordinary looking one at the office. The one in the photo has a cute pig design.

Well, we now wished we bought more cool stuff while we were in Japan. There were lots of cool things to buy there. Maybe next time.

Published in: on May 24, 2007 at 1:13 am  Comments (5)  

The JR Experience

One of the most amazing things about travelling in Japan is their railway system. The trains were clean, a joy to ride in and were never late. And when I say they’re never late, I mean you could really set your clock by their arrivals and departures. None of Connex’s definition of punctuality, which is within five minutes of the appointed time. Feh, talk about stretching the truth on that one. But I digress.

I’ve done some research prior to Japan and found out that Japan Rail offers tourists the opportunity to buy JR Passes that could be used to travel across Japan using trains and fast trains (called shinkansens). The only exception is that JR pass travellers could not use the super fast Nozomi trains but it’s not such a big deal anyway. You could still take the other trains in the route and there’s only a few minutes difference between using a Nozomi and the slightly slower Hikari train.

You’d have to buy the JR Rail pass outside of Japan and it’s available at most travel agencies. We got ours from H.I.S. travel. There are two categories for the pass: ordinary or green (luxurious first class). Each pass is available in 7,14 and 21 days of validity in increasing price increments. The price of the pass is fixed in yen but the exchange rate used by travel agencies tend to change so it’s good to shop around. Also, quote the prices on an agency’s website when you’ve decided on a place to buy your pass. We made the mistake of not remembering the exact amount listed for the pass in the agency’s website and only later realised that we paid a slightly higher amount than what was quoted on their site.

Bring a copy of your passport when making the purchase as the name on your passport would be used in issuing you with the travel voucher (shown on the left side of the photo) with a booklet with the terms and conditions of using the pass and a rail map. Once you arrive in Japan, you would have to go to a JR exchange office to get the actual ticket (shown on the right side of the photo).

The pass is just a cardboard booklet with your name, passport number, country of origin and the expiration date stamped on it. Because it does not have a magnetic strip on it, you would have to go through the turnstiles with a wheelchair access. These turnstiles are usually manned by JR personnel and you would have to show them your pass with the expiry date showing after which they’d press a button to let you through the turnstile. Unlike a local, you cannot just zip through any turnstile while hovering your wallet over a magnetic reader (which would have been cool, faster and easier but I guess the discounted price more than justifies this small inconvenience). You are advised to bring your passport with you every time you have to use your pass but we were never asked to produce it while we were there.

Another great thing is that you could use JR’s online travel planner facility to find out the exact time and route you’d have to take to get to from one place to another. As an example, type in Narita as a start point and Tokyo as a destination then click Search. The screen would refresh and show you several options for date, start point and destination, route limitations and type of fare. Click on Start when you’re satisfied with all your trip parameters and choose the best route combination for your trip. The pass does not include the subway network (which we used to get to Asakusa and Tsukishima) but the costs for these trips ought to be minimal anyway. However, take note that the online travel planner would sometimes suggest routes using the subway so factor this additional cost in your budget.

This facility is specially useful for long trips across the country using the shinkansen. I used this tool in planning our trips from and to Narita, Tokyo, Kyoto and Himeji, copying the date and time for each journey and using this information in reserving our seats for each trip on the shinkansen. There is no reservation fees for users of the JR pass so it’s best to reserve your seats for long trips. You could reserve several days in advance and I recommend that you make all your reservations in one go. I also recommend you do it in the JR office at Narita airport because you might have difficulty in locating the reservation office elsewhere and the staff in other offices might only have limited English-speaking ability. You would be given several tickets for each reserved trip, make sure not to lose it as it has your car/seat information and a conductor might ask you for the ticket during the trip.

Once on a shinkansen, a lady with a food cart would be selling all sort of goodies and drinks. We’ve found out later that these food carts usually feature great food from the towns on the train route. We didn’t have the courage to chat up the lady and ask about the goodies in her cart so we didn’t purchase anything from these snack carts. Definitely something for us to do if ever we find ourselves in Japan again.

The Japanese are well known for their politieness and practice phone etiquette on the train. They would go to the back of the train and speak in a hushed tone if they ever do get a call on their mobiles, only returning to their seats after the call is finished. Most passengers on the train sleep, eat, read or play portable game consoles with head phones during the trip, which makes for a very quiet time during the trip. No complaints from us as we also caught up with some quality sleeping time during our long train trips.

The trains were also very clean despite people bringing in food or buying snacks from carts because most of them bring their rubbish with them. Also look out for ladies dressed in pink uniforms waiting beside each door after a shinkansen arrives at a major station. Seen mostly in Tokyo station, these ladies wait for all passengers to disembark then hurriedly board the train, clean up, turn the seats around to have it facing the right way and replaces the headrest paper on each seat. They do this in a span of a few minutes and it’s such a wonder to see them work, it’s almost like they zip through all the seats and leave everything spotless.

A trip on the shinkansen is an experience by itself and the pass pays for itself pretty quickly. To illustrate, we bought an ordinary 7-day pass for $318.00 each. A return trip from Narita Airport to Tokyo and a return trip from Tokyo to Kyoto paid for the cost of the JR pass. Add to that the fact that we also used the pass to get to Himeji, Kamakura and took several trips within Tokyo and you’d see that using the pass is a great idea if you want to save on transport costs.

Published in: on May 23, 2007 at 12:48 pm  Comments (2)  

Shower head exchange

Even though the rain is finally falling here in Melbourne, it won’t be enough to reverse the current drought. Everyone is being encouraged to save water and City West Water is offering its customers to swap old, inefficient shower heads for new ones. Old shower heads could use up to 20 litres of water per minute compared to just 9 litres per minute for the new ones. Not only are the new shower heads water efficient, it looks mighty better than the old ones too. The best news about this shower head swap is that it won’t cost you anything, the water company is offering to swap your old shower heads for free (well, with a maximum of 2 shower heads per household).

To participate, just bring your old shower heads, a completed application form and your latest water bill to an exchange center on the specified day. For Wyndham City residents like us, the exchange started last Monday (14th of May) and would run till Friday week (25th of May) at the local libraries.

Prior to this, the water company has offered to exchange shower heads last December. I signed up for that event but was away on holidays on the day of exchange. Lucky they’re giving us another chance to turn in our old, ugly shower heads in exchange for a new, shiny one. The only thing we’re apprehensive about is that we would have to take out our old shower heads to get the new ones and we don’t have a clue as to how difficult that would be. Sure, the water company had some instructions and illustrations online (and even a link to a video) but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about instructional videos, it’s that it’s not as easy as they make it out to be!

Anyway, we’re planning to make the exchange this weekend. So fingers crossed that everything turns out to be as simple as it looks!

Published in: on May 18, 2007 at 8:00 am  Comments (4)  

Missing Japan

It’s already been a week since our trip to Japan and yet, I still can’t stop thinking about the place. I can’t stop thinking about the delicious food we’ve tried there, the colourful busy streets, the tranquil and serene temples and the lush flora of the parks there. If it was only cheap to go back there, I’d do so in a heart beat. Even now that we’re back in Melbourne, I’m still yearning for Japanese-related stuff.

We’ve been eating more Japanese food lately. I started making sandwiches for breakfast that are similar to those we’ve eaten while in Tokyo. We’ve been eating at Japanese restaurants and fastfood during lunch break more often than not. We’ve even been having home-cooked Japanese dishes for dinner at home. Yeah, we bought a Japanese cuisine cookbook at the airport on the flight home. (The sad part was that the very same book was also for sale locally in Melbourne for cheaper.)

Although I know it’s a bit too late for it, I’ve started learning to speak and read Nihongo in earnest. I want to eventually be able to read the cool art books I’ve bought when we were in Japan. Incidentally, my interest for anime (Japanese animation) has been rekindled, too. I want to be able to watch anime in the original Japanese eventually. Not only anime, but even the live drama stuff.

That reminds me of our flight back to Melbourne. With Singapore Airlines, each passenger has a small TV monitor in front of his or her seat. You can choose which in-flight movie you could watch. I chose to watch two Japanese movies. One was called Free and Easy, a supposed comedy that turned out to be more drama than comedy. The second one was a drama film called Nada Sou Sou. I hate to admit it but that movie made me cry. I loved it! Can’t wait to get my hands on more films. Luckily, there is a shop in the city along Bourke Street near Russel Street that sells Japanese DVDs and CDs. I can just buy more movies there in the future.

I’ve started listening to the Japanesepod 101 podcast again to help me pick up Nihongo faster. I’m also studying a book called “Japanese the Manga Way” which uses Japanese comics to help teach how to read Japanese. Hopefully, I’ll stick with this. Next time we visit Japan again, I will be better prepared.

For now though, I’ll just look at the photos we’ve taken while we were in Japan. I remember our walking around Tokyo and Kyoto whenever I close my eyes. The thought of that place has kept me relaxed and cheerful despite the stress and pressures from work.

Published in: on May 10, 2007 at 11:32 pm  Comments (2)