“So, what are you doing here? Oh, really? You should wait for your friend at a library. Or a park. Don’t you think?”
This is what it sounds like when the police ask you why you’re sitting outside a veterinarian’s office talking to your MacBook at a rainy 1:00 a.m. To be sure, you’ll probably omit a lot of unnecessary details – that your girlfriend happens to be on the other end of the computer screen, that you’ve been “waiting for your friend” there intermittently for the last two weeks because it’s the only nearby open wireless access point, that you’re looking up apartment listings because you’re crashing on a friend’s dorm room floor that you’re not even supposed to be in – but when you’re an American international student in Japan, you probably don’t want to explain that kind of thing in your fresh-out-of-college Japanese. You’ll probably just be relieved that you had your passport on you, that the worst they did was write down your information and you’ll retreat to your illicit flop house with a quickness.
At least, that’s what I did. Then, after borrowing a page from Grand Theft Auto, I changed out of my board shorts and flip-flops into a hoodie and blue jeans, grabbed my Coral Pink Nintendo DS, and headed back out into the night to find a way to explain to my wonderful girlfriend why her wonderful boyfriend just got his I-love-yous cut short by Japan’s Finest.
There are many kinds of people to whom the portable personal electronics revolution doesn’t quite make sense. These are the people who have a computer at home and another at the office, a nice TV in the living room and a big old Xbox 360 in front of it, and probably a pretty slick sound system. Some people like this can still understand the appeal of a laptop computer, or a portable game console, or an MP3 player, sometimes, if they have a plane trip. But there is another kind of person who can wholly appreciate living in an age where days of music, hours of quality videogames and a full-fledged computer are readily stored on his person. This is the kind of person who doesn’t have a place to put a nice TV or a sound system or an address at which he could sign up for an internet connection, and thinks it’s really nice that he can still do things like make a few bucks here and there as a freelance writer, or maintain a relationship with his favorite person in the world, while he’s, uh, “in a transitional phase.” Alas! Sometimes the police – or the concerned business-owners who call them – are not so charitable, and all of a sudden loitering with a laptop doesn’t seem to be such a good idea.
In Japan, however, loitering with a Nintendo DS is the mark of a productive citizen (one in six people in Japan own one) – I can barely get on a train without stumbling over a mess of high school kids battling Pokémon on their way to cram school. While it’s well known that the DS can, with the right software, ward off dementia, count calories, help with cooking, function as a Korean and Japanese dictionary (with kanji recognition), teach yoga, browse the web, and all kinds of other things, the homebrew Nintendo DS scene is perhaps the most underrated aspect of the fastest-selling console of all time.
But think about it for a second: It’s got Wi-Fi and a touch screen with a stylus. Earlier PDAs have had to make do with less, for sure. So perhaps it’s not so surprising that DSOrganize can replicate a lot of basic PDA functions, including a text editor, an organizer, a calculator, a file manager, a paint program, an IRC client and a basic text-only web browser. Just dump it on your preferred flash card of choice (the SuperCard and the R4 seem to be the most popular at the moment) and you’re good to go.
Before you start getting too excited, however, you’re going to want to find yourself an open wireless access point; fortunately, DSOrganize can help you find one, too, as can DSWifi, so open it up and start scanning when you hit the road. You might look a little strange walking around staring at your DS – particularly if you’re a big guy and it’s bright pink, like me and mine – so go ahead and close it and put it in your pocket. It should keep scanning, and maybe you won’t look so odd if you just pull it out and look at it occasionally to see if you’ve hit any open spots. Personally, my best luck was around public parks, strangely enough, and areas by large apartment complexes, where at least someone is bound to have an open connection. Residential areas work OK, too, except you’ll look exceptionally shady sitting on someone’s doorstep and stealing their internet, and college campuses rarely had open access points because wireless access tends to be something the IT department deals with. (On the other hand, if you know any students there who are willing to lend you their access information, you’re set.) Once you’ve got one, go ahead and set up shop – it’s time to get down to business.
The first thing any vagrant freelance writer should do is catch up on email and the latest news. You could do this with the Opera browser, but NDSMail can do email and RSS feeds more quickly and cleanly than Opera can, and it’s free. I can probably hunt-and-peck letters out on the keyboard in the bottom screen faster than I can type with a control pad, but it’s still not a lot of fun, so go ahead and send a brief email to the people who matter most and wrap up your business. Now might be a good time to drop your editor a few article pitches, too, to keep you busy until those other paychecks come in.
Email isn’t very good at expressing urgency, so if you need a place to live, you’re not going to want to wait around for someone to check his email. Enter AOL Instant Messenger via DSAim or MSN Messsenger with Beup; just log on and start harassing your local friends for a spare couch or living room floor. It’s so much easier to ignore pleas for help when they’re not being made in real-time, and scratching out “help i am on a ds and i cant type very fast” might just yank the heartstrings just right. Anyway, it’s worth a shot. The MSN client actually supports PictoChat-style scribbled messages, so you could even draw a little picture of you with a big frowny face getting harassed by the police to accentuate the importance of the situation. Or if your friends are big tech geeks, tell them you just want a safe place to install Linux on your DS and then GPL their living room.
But taking care of basic needs wasn’t enough for me, so I decided to take care of a little future planning, courtesy of DSLiveWeather, to check the weather, and Treasures of Gaia to familiarize myself with my surroundings via Google Maps. Probably the coolest application to hit the DS, though, is SvSIP, which lets you make voice over IP phone calls – that’s right, phone calls, though you need to bring your own provider – with the DS’ built-in microphone. While it’s not quite a replacement for a cell phone, it’ll do in a pinch, and besides, the DS-homeless can’t be picky. On the plus side, having an extended conversation with your DS probably looks about as bizarre as yelling “OBJECTION!” at it, so you won’t stand out too badly. And if the police come by this time, they’ll probably be more interested in how you got your DS to do all that than what you happen to be doing at the moment.
Make no mistake – this is not sustainable. Your friends will get tired of you sleeping on their floors, your work (and your editor!) will suffer if you have to type long pieces with the touch screen, and your relationships – well, seeing a grown man whispering tenderly to his DS Lite that he loves her very much is not a pretty sight. I managed with the DS until I could find an apartment, and then a park bench nearby that got perfect Wi-Fi access, provided the kids weren’t out playing baseball, or that weird cram school kid didn’t come by at 2:00 a.m. and ask me if there were any police nearby. But with a little ingenuity, it’s doable, and hell, it makes for a decent story when it’s all over. Just think about paying your karmic debt back, when it’s winter and you’ve got the broadband connection over your wireless router in your own apartment, under the comfort of your own blankets; maybe you might want to leave your access point open every now and then, in the off chance it could help some other unfortunate soul.
Pat Miller has been doing this for way too long. Stop by his blog, Token Minorities, for more on race and videogames.