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Wings of Heaven

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Here’s something that shouldn’t surprise anyone: it’s open-season on online information and, as far as targets go, you’re just a fat, awkward turkey. Facebook and Google record what you’re chatting about, and all the government has to do to get it is give the secret knock.

Humanitarian hacker Nadim Kobeissi is changing a thing or two about that, however. Like many dedicated netizens, the Lebanese-born 21-year-old worries about a growing lack of privacy in our online communications. He’s also a big fan of cute animals. Thus Cryptocat — a free encrypted chat application with retro graphics and feline-themed emoticons — was born.

Open-source and secure, the year-old, ever-growing project offers group instant messaging that works on web browsers and mobile phones and includes file-sharing services. Unlike more invasive applications like Google Talk or Facebook chat, Cryptocat encrypts your conversations with top-secret-worthy AES-256 and deletes them when you’re done talking, so no one, not even Kobeissi, can snoop on you or collect data. And it also runs as a Tor hidden service (http://xdtfje3c46d2dnjd.onion), for added protection from snoop dogs.

Whether you’re an investigative reporter or an Iranian activist — or you just don’t want your boss all up in your business, Cryptocat keeps private conversations private. As Kobeissi says, “You don’t have to trust anyone you don’t want to trust with your communications, because you shouldn’t have to trust them in the first place.”

Kobeissi is a student of political science and philosophy at Concordia University, in Montreal, Canada. We spoke via Skype about altruistic hacking, sticking it to venture capitalists, sweet 8-bit tunes, and his future tattoo plans.

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John Minchillo was losing sight of the context for his photography - or perhaps, starting out, he had yet to find it. The work of Ed Kashi from India, and his own experience there, changed his mindset.

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24 hours ago, I said my final farewell to my dog and got in the car, ready to begin my adventure. Now I’m sitting in my dormitory which is located right here, having enjoyed a relatively pleasant trip with little to no mishaps, aside from a few unidentified objects in some of the meals on the plane. I’m looking forward to getting on with being an aggressive go-getter in the rough world of Tokyo business, or as an observer might describe it, ‘yelling English words at confused students for an hour’.

Unfortunately I had neglected to remember how difficult actually arriving in Japan can be. Believe me, if you come unprepared (as I have done each and every time) you will have a pretty horrible first day. So here are a few undesirable situations that I have found myself in upon setting foot in Japan. Bear in mind each time I came from England and I stayed in Tokyo, so this advice may be less useful if you’re coming from the US or Australia or the moon or wherever.

Tokyo Is Hotter Than The Sun

Whilst not scientifically accurate, the above statement is I believe effective in describing at least how it feels. Tokyo is, from about the middle of April until as late as September, unbearably humid. I don’t mean ‘pop on some sun cream and those sleek new sunglasses’ warm, I mean ‘not only lipstick/hair gel but clothes and small children will melt into puddles’ warm. Stepping off the plane, I immediately realized I probably shouldn’t have worn jeans on the flight. I definitely shouldn’t have worn a cotton shirt and a jumper. The mittens and cowboy hat were definitely overdoing it.

The problem isn’t actually the temperature, which I would imagine to non Brits is probably not that unbelievable, it’s the humidity. It’s so difficult to breathe because the air feels so heavy. You begin to sweat and then your clothes stick to you, and then you stick to other people.  It’s been known to spiral out of control.

I’m not saying don’t bring warm clothes if you are going to stay into September. At the end of the heat comes a pretty cold winter. But do some research not only into the heat but into the humidity. As I understand it, the higher the percentage is the worse it feels. I’m writing this in 69% humidity (according to BBC Weather) and it feels like I’m wearing a wetsuit filled with warm butter. Also, make good friends with an air conditioning unit near you.

Escaping Narita Airport

If you like winding passages that go underground and meet up at random places, with information desks scattered throughout that provide a service I would struggle to describe as ‘informative’, then you’ll just love your time at Narita Airport. The truth is it’s not that bad, and I’ve witnessed airports with worse designs in my time, but when you first step off the plane you will be greeted by an immigration queue, which can take some time to get through. I’ve never waited more than about 15 minutes before, but this time I was stuck there for 45 minutes, as there were only two people processing about 100 upset looking foreigners. Giving your fingerprints is fun though, because it means you can commit and get away with crimes as long as you only use your four other fingers.

The other problem is getting from the airport to Tokyo. As far as I can tell, there are four billion train services that leave the station, and only about four platforms. In other words once you buy a ticket, you’ll be watching train after train go past, hoping you’ve not just watched your train disappearing into the darkness of the tunnel. They all go to more or less the same place, too, but you have to pay more depending on how nice the seats feel. Although it’s the most expensive, I totally recommend the Keisei Skyliner. It’s 2000 yen give or take, but it’s so fast and so relaxing that it justifies itself. Whatever you do, don’t take the regular JR line. It takes between two hours and forever, and in the summer you’ll be experiencing that delicious unbreathable air for the entire trip.

They Speak Japanese In Japan

Despite having just graduated with a degree in Japanese and having lived here for a total of 2 and a bit years already, I still got caught out. The airport, for all of it’s nonsense, is actually pretty good with signposting things, and at the very least English, Korean and Chinese speakers won’t have too many problems. The other end of the train journey is a different story, however. As I find it impossible to sleep during a flight (which I believe makes me a good candidate to become a pilot) I was incredibly tired when I arrived, and although I managed to bumble out sentences like ‘where am I?’ and ‘What do you mean this train goes to the centre of the earth, I just wanted the Keisei Skyliner?!’ it was a bit overwhelming for me, and I’m supposed to be able to understand this nonsense.

I don’t think there’s much you can do to prepare for this other than consciously remind yourself that you are going to struggle to communicate. Speak clearly, avoid using overly complex language, and try to get your message across in a friendly manner. In other words, do the exact opposite of any one of my Youtube videos.

The Time Difference Sucks

I think this will affect different people in different ways. I am not one of those people who has to hear from family and friends every 30 seconds in order to relax and know they are doing fine. But it is a fact of life that, if you live in Asia and your contacts do not, that one of you will be waking up early or staying up late to get in contact. I think the invention of things like Skype and Facebook have made this a bit easier and made the world feel a little smaller, but it is difficult sometimes. If you’re coming to live in Japan for any amount of time, it will be more challenging than moving around in Europe or to America. Even with decent language skills you are still going to find things difficult and the safety net of immediately contact your family or friends if you have a rubbish day isn’t going to be there. Unless you enjoy waking people up at 3 in the morning.

Something that’s linked to this, and the last point I’m going to make, is distance. Although you can now get to Japan from Britain in less than a day (with time to get lost in both airports to spare!) it’s still not cheap to just hop on a plane. I personally would struggle to recommend Japan to a person wanting a week long holiday, unless they really liked flying, simply because 12 hours in a plane twice in one week isn’t really good for anyone. I personally don’t see myself heading back to England for at least a year, possibly two or three. That’s why, this morning, I had to say goodbye to my dog for the last time. I was determined not to make it a really sad moment, we just took a photo, I said goodbye, then I said it in sign language as my dog is deaf as a post, and then I went on my way. I will post that photo here, but that’ll be it. I don’t really want to dwell on it too much.

So if you are moving out to Japan, bear in mind you may not be able to get back for big events. I don’t want to put people off, but it is something to consider.

So in conclusion, what have we learned? Well I really hope I haven’t put anyone off coming to Japan – that wasn’t my aim at all. I just want to improve your first 24 hours, because I have yet to get it right and I’ve been trying since 2006. If you have any questions about anything in this post (including my dog, you softies) leave a comment and I’ll try to be useful. I guess all we really did learn is that ‘Mike gets grumpy when he traipses across Tokyo carrying a huge suitcase in the boiling heat’. Not the most profound thing, but I’m glad everyone knows.

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