Thursday, December 31, 2015

Thursday, December 24, 2015


It's certainly been a very slow year on this blog. I apologize for that.

Our project has entered its final phase this year, and will end on March 31st. And with the end of the project is an end of to access to the K computer. That means we're very busy trying to get stuff working, and finish things while we still have time.

Also, my employment is tied to the project. When the project ends, so does my job. I need to decide what to do next, and finding a new job of course adds quite a bit of stress and uncertainty. Needless to say, writing on the blog has taken a backseat to other things.

But my winter vacation starts tomorrow. The actual last day is the 28th, but I took two days off, so today is my last day. We're going on a holiday trip, and will return right at the start of the new year. For once I will be able to get a Fukubukuro (lucky bag) at Den-Den town on the 2nd. Then it's back to work. But for now, for a few days, we're leaving all that behind us. Happy travels!

Istanbul Airport.

Monday, December 21, 2015


My, how time flies. It's Christmas already, we're preparing our midwinter trip, and I have yet to post about the second part of our summer adventures.

After my brothers wedding in Sweden, we left not for home, but for the far shores of mystical Istanbul. We stayed five nights on the European side, at an apartment hotel called T-Loft near Taksim square.

T-Loft T-Loft
T-Loft Istanbul. A comfortable apartment hotel with kitchen and living room. Plenty of space to stow your bags out of sight and with a kitchen you can cook for yourself.

An apartment hotel like this is a great way to visit a city. You have the convenience of a hotel, but you have a small kitchen and fridge, with enough space to cook and eat in if you want to. We didn't cook, but we bought fruit for evening snacks (one watermelon is a lot for two people), and made tea.

The washlet is quite possibly the most wonderful hygiene invention since indoor plumbing. Once you're used to it, it's hard to go back to dry wiping. I'm happy to say that Turkey also has a form of washlet. It's a simple water spout controlled by the faucet on the wall, and you use your hand to direct the water, but it works just as well as the high-tech Japanese version.

This one Guy
A young man waiting for someone on the street around the corner from T-Loft.

A greengrocer down the street.

The old Constantinople was located on the European western coast, and that part of the city, up towards Taksim, feels old and well-worn. Most famous buildings and sightseeing spots are located there, along with many old (and badly maintained) buildings, narrow alleyways and small shops. And, of course, many, many tourists everywhere. If you've been to Stockholm it's like a hugely enlarged Old Town (Gamla Stan) with souvenir shops, tour groups and loud people with cameras against a backdrop of bemused locals. Istanbul straddles the border between Europe and Middle East, and it shows; visitors are an even mix of people from East and West.

Taksim, a block down from the tourist area.

Blue Mosque
The men's washing area at the Blue Mosque.

It's not just touristy, but sometimes a bit scammy as well. Unavoidable I guess, but it means you need to be careful about where you spend your money. We were advised to avoid any shopping at the Grand Bazaar, for instance, since the risk of getting ripped off or scammed is so high.

Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar. Magnificent building. But a lot of shops sell cheap tat, or are very overpriced. People warned us to even touch anything in the shops here, since a common scam is where you're forced to buy something you "broke", though it was broken from the start.

Spice Bazaar
The spice bazaar is also cool. It's touristy as well, but at least it mostly deals in fairly inexpensive stuff so you won't get ripped off a lot.

The Asian side feels more modern, prosperous and more like a regular city. Nice, wide streets, outdoor cafes and parks, and not as many tourists. After the outdoor circus in the west, it's refreshing to spend some time in a normal city for a change. The ferries between the two sides are comfortable, frequent and cheap. It's a great way to see the city from a different angle, and well worth a trip even if you have no particular goal in mind.

Seagulls follow the ferry towards Asia. In the background the north-west Istanbul with the new office parks and financial areas.

A Turkish colleague of mine loved fishing. Turns out it's not just him; the waterfront fills up with fishermen at dusk. Seems like a pleasant enough way to spend your evening.

A tram is rounding a bend in Kadiköy, near the harbour. Just ahead, towards the north, is a small electronics district.

A young couple with eyes only for each other at a cafe in Kadiköy. I sometimes wish we had outdoor cafes like this in Osaka, but the weather here just isn't cooperative.

Turkish food is good — you wouldn't expect anything else. Lots of variations on sliced, grilled meat, whether as a filled sandwich (what I'd call a kebab) or as a sit-down meal with fries, sauce and so on. But of course there's lots of other dishes ranging from rolled cabbage to pizza to mezze.

Meat, sauce and fries. We call anything with this kind of meat "kebab" in Sweden; I'm sure it has a different name here, but I could never quite get to be bottom of what to call it. I also don't remember the name of this dish. We had half a dozen variants of it during our stay.


Turkey has inspired a lot of Swedish and European modern dishes so they carry few surprises. Instead it's the small things that stick in memory for me. Ayran, for instance. It's such a simple thing: you whisk yoghurt, cold water and salt until it starts getting a little foamy. Drink with your meal. It's salty, sour, fresh and absolutely perfect with spicy foods on hot summer days.

Simit is like a pretzel, bagel or kringla; a chewy, slightly salty bread, often sold on the street in Istanbul. Goes down a treat as a light meal, and leaves ample room for some baklava, sponge cake and other sweets at a cafe later on.

Turkish coffee is famous (Sweden got coffee from the turks during some war or another). You make it by briefly boiling up finely ground coffee in a small pot, then you pour the unfiltered brew into a cup. It gives you a head similar to espresso, and a surprisingly delicate flavour. The trick when drinking it is to not disturb the grounds in the bottom. We got a stainless steel pot for two cups, and I'm gradually learning how to brew it at home.

Coffee or tea, there's lots of cafes around that will serve you your favourite drink. Fancy and expensive or, like here, a hole in the wall with a shady outdoor spot.

Water pipes are apparently a real thing here. People do smoke them in cafes and restaurants, andf not just at the tourist places either. BW conversion from a digital shot; the mixed color balance was just hopeless at this place.

The coffee may be famous, but what Turks drink is tea. We're talking bottomless amounts of the stuff. You get it for breakfast, lunch and dinner and any time in between. People drink it in shops and offices while they work. Road workers and construction crews take constant tea breaks. Tea house employees rush by on the street with trays delivering hot tea to customers.

Turkish tea. These tulip-shaped glasses are used everywhere, and are a great souvenir to bring home.

One tip: At the airport they sell glasses like these for 4000-5000 yen each. If you go to a regular kitchen-goods store you find much the same glasses for around 100-200 yen. We grabbed enough glasses and plates that we don't have to worry if we break a few.

The tea is very good. You simmer the rough black tea for 15-20 minutes, making it dark red and strong. Then you pour it into tulip-shaped glasses and cut it with hot water to taste. Enjoy at work or at home, alone or with friends. We talked with a couple of middle-aged turks at one cafe, and they said they might drink one cup of coffee a day, but twenty glasses or more of tea.

Tea and a Smoke
Tea and a smoke. Everybody, and I mean everybody, drinks tea, everywhere and all the time. Kidney stones are very common in Turkey (~15% per year); I wonder if it's not perhaps connected.

Tea Delivery
Tea delivery.

We had planned to find a cooking class while in Istanbul. Cooking schools are fun, and Turkish food is so very good. But to our surprise, schools for tourists are quite rare there, and the ones we found were all fully booked. So no class this time, but we did buy two cookbooks at least. We'll book a class ahead of next time. And there will definitely be a next time — Istanbul was a great experience, and we want to return. You can see all the pictures from Istanbul in this album.

Istanbul has a very nice, very useful rail network with subways and trams. The coolest variant is the funiculars: underground cable cars that climb the steep hills on the European side. There's two that I know of, one from the seaside up to Taksim square; and this one from the sea up to Karaköy, Istanbuls oldest railway.

Angel Wings
Angel wings. Karaköy.

News of the day
Reading the news.

Motorcycle police. Haven't seen MC police with two riders before. Of course, I haven't seen MC police with automatic weapons in hand either. Must be a local thing.

Fire Brigade
The fire brigade checks a fire alarm near Taksim Square. It turned out to be nothing. But with all the old buildings crammed together and the narrow, winding streets I'm not surprised they take any alarm seriously.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Ubuntu Users Guide To Updating Your Xperia Device

I have an Xperia Z tablet. I've had it for three years now, and I'm as happy with it now as I were when I first wrote about it. Speedy, tough and extremely light.

Except for one thing. For whatever reason, this particular model (SGP312), with this  particular Japanese version of Android, haven't had an update in two years. This is especially surprising as  Sony Mobile is pretty good at keeping older hardware updated, and as other country versions of this tablet still get regular updates.

The last year has seen several serious security issues with Android, and many older devices got updated to Android 5.1.1. this autumn. I'd very much like it on my tablet as well, for peace of mind if nothing else.

Fortunately, Sony Mobile is pretty enlightened when it comes to giving you access to your own hardware. Many manufacturers will go to great lengths to stop you from unlocking or changing their products in any way. But Sony will help you unlock your phone, and even provides information to custom system makers to help them do a better job.

So, while I ideally would have gotten updated automatically, with a Sony tablet I can at least do it myself without jumping through too many hoops.

If you look up how to update manually on the net, chances are you'll encounter a nightmare of complicated, conflicting information. Long, convoluted instructions that have you manually unlock and root your tablet, install recovery software, download custom system images from sketchy Russian file servers and so on.

But all this is completely unnecessary. We have some simple, reliable tools around today that will easily let you download and install official system images, even if they haven't been released in your part of the world yet. They'll even root your device for you if you want.

So here is my quick guide to updating your Xperia device, using Ubuntu 15.10. If you're a Linux user, like me, you will find the process a bit unsettling. Instead of just installing the software with the software updater, you need to visit different web sites and download packages from file sharing sites, blindly trusting you're not downloading something bad. Apparently Windows users do this all the time.

You need two applications, both of which are cross platform and work on Windows, Linux and OSX:

The first application is XperiFirm. It's a download tool for the official Sony system versions for all Xperia devices. It's like the official "PC Companion" application, except that it lets you download any official system version no matter what device you have.

Follow the explanations on that page — download the file, install mono and the ssl certificates, and run the tool. Select your device type and device, and choose the specific system variant you want. If you select one of the available variants, you'll see the latest release version available.

The variants mostly differ by region in the world, but sometimes there's also carrier-specific versions here. In the screenshot above, I've selected "SGP312 Wi-Fi" on the left, and I've looked at the "EU4" and the "Japan" variant. As you can see, the latest Japan release ("10.3.1 ...") is a lot older than the EU4 ("10.7.A ...") one — that's exactly my problem.

Which variant to pick? For phones it can matter, since different variants set up the mobile phone hardware for different regions. A variant for Europe may have trouble getting a good connection in Japan. For tablets it's not really important. The difference is mostly things like the default language, installed extra apps and things like that. You can really pick any one you like. I picked EU4 for no particular reason. Click the version number up in the right corner and it will download the firmware.

Once done, we need to package the firmware and install on the tablet. For that we need a second application, called Flashtool. It's just a little cumbersome to install, but follow the instructions and we're good to go.

First, make sure Linux will recognize your Sony as a valid USB device (Windows and Mac users need to install a driver that basically does the same thing):

$ cd /etc/udev/rules.d
$ sudo gedit 51-sony.rules

In the file, add the line:

SUBSYSTEM=="usb", ACTION=="add", ATTRS{idVendor}=="0fce", ATTRS{idProduct}=="*", MODE="0777"

Save and exit. Restart the USB device manager:

$ sudo service udev restart

Download Flashtool. Follow the "Linux" link for the latest release. At the time of writing, you first download — just click on the Torrent link and when Ubuntu asks, select the default "Transmission" as the app to use. The download will start after a while. Unpack the file:

$ 7z e flashtool-

(If you don't have "7z", install it with 'sudo apt-get install p7zip').

Now, dowload the 'patch' from the page above (this might not be available, and not necessary by the time you read this). It's a file called 'x10flasher.jar'. Just move it into the Flashtool directory where it replaces the existing version:

$ mv x10flasher.jar Flashtool/

On your tablet, go to "developer options" at the bottom (tab "build number" in "about tablet" repeatedly if you don't have that) and activate USB debugging. Go to "Security" and activate "Allow unknown sources". Connect the tablet to your computer with an USB cable. Start Flashtool:

$ cd Flashtool
$ ./Flashtool

Select Tools-> Bundles-> Create. In "Select source folder", select the directory full of files you downloaded earlier. It's named something like "SGP312_VMo EU1_1273-3865_10.7.A.0.222_R4E". For device, branding and version you can probably put anything you want, but it's a good idea to enter the right values — "SGP312", "EU1", and "10.7.A.0.222" for instance — so you know what version it is. Select all in the folder list and press the right-arrow button to say that everything in the bundle will be installed.

Click the lightning bolt (flash device), and select "flashmode" in the popup. You get a window looking much like this:

Pick the directory where you downloaded the firmware earlier. Pick it in the list (here I have two different ones). I left all other options at their defaults. Press "Flash" and follow the on-screen instructions. Basically you need to put your tablet or phone in flash mode, and how to do that differs a bit.

After a long while, the process will finish. Reboot and enjoy your new version!

Flashtool can do a lot of other useful things. It can unlock your device, it can root it, and you can remove things you don't want from the system image. I haven't tried any of these functions, and don't know how well they work. I would recommend not doing any of these things unless you actually need to. Some Sony software (like the camera, for some models) don't work properly with a rooted device, for instance. And if you remove something important from the firmware by mistake your tablet will fail to boot.

How is the update itself? I updated from 4.2.2 to 5.1.1. There's some visual tweaks and changes, and the operating system itself has no doubt seen a lot of internal improvements and bug fixes. My main reason for updating is the security fixes.

But the most significant change I experience is the keyboard. The Sony International Keyboard is great; it lets you use more than one language (such as Swedish and English) at the same time and gives you typing suggestions for both. In version 5 the keyboard is much better, with faster, more accurate suggestions.

The Japanese keyboard has also improved a lot, and now lets you input text by drawing kanji and kana by hand if you want to. It no longer defaults to romaji every time you select it, but remembers the state you used last. Switching between keyboards also feels faster and smoother than before.

The on-screen keyboard is the primary way to input text, and improvements here have a big impact. I'm happy I could update for this reason alone. Well worth spending my day off on this.