Of all the EU (“Legends”) books I’ve read, here are brief notes on a couple that I really enjoyed.

Heir to the Empire trilogy – written by Timothy Zahn and published almost 8 years before the SW prequel films. The three books were a runaway success, and is credited by pundits to have revived sagging interest in Star Wars after ROTJ in 1983, and possibly encouraged George Lucas to kickstart production of the prequel films. I read my elder brother’s copies of the three books as they were published, and of late now rely on the National Library Board’s digital copies as our original copies are now decades old, yellow and producing that old wood smell now. What especially worked in the three books – aside from that they were simply the best SW fiction at its time and still easily holding its own almost 25 years since – is that it had, for once, a principal antagonist that is nothing like the usual frothing at the mouth villain common in fantasy and sci-fiction books. In stark contrast, he – in the shape and form of a Grand Admiral Thrawn – is urbane, cultured, and a master strategist who outsmarts the New Republic even despite having far more limited resources at his disposal than the new galactic empire. We get insights into Coruscant, the Jedi before the galactic war, and how Vader was really seen by the other Imperial warlords.

All the principals also return in Zahn’s three books – the Skywalkers, Han Solo – now married to Leia – the droids, Chewie, Lando, and several of the Rebellion members, and their written personas are consistent with that of the three films. Moreover, Zahn introduces several other characters, many of which are so well-developed that other later books continued to expand upon them.

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The Black Fleet Crisis Trilogy – written by Michael P. Kube-McDowell. The set of three books present three interconnected stories: Luke journeying to find his mother’s legacy, Lando checking out new technologies on some mysterious spacecraft, and the emergence of a deadly new alien species, the Yevetha, to counter the New Republic. The trilogy doesn’t figure on many fans’ must-read list for several reasons I imagine; the first being the inconsistent styling book to book (e.g. one book continuously bounces to and fro within the three stories, another book breaks the entire text into three discrete parts that tell one story each), and the second that Luke’s search for his mother is rendered entirely moot after The Phantom Menace was released and Padme was introduced as Luke’s mother.

I however liked the trilogy for one particular thing – and it’s the story of the Yevetha against the New Republic, and the resulting (short) war that occurs. If there are fans of military strategies who’re interested to see how a might be space battle planned, prepped, and fought, this is the book. Kube-McDowell spares no expense getting into detail on many aspects of a military campaign that most other non-war fiction either gloss over or over-simplify. Surveillance operations, fleet maneuvers, chain of command, logistics and supply etc. – they’re all here. Heck – this one story reads at times more like a Larry Bond war novel than a Star Wars book!

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Shadows of the Empire – by Steve Perry. Unlike several of the early EU books, Shadows centers its plot on the immediate aftermath of the events in The Empire Strikes Back film, rather than the well after the original film trilogy. The book was so well-received that an orchestral soundtrack was recorded for it – imagine a full score composed and recorded when there is no film – and a video game made too. Steve Perry’s writing is marvelously crisp, with character portrayals exactly like what what would had been immediately after the second film, and explores a lot of subplots hinted at the third film – including Luke building his replacement light saber, and the theft of the second Death Star plans and how it was really a ploy set by Palpatine. The book’s best aspect is the inclusion of a new antagonist – Xizor – who is a criminal overlord in Coruscant, and his bitter rivalry with Vader. We get a lot of backstory on Vader too, which doesn’t get foisted into redundancy with the later prequel films. The book is an easy read and breezes along quickly, and unlike the two other trilogies, is a standalone novel.

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More in the next post that will come quite a bit later!

“Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic…”, as the the opening crawl from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace read. That sums up about nicely the initial reactions from many fans who’d invested in the years of Expanded Universe (EU) books, games and magazines etc. when Disney bought Lucasfilm, and shortly thereafter announced that all the material developed since 1983’s Return of the Jedi would be (ROTJ) largely would be non-canonical, and rebranded as Star Wars Legends. If the EU was a hodgepodge of material, no one would have bothered. But while there was a humongous amount of material created over the years – and there were even books written attempting to organize and weave all that stuff into a coherent narrative to make sense of it all – and not all of it was good, there were many common themes in the hundreds of EU publications that demonstrated a willingness to seriously explore and expand the fictional universe into something that sounded real. Even the more important when one realizes that as viscerally enjoyable as most of the SW prequel and original trilogies movies were, there was just so much implied – putting aside the simply routinely awful character dialogue – that someone had to make sense of all those broad plot lines we saw in the movies.

The New Essential Chronology to Star Wars, from 2005. One book that attempted to make sense of the Expanded Universe.

The New Essential Chronology to Star Wars, from 2005. One book that attempted to make sense of the Expanded Universe.

Most of my interest in the EU were in the post-ROTJ era and what happened after the second Death Star gets blown up and the Emperor gets tossed down the bottomless shaft. I haven’t read all the EU books – there’s a lot of it – but my sense of some of the most key themes in the post-ROTJ era were along these lines:

  1. That the Empire was now divided, with former Imperial warlords trying to carve out their own niches in the Galaxy, with the expected rivalry and in-fighting to follow. For them now, it was a fight to protect first whatever little they had left.
  2. That the New Republic was going through serious settling-in problems, and facing some of the same issues the early Empire experienced – and they had it easier as Palpatine had no compunctions using force to bend systems into his will.
  3. That the Jedi order was being revived, with the rebuilding of the Jedi Temple, with Luke becoming the first Master Jedi again. Luke traveling the galaxy to find force-sensitive pupils to be his first apprentices.
  4. That there were parts of the Galaxy untouched/not involved in the galactic war, and now emerging – sometimes they did not come in peace.

In other words, the galaxy was moving on and demonstrating a realistic process of transformation after the upheaval events of ROTJ. Stuff that felt like they were in the natural sequence of things that would happen in any other setting. As I mused in my last post, I was struck by that SW: TFA used essentially none of these, but instead:

  1. The Empire was not divided – only re-branded to The First Order, with no change to their agenda: still “Crush those Rebel – whoops – Resistance scum!”
  2. There was no New Republic, only the Resistance – and still on the run.
  3. There was a brief resurgence of a new Jedi order, before Kylo Ren turned it on his head, and Luke goes into hiding in apparent shame. Huh!
  4. No new factions joining into the mix – at this point of the seventh film anyway.

So, fundamentally, I found SW: TFA bland, if visually exciting and still enjoyable to watch from at least a superficial point of view. Hopefully things will improve in the next couple of films – we’ll see.

More in the next post.

 

We’ve been using at home the very office-capable Fuji Xerox M255z printer for more than a year now, and the unit has posed no issues. Of late though, I was tempted to get a personal laser printer to situate at my office. So, the list of possible candidates from Canon, Brother and Fuji got included in a spreadsheet and I started checking out the models in person at the usual electronic and computer accessory shops whenever we were out of home for dinner and outings and the like.

The search for an office laser printer however got a 180 degree change at the start of the week – and largely because we wanted photo printouts of our recent trip to Legoland Malaysia but kept procrastinating in getting them done at the usual photo printer shops, and I figured that that having a second laser printer would be convenient, but would not fundamentally add anything new to what I do at home and in the office. Hannah loves to look at pictures and photos, and I thought why not get something for the home that would enable us to print photos on demand.

I was initially looking at portable photo printers, and learned quickly that there wasn’t a lot of choices there. There was the Canon Selphy C910 that had an attractive price-point for the unit, convenient in usage and using reasonably-priced consumables – but offered only average quality photo prints, and also printed at slightly smaller than 4R sizes. There was also the Epson Picturemate PM245 that was widely appraised to offer better photo prints at the right 4R size, but also slightly more expensive, and harder to find, and let alone the consumables.

So, it was to be typical size inkjet photo printer, and preferably with duplex printing and scanning features. There’s a very large range of photo printers on sale from the major manufacturers which made arriving at the final decision tough. Duplex printing/scanning features weren’t the only considerations though, but also the availability of consumables, same manufacturer photo paper, and also ongoing costs. After a couple of days of exploration, the choices came down to:

Canon Pixma MX727: decently-priced at $259 with a $50 cashback, this printer is fairly short but has a large footprint, and supported duplex printing/scanning. Requires a number of ink cartridges that were fairly expensive. Interesting, one salesperson said that the MX727 is an old model and going to be phased out. Canon consumables are widely available though.

Canon Maxify MB5370: quite a bit more expensive at $459 with a $70 cashback but featuring real office-type functionality, including single pass duplex scanning. Fairly tall unit, using fewer ink cartridges of a different type than the Pixma series that seemed cheaper and also slightly more ink capacity too.

Brother MFC-J2720: average-priced at $368, pretty compact, duplex everywhere, average-priced ink cartridges that were available at stores, capable of printing A3 even. This was initially on the top of my list and I nearly decided on it – but stopped short when I couldn’t readily find manufacturer photo paper for it. Gaah.

Epson L550: average-priced at $359, and after nearly an hour of indecision, that’s what we settled on.

The Epson L550!

The Epson L550!

Why the L550 though? First comments after two evenings of setup and use to print 50+ photos on premium photo paper, and starting off with its limitations and what we didn’t like:

No duplex printing or scanning.

Primitive and ancient-looking 1980s monochrome LCD screen.

Somewhat old model from two years ago.

Does not support borderless printing, or rather, I haven’t found the setting for it. Ling doesn’t mind though and in fact prefers the prints with white borders.

Very slow printer setup. The ink took 20 minutes to initialize, and if that wasn’t bad enough, the excruciatingly slow software installation took another 30 minutes. Or maybe the installation got stuck somewhere without my realization.

Noisy. The L550 printing was like monkeys hammering away on conga drums. Laser printers aren’t noiseless of course, but I guess we’ve been spoiled by the M255z’s relatively silent operation.

And on the other hand:

Stunningly beautiful photo prints, especially at the highest quality settings and using Epson’s best photo paper. Ling took one look at our first A4 photo printouts of Hannah and Peter, and said “Worth every cent!”

Three of our first A4 photo printers. Beautifully rendered colors that look very professionally printed,

Three of our first A4-sized photos. Beautifully rendered colors that look professionally printed.

Very cheap ink. Epson has come up with a clever ink tank system that not only requires just 3 colors (apart from Black), but is refillable at extremely low cost. The printer came bundled with a complete set of fully-filled inks each costing about S$10 for about 70ml volume, and two additional black bottles even – and between them are rated to churn between 4,000-6,000 color pages. That’s cheap ink and able to print a crazy amount of material. In fact, I seriously doubt that we’d ever need to buy ink anymore – the printer will probably die out first LOL.

Cyan ink cartridge. $9.90 and 70ml volume. Cheap!

Cyan ink cartridge. $9.90 and 70ml volume. Cheap!

Recommend that you peel off the protective sticker in a single (slow) motion, unless you want ink on your fingers!

Recommend that you peel off the protective seal in a single (slow) motion, unless you want ink on your fingers!

Affordable manufacturer 4R photo papers. A stack of 30 Premium Semigloss (251g/m²) costs $7.30 and is available at most places – which works out to a competitive price of about 24 cents per print. The A4 photo papers are a little harder to find, so I’ll have to snap them up when I do find them!

A couple of niggling albeit minor issues too that I’ve developed workarounds.

Photoshop Elements/printer driver doesn’t properly switch between landscape and portrait picture orientations. A batch print job comprising a mix of both resulted in printing errors. The temporary workaround was to reset print area whenever switching between orientations.

Out of the 50+ prints I churned out, one print job canceled on its own, ejected the half-printed photo, then re-did the print one more time. Weird.

All, in – this looks like a great purchase, and Hannah is already getting her favorite pictures printed for her own personal 4R photo album that she can bring around to show off.:)

Edit 5 Aug: Good read here about Epson’s EcoTank printers.

Hannah and Peter’s first Blurb book arrived just before the Deepavali public holiday yesterday. This is the seventh book I’ve worked on, with a two year gap from the sixth book. Funnily, every time I finish one, I tell myself I’ll want to do the next one in a year – largely in view that I take so many pictures of our kids that I need an annual schedule to keep up, or be forced to drop a lot of pictures that should go into their printed photo collections. For the next time round though, I’m gonna have to figure out a way to make sure I do get Book VIII out in a year’s time, hopefully easier since we should have plenty of great pictures to select from our upcoming family vacation at year’s end.

The new Book VII covers the period when we’d just returned from our Telunas Beach Resort trip in 2012, up till early October this year. The new book is also just a shade thinner at 214 pages than the one before, which finished at 220 pages; though there are a lot more pictures in the new one – 346 versus 289, largely made possible because there are a lot more multi-picture page panels, and also by reducing the number of blog posts included in the book’s appendices. The cost of book production has gone out significantly on the other hand. Two copies of Book VI, and printed using all the best print and paper options on offer – ProLine Pearl Photo paper, ProLine Black End Sheets, ProLine Charcoal Linen, hard cover with dust jacket – cost US$218.84 two years ago, and two copies of the slightly thinner Book VII cost US$263.18 now – an hefty 20% increase. Ironically, right after the books arrived, the store ran a 25% discount for printed books. Gaah. If I’d only waited for a fortnight more.

The book as arrived continues to feel very premium. Great photo paper quality, and no printing errors. I didn’t feel as satisfied with the photos inside it this time though. There were odd color casts in a couple of pictures that I didn’t observe in the on-screen previews before I sent to print, and my workflow has not changed from the last book. Or maybe it’s also that the work on this book was a little rushed, and more thought should have gone into the selection and touch-up of the pictures.

The new book!

The new book!

Matching pictures from two books covering the birth of our two kids - 4 years apart.

Matching pictures from two books covering the birth of our two kids – 4 years apart.

Still, the effort was justified against the outcome. Hannah was thrilled with the book, and enjoyed going through each page of pictures of her growing years. Peter can’t quite enjoy the book yet – he’s more likely going to lick, or worse still, chew on the pages if he has his hands on it – but in a year’s time, he should be able to.:)

25. April 2013 · Comments Off on The secrets of language acquisition in infants and toddlers · Categories: All Posts, Baby Blues, Books, Reflections

This is probably the final segment on my gleamings from the book ‘Nurture Shock’ by PO Bronson & Ashley Merryman.

A disclaimer here first – I’m no linguist and definitely not anywhere close to being regarded as a language expert. Where the English language is concerned, Yang speaks and writes better than I do. I had to sit for a English proficiency test in order to gain entry to a local university. You get the idea :)

The authors of the book has a chapter devoted to exploring why some children pick up language skills sooner as compared to others. In other words, why do some children speak sooner, better and more confidently than others? According to findings, baby DVDs did little to encourage infants to grow in the area of speech. So, save your moola on buying into all that hype. It was observed that infants learn faster from watching real humans speak than being parked in front of the black box watching educational videos. They learn best by watching how your mouth and facial muscles move as you speak. Monkey see, monkey do. That’s the current wisdom. :)

Hannah has taught Pluto how to surf board.

Hannah has taught Pluto how to surf board. We did not teach her how to do this though.=)

Another interesting observation was that children progress faster when other persons around them respond to topics that interest them. For example, if a child point her finger excitedly at a dead flower on the ground and her grandmother picks it up and talks about it in a similar tone of excitement, the child will often quickly absorb new vocabulary associated with the moment. I’ve seen a mother who put her daughter down when her kid alerted her to a little bird that flew over them. The mother dismissed her daughter’s interest and observational skill and muttered something like her daughter was only interested in birds. Perhaps the mother was not in the right mood. But it was an opportunity lost.

I noticed that Hannah learn better when I let her rope me into her daily chatter about her nursery school, toys, games, etc. I simply ‘played’ along with her enthusiasm in various subjects. I’d casually slip in new words or proper grammar in my communication with her and leave it up to her to pick them up. And she would almost always subconsciously or consciously copycat me to express herself in the topic too. And it has been amazing how the young brain could so effortlessly remember those new words which were uttered only once sometimes.

Since the beginning of nursery school this year, Hannah has developed a positive attitude towards learning the Chinese language. I don’t know what is her Chinese teacher’s secret formula but I do know that Hannah is fond of this particular teacher. She often mentions her in our conversations. My guess is that this Chinese teacher practises “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” (quote by John C Maxwell). Children are also sensitive and sensible towards the level of care shown by people around them. In the area of language, I believe that head knowledge and the heart must work hand-in-hand to bring out the best in a child’s development. And a head start in language acquisition should help a child communicate her needs and feelings better and reduce unnecessary frustration that growing up brings.

 

My best friend Doreen, an experienced teacher in primary school education, once shared with me that a child grows and develops when she is sleeping. Being uninformed then, I used to associate sleep with down time for the body to rest rather than an important aspect for growth in children.

Hannah was asleep while sending daddy off at the airport during the wee hours of morning in Dec 2009.

A few months back, Yang bought a parenting book entitled ‘Nurture Shock’ by PO Bronson & Ashley Merryman. It was highly recommended by his manager. As a science person, I readily lapped up the new information and insights on rearing children that were linked to research findings. Additionally, my training in biology allows me to process the neurological explanations that support the mantra that sleep is important to growing children.

The gist of all that were mentioned and said is this: children who sleep well are intelligent, happy and less likely to become obese.

Slumber time for kids is different from adults. A good night’s sleep helps in long-term learning of language, times tables and any other content-loaded subjects. When a child sleeps, the brain shifts into an efficient storage mode. What was learnt in the day, say new vocabulary, the brain will store psycho-motor skills for enunciation, auditory memories of new sounds and emotions linked to those new words during the different stages of sleep. The more a child learns that day, the more she needs to sleep that very night. What is more is that when she wakes up, she would come up with new insights on her learning the previous day.

Take one of my students for example. She has been consistently doing well for her science tests not because she burns midnight oil to do revision but because she lavishes time to sleep in the night. She maximises the time in the day to learn as much as possible through active listening and questioning during my science lessons and let her brain does the rest at night. She didn’t know anything about the importance of sleep. Rather, she happens to love her sleep. Recently, I noticed that Hannah also displayed the secretive functions of the brain. She learnt ‘2 + 2 = 4’ from watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on TV and the next day, she could show us the concept by holding 2 toys in each hand and declared saying “see, two and two is four”. Isn’t that a little application in daily life by the brain?

Gotta knock out first, mommy. It’s growing time.

Now the happy part. In our brain, negative emotions are processed by the amygdala while positive memories gets processed by the hippocampus. The hippocampus’ function is affected more than the amygdala when a person is sleep deprived. Consequently, the person has trouble recalling happy memories and at the same time can remember unhappy times clearly. The more sleep deprived a person is, the more easily depression creeps in.

It sounds strange to dissociate sleep from obesity. I was under the impression that the more one sleeps, the more sedentary one gets and hence the result would be weight gain. Well, recent research says otherwise. Sleep loss can trigger hormonal changes that affect one’s weight. I remember that whenever I stayed up late to study or work, I got hungry easily and resorted to snacking. The culprit is a hormone called ghrelin. Sleep loss also increases the amount of cortisol, a stress hormone, which stimulates the body to make fat. What is worse is the release of human growth hormone that breaks down fat in our body for growth during sleep is affected at the same time.

In conclusion, the earlier a child develops good sleeping habits, the more she would benefit from it. A child’s brain is continuously developing until she hits 21. Any sleep loss during the first 21 years of life will have greater impact on a child’s growth as compared to adults.

Brain is busy. Do not disturb!

 

Both copies of Hannah’s photo book arrived yesterday morning, after spending just under 48 hours in transit from the printer’s Seattle office to Singapore. The most recent pictures that made it into the book were just taken on the 2 Sep, and it took just about a week for Blurb to produce a high quality book, and ship it over here.

It was a bit of a risk choosing all the most expensive print and shipping options. Each of the Standard Landscape 10×8 inches (25×20 cm) 220 pages books cost USD109, with the ProLine Pearl photo paper, ProLine Charcoal linen and ProLine Black End sheets options, alongside USD38 with FedEx’s priority shipping. But seeing the final product, I’m glad I didn’t scringed. Even Ling remarked how distinctly better-feeling the paper felt and sharper the photos looked.

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Two copies of the book just after delivery; one book is still shrink-wrapped.

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Volumes III to VI.
Top left to right; from Ling’s pregnancy to Hannah @ 3 months old, Hannah @ 8 months;
Bottom left to right: Hannah @ 1 year old, and lastly the new book, Hannah @ 3 years old.

Hannah took a lot of interest in the new book too, asking if she could look at her own pictures inside it. What’s even the more amazing is that just at past the age of three, she’s able to now remember many things from as long as nearly a year ago. For example, presents she got for Christmas and who gave them to her when looking at the pictures with our Christmas tree last December, and easily even more recent events like our Telunas Resort trip. And she remembered our Ang Mo bud quite well too, pointing to a photo taken of the two and chiming excitedly that “Uncle Matt was with us at the beach!”.

The irony though is that Hannah has been a little grouchy this last week, and no longer smiles for us for pictures. Hopefully it’s just a temporary phase since she’s been also a little sick (like Ling and myself) with a viral cough. Otherwise there wouldn’t be picture material for me to do the inevitable Book VII. :)

Hannah’s Blurb book was completed last night. And after two more rounds of checking, it was finally sent to the printer early this morning with an order of two books. The book weighs in at 220 pages and 289 pictures. I bit the bullet for the most pricey and highest quality paper options too – professional grade paper that’s manufactured by Mohawk – figuring that photographic memories of Hannah are well worth the expense. The final cost per book was about USD109 – almost two times the price of USD57 for Hannah’s last book. Ouch.

The weekend was a little more busy than our usual laidback vegetating/playing at home. We had a delightful dinner event with our small group on Friday evening, followed by a one year birthday bash for one of Ling’s cousin’s baby boy. The Lumix 20mm f1.7 was the lens of choice again, and I think I’m really getting the hang of this lens now. Early on a year ago, a lot of pictures came slightly blurry when shot at wide-open; but with the correct hand-holding technique, nearly all the pictures are tack sharp in the center now.

Hannah still adores her Goofy toy, though just over the weekend, she asked me to also buy her a toy of her next favorite character – Pluto, and would you have guessed that!

Ling took a bunch of pictures at the party. Liked this one best. How we get her to giggle is to tickle her. Easy.:)

Sister in law remarked that in this photo, she looks exactly like me – “confirmed”.:)

31. August 2012 · Comments Off on Hannah’s New Blurb · Categories: All Posts, At Home, Baby Blues, Books · Tags:

It’s been an incredibly fast two years since I last finished Vita Una: Book V, blogged here. The photo book volume covered Hannah’s growing years up till she was one year old. I was supposed to have worked on two books thereafter – one on the month long Boston trip and another for Hannah – but never got round to it, thanks largely to procrastination. I finally got round to it this week, and after intensely working on it for the last several evenings, have finished selecting and working on the approximately 280 pictures that will be going into this volume. What follows next is writing the words of text that will accompany the pictures.

This volume sits at 220 pages; larger than Book V’s 160 pages too. The costs of printing has also gone up with the company; so while Blurb’s price plans are still cheaper than its competition, the differences are less significant now. Still, it’s a thrill to work on these books, more so when they finally ship and for me to leaf through each page. Blurb has some very premium paper for their books now too; I’ll probably be going for these grades as these volumes are keep sakes for Hannah, and thus well-worth the additional expense.

The series of pictures covers June 2010 to August 2012, and as I mused to Ling yesterday while on our way home from work, as I worked through the about 8,331 pictures of Hannah over this period, I am stunned by how quickly our girl has grown and developed. We’re thankful that Hannah’s healthy, chirpy and so far has been (mostly!) very well-behaved with a reasonably developed sense of respect for others around her and us as parents!

04. October 2010 · Comments Off on Japan, Dec 2010 – On Books · Categories: All Posts, Books, Traveling · Tags:

Now that we’ve firmed up our travel dates in December, the next thing we had to decide was where we were going to and how long we would be in each city. One of the most fun things is planning itineraries for trips like these, and we’ve been making use of all information source types: books, the Internet, friends’ recommendations and word of mouth.

Speaking of books; I’ve picked up three travel books just to read. Yeah, most of this information is freely available online but it’s still nice to be able to thumb through pages and to read things in print. The three are:

Japan: Eyewitness Travel Guide

Japan: Insight Guides

Japan by Rail

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The first two cover pretty much the same ground, if presented in somewhat different styles. The third book’s pretty special though. Apart from that it’s the most comprehensive of the three, the book’s place descriptions and commentaries keeps in view transportation modes in Japan. There’s a lot of material on how long it takes to get from one place to another, whether it makes sense to spend time on one at the expense of another when traveling time is involved etc. Pretty good stuff.