Tuesday, January 13, 2015

January


So, mid-January. This blog is turning into an occasional travelogue more than anything, and there's a few reasons for that. Deadlines are looming, and when I do have some free time I'd rather spend it with Ritsuko, read a book or study Japanese.

The Lettuce Awakens
It's mid-winter. But our small-scale lettuce farm (it doesn't get smaller-scale than this) is showing signs of life out on the balcony. Small, new leaves are beginning to sprout already.

But another reason is my new calendar. When I first became smart-phonified, I gave up on a paper calendar. It seemed so convenient to have it on the phone and on my laptop, and I could also synchronize work calendars with my own. But I never quite managed to become satisfied with it. I tried several calendar apps and tried to adapt but it just never really worked well.

I finally realized the problem: An electronic calendar is a timeline. Everything has a specific time and date, and everything is connected to that timeline. But I've always used a calendar more like a notebook. The basic structure is a note about something. One note can be anything from a single word to half a page of text and drawings. And one note might contain several datetimes — or none at all.

A two-day conference is a good example. I'd add the entire two days as a single note or two, with flight times and numbers, the rough conference schedule, talks I want to hear, hotel info and so on. During the conference I'd add notes about talks I hear, paper references, sketches or maps. Since I know when I wrote it down I can always find it again later.


How is a paper calendar connected to this blog? I need to practice my Japanese. And since I now always have paper and a pen with me, I've started writing a blog/diary/running notes in Japanese. Since it's in longhand, I have to actually remember how to write the kanji, not just pick them of a list on the screen. And with a pen I have to decide what to say and how to say it before I start writing. It's a lot of fun, and good practice, but it does cut into my time writing here.

Osechi
We spent New Year in Hokkaido. But Ritsuko still likes to cook new years food, so we made some osechi-ryouri at home once we came back. Best thing about making it at home is that you can make just your favourite foods and skip the rest.

I'll post about our New Years trip to Hokkaido eventually. So far I haven't even developed the film so it will take a while.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year

2015, the year of the sheep.



A happy new year from Janne and Ritsuko.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Netherlands


We went to the Netherlands this August(1). I went for work — the Neuroinformatics 2014 conference was held in Leiden — and Ritsuko came along to see the sights. No time for a real vacation this year so I took a weekend off at the end of the conference, and we spent that together in Amsterdam(2). Since we're leaving for our New Years trip tomorrow morning, it's well past time to post about this.

Japan is hot in summer. Europe, by and large, is not. I did vaguely remember this as we were packing, but we grossly underestimated just how miserable the weather can be. The moment we stepped off the plane to Schiphol, we realized we should have left t-shirts and sandals at home in favour of padded coats, scarves and umbrellas.

Oval
Leiden. Wet and cold when we arrived, but quite beautiful.

Leiden is a picturesque university town. It reminds me a lot of Lund and Uppsala in Sweden, with a lot more waterways. And frankly, like Lund, Leiden also seems to be the kind of place you love living in as a student for a few years but eventually outgrow.

Bicycle
Bicycles everywhere.

Boat Life
Apparently you can't live here and not have a boat. Puttering around on the canals certainly looks relaxing.

Morning
A few larger boats parked along one of the canals early in the morning as I was going to the conference site.

The conference was held at the faculty of law. As the name "neuroinformatics" can tell you, it dealt less with pure neuroscience and more with modelling, data analysis and management and things like that. The talks and posters tended toward the concrete and practical. As many of us come from the informatics side, there was also a refreshingly positive attitude towards Open Source and data sharing, something that's unfortunately largely missing within much of the neuroscience field.

INCF 2014 Poster session
The INCF poster session. The long, narrow hall worked better than I thought it would; people would drift up on one side, then down the other, without causing any jams.

Einstein Lectured Here
Apparently Einstein lectured in this room when he worked here. I know this because the organizers reminded us of that fact about twice a day for the entire conference. ^_^

Antoinette Christina
Antoinette Christina. Did I mention the boats? Lots of boats.


Amsterdam

There are many places I like to visit. But there are only a few places I could imagine living permanently. Amsterdam may have become one of them. The city is a beautiful mix of old quarters and newer, and criss-crossed with canals. And the relaxed attitude among its inhabitants really grabs me. This is a place where "work-life balance" doesn't mean "the only balance is all work, no life".

There Are Canals
There are canals. Oh but are there canals. Very picturesque, very soothing. But I can't but wonder just how often the canal-side buildings get water damaged.

261
A creative door design at a row of townhouses. The buildings on either side had the same doors but with the numbers shifted.


We stayed at Bed and Breakfast Margot. It was the first time at a B&B for us, but we had nothing to worry about. A beautiful room with a view of the canal, and our host Margot served up a wonderful breakfast that could have kept us going all day had we only been able to eat it all. Highly recommended.

Bed and Breakfast Margot
Our room, facing the canal. Beautiful and relaxing, and the view is great.

Downstairs
The downstairs entry hall and kitchen. Beware those stairs; navigating them with a heavy suitcase is painful.

The Dutch language is sort-of, kind-of like Swedish. I feel I can almost understand it, and I probably could with just a few months practice. It was sometimes almost unnerving; I'd hear bits of a conversation, and without focusing on it I could pick out the overall meaning. But once I realized that and tried to listen in, I no longer understood. Margot, the bed and breakfast owner, said she sometimes watched Swedish television dramas, and had no problem following the story.


Amsterdam is famous for legal marijuana and legal prostitution — no, we didn't try either. I'm vaguely in favour of having it legal and controlled; it seems better than the alternative. The prostitution business seems to be fairly well controlled and run, and it's clearly a tourist draw not just for sad single guys. You can see entire families walking through the red light district, and couples shopping for toys and visiting the museums and exhibitions. No pictures, as that raises too many privacy issues.

The drug business, however, seems to be its own worst enemy. The shops look seedy, run-down and dirty. They're not charmingly disordered and hippie-like, just sad and depressing. The kind of places where you expect wet stains on the seat and cigarette butts in your coffee. Whatever the product, it would never cross my mind to enter a shop. When their legal status is already under attack, fulfilling every prejudice of catering only to the desperate and the addicted does not strike me as the wisest business approach.


Holland is not well known for its food. That's not because the food is bad - far from it - but simply because the traditional cuisine, like Swedish food, doesn't stand out as uniquely different from its neighbours. If you know German food you are not going to encounter any big surprises in Amsterdam. But the food we had was all good.

Happiness
It's not just a kebab. It's a symbol of Europe. Seriously. This one in Leiden, Netherlands, was cheap, filling and delicious - and all but identical (right down to the selection of sauces) to one I would have received in a good kebab place in Stockholm, Madrid, Prague or in any small town across the continent.

I love Japanese food. But one thing I do miss in Japan is the European pita kebab. I take every chance to eat this whenever I return to Europe. It's origins is vaguely middle-Eastern-Turkish-Greek, but it has spread across the continent, soaking up influences along the way, and now it has a strong claim to be one of the few true pan-European foods.

If you're looking for the germs of a new pan-European identity then forget old paintings or dusty culture. Look at the new cheap, popular foods - the bastard children of a dozen culture clashes - that we create and enjoy.

When foodies, cultural gatekeepers and the far right all hate and fear it — when everyone with a stake in national rather than European identity feel deathly threatened — then you know you're looking at the future of European identity. And it looks bright. Also delicious and covered in garlic sauce.


Herring!
Dutch herring. Similar flavour (and surely a shared origin) to Swedish pickled herring. We don't eat it on bread like this — at least I've never done it — but it's a quick, tasty meal. I actually had this for lunch twice, it's so good.

Sari Citra
A friend recommended Sari Citra toward the southern end of the city center. It's an Indonesian restaurant; as it was a Dutch colony, there is a lot of food influences from there. This is a café-style place where you can eat in or take-out. Everything is fresh and very good, and it is well worth the trip. There's an outdoor market just around the corner worth a visit as well.

Sari Citra
Set meal at Sari Citra.


Arendsnest
Pub Arendsnest is another recommendation, and just a couple of blocks from the place we stayed. If I had no other reason to move here, this would almost be enough by itself. Good, relaxed atmosphere, and an amazing range of ales and stouts on tap. It would probably take months of occasional visits to really sample all the things on offer. If you like beer, this is the place to go.

Arendsnest
Pub Arendsnest, along one of the many canals.


FEBO
FEBO. I guess tosome this is scraping the bottom of the culinary barrel. Not just a hamburger joint, but a vending-machine style hamburger joint. But it is also fun, and it's also quick, and the food is more varied and tastes better than the usual big burger chains.

Mint tea
Everybody and I mean everybody was drinking mint tea. Pour hot water over a fistful of mint leaves, then add honey to taste. Simple but very warming on chilly days.


You can't throw a bottle of genever in this town without hitting an outdoor market. The narrow streets with small squares and open areas seem well-suited to stalls and carts, and they seem to happen everywhere. There's plenty of markets selling used goods, off-brand items, and cheap knockoffs. But there's also markets full of cheese-mongers, fruit and vegetable sellers, fish and meat.

Cheesemonger
Did we buy cheese? Yes, we bought cheese. Did we buy a lot of cheese? Why yes, we did buy lots of cheese. We still have some left now, four months after the trip. Good cheese.

We got corn! Yay!!
We got corn! A happy couple grocery shopping at an outdoor market.


Hats? Hats.
A hatmaker at one of the markets. I got one for myself; it's a good hat.

The Snake
Amsterdams local anarkists sport the usual creatively decorated building.


Schiphol Pod
Schipol has a completely automated luggage check-in system. When you shove your ticket into a slot it opens the pod bay doors a hatch where you put your bag for weighing, then attach the printed luggage tag before the close button sends the bag on its way. Pretty cool; I wish I could check in myself into my own pod in the same way.

I've flown into Kansai airport many times by now, and I've never seen a dog patrol of any kind. Except this time, flying in from Amsterdam, we had not one but two drug-sniffing dog patrols walking around in the baggage reclamation area. I couldn't imagine why.

Morning View
Amsterdam in the morning.


#1 Is this post late? Why yes, it is late. Deadlines is the hobgoblin of little minds(1.5).

#1.5 As are accurate quotations.

#2 Before anybody thinks we're living the high-life: My job pays for my coach ticket and my hotel room during the conference. All other costs, including any fare increase from not returning directly after the conference, is paid by ourselves. And no, I don't get any money back if the ticket ends up cheaper.


Monday, December 22, 2014

Osaka Festival of Lights


I've been a little too stressed for my own good lately. So I took the Sunday off this weekend, and didn't even log in at work all day. Instead we went to see Osaka Festival of Lights (大阪光の饗宴). Every winter, Midosuji avenue is decorated with lights all the way from Shinsaibashi up to Nakanoshima island. And around Christmas, there's a lighting festival in the park on the island itself. Lots of people, lighting displays and stalls selling food and drink.

The weather had finally turned after a week of miserable rain and dampness. We left home early and walked up Midosuji to a Vietnamese restaurant for lunch. There were a lot of people around; some were waiting for the illumination, while others were just enjoying the break in the weather. After lunch we spent a couple of hours at a café studying Swedish and Japanese (no points for guessing who studied what).

Right-wing speaker vans were out in force, probably because of the recent election. A single van parked near Yodoyabashi was criticizing Christmas. In a desperate tone the speaker urged people to "remember that New Year is a Shinto holiday! Don't you even care Tuesday is the Emperors birthday!?"

Of course, Christmas isn't much of a holiday here. You don't get time off work, and it has no religious or cultural meaning; it's a dating day for young people and another excuse to add festive decorations and sell stuff to people. I can't imagine how oversensitive that right-winger must have been to burst a vein over this.

Nihonshu
Hot wine is really popular right now, and most food stalls sell it. This stall also sold hot sake, and frankly I like it even better than hot wine when it's cold outside. It's less sweet and sticky, but just as warming.

As dusk approached we arrived at Nakanoshima. The crowd was large already, and the food stalls were doing a brisk trade. At many festivals you'd mostly have snacks and junk food — hot dogs, taiyaki, yakisoba and so on. Here, though, one of the two food areas is dedicated to Western-style foods, mostly catered by restaurants. We had borstj, pirog, and clam chowder in a hollowed-out bread. Later on we also had okomiyaki and beef kushiyaki. Healthy living.

Tear-off
The highlight of the festival was a projection event on the Osaka Public Hall. It was a fun little animation featuring Anooki, French animation characters. Here's a YouTube video of the animation: Anooki á Osaka.


You are feeling sleepy... Very, very sleepy...
You are feeling sleepy... Very, veeryyy sleeepyyy... This one was fun; the display is actually animated and set to music, so the picture doesn't really convey the full experience.

I haven't felt this refreshed in months. For the first time in a long while I managed to forget about work for a while and just enjoy taking pictures and watching people. I wish I could do this more often.

Tenjinbashi
All the bridges around Yodogawa are illuminated as well (though I vaguely think they are all year round). This is Tenjinbashi bridge as we were leaving for home.


Monday, December 15, 2014

Kobe Port

Part of the fun of using film is trying different film and developer combinations. Rodinal is the the oldest film developers still made, and one of the most popular. It's very cheap and easy to use — you dilute the inexpensive syrup 1:25 or more right before you use it, and it practically has no best-before date.

It does tend to increase the visible grain, so until now I've used it only with low-speed film. On 35mm you'd use it with fast film only if you're looking for a gritty, high-contrast look. But with larger negatives the grain becomes correspondingly smaller. So I recently tried using medium format Delta 400 with Rodinal. The results are really quite good:

Kobe Port Tower
Kobe Port Tower. Ilford Delta 400, Rodinal 1:50.

This looks great to me. Both the highlights and shadows retain detail even in a high-contrast scene like this. And at full resolution (about 25Mp in this case), where the scanner is already losing image detail, the grain is noticeable, but not at all intrusive:

Crop of Port Tower image
100% crop of the above image; the full image is about 25 megapixels. This is the limit of my scanner resolution, and the grain is no problem at all.

Here's another image from the same roll:

Meditate
Meditating. Ilford Delta 400 in Rodinal 1:50.

I like this look a lot. Sharp and clear, without excessive contrast. I'm certainly going to use this combination more in the future. Might even try it in 35mm, just to see what it's like, though I suspect it gets a little grainy for my taste.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

JLPT Time

It was time for my yearly attempt at the Japanese Language Proficiency Test this weekend. It's usually a nice autumn day off for me; take a walk with the camera; mill with other students at a university campus; breathe the crisp autumn evening air on the way home.

JLPT
Many students are doing last-minute cramming right up until the doors openand the test starts. I'm not sure that really makes much sense for level 1. There's just too much material to cover.

But the past few months have been more than a little stressful at work. I've got too many things left unfinished, and not nearly enough time to finish them. When I left for the test Sunday morning I was unable to leave my work behind. Taking a day off didn't feel relaxing; it just felt annoying and wasteful.

JLPT
At least the weather was good.

In the end, my heart just wasn't in it. I kept worrying about the issues at work and couldn't focus properly on the test. I probably did quite badly, and now I wish I had simply gone to the office or spent the day working from home instead.

Early December isn't the best time of year for this sort of thing, with all the deadlines piling up before the New Year. Next time I should probably take the test in summer instead.

Osaka Castle
Osaka castle on my way home from the test.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Colonscopy for Fun and Profit
    — or —
A Show Of Intestinal Fortitude
    — or —
Put it Where the Sun Don't Shine


Colonoscopy. A scary word for some, and embarrassing for most of us. "Yep, I'm going to go have a stranger poke me in the butt. Young women will stand around and watch. And I'll pay for the experience." doesn't quite evoke an image of wholesome family activity. It's not part of polite conversation. Not something to bring up over dinner.

I had mine at Sugiyasu Clinic in Amagasaki. They do colonoscopies and gastroscopies - and only colonoscopies and gastroscopies. That means the clinic owner and his staff is very, very experienced. They've seen it all and they're really good at what they do.

* * *

I'm 45 now, and it's time to worry about serious diseases. As someone once said: "Most of us live through our first fifty years. Very few live through our second fifty." The past ten years we've had several scares and a few losses among friends and family from heart disease, cancers, and infections so I don't take this lightly.

Here's a quick graph of mortality by age group for Japan and Sweden (courtesy of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, and Statistics Sweden):


Mortality rate in Japan (blue) and Sweden (orange). it tells you the average risk to die during the year for any year of age. The increase is exponential, which means the risk increases by a constant proportion each year. Note that since definitions and methods may differ between the countries the numbers themselves might not be directly comparable. The trend is the same, though.

Notice what happens around age 45-50 or so? Mortality is exponential (think compound interest for disease risk) and really starts to take off in middle age. When you reach the 40's you need to start taking care of yourself in a way you never realized when you were younger.

Here's the same data on a logarithmic scale:


The same data as above, but on a logarithmic scale. The increase is pretty steady, except for people between 15 and 30. Had I plotted the data for 90-95 and 100+ years old as well you would have seen an extra increase there too. 
Overall, the rate of increase is mostly constant through much of our lives. But look at what happens between ages 15-30, for both Japan and Sweden? It's like a hump of recklessness, when we're old enough to strike out into the world on our own, but still not responsible and experienced enough to avoid some very big mistakes.

* * *

A colonoscopy is really very simple. You poke a flexible tube with a fiber-optic camera into the large intestine and look for signs of trouble. If you need to, you can stick in tools through the tube to remove polyps or take samples. A gastroscopy (which I've also had) where you look into the stomach, is much the same but through a different opening as it were.

The problem is that your intestines aren't empty. To actually see anything you need to empty out the bowels, and there's really no comfortable — no delicate — way to do that. That means laxatives and some quality one-on-one time with a toilet.

The preferred way to prepare is apparently different in western countries such as Sweden and the US on one hand, and in Japan on the other. In the west you apparently avoid seeds, tomatoes, fruits, berries and other foods that are colourful or hard to digest for up to a week beforehand. You fast and drink laxatives the entire day before. When you come to the clinic you're already empty (and probably quite hungry) and can go directly on to the examination.

Here in Japan you eat and drink normally until the day before, when you have to avoid fruit, vegetables, milk products or anything with red or purple colouring. I had toast with ham and coffee for breakfast; instant ramen with an egg for lunch; and rice with a fresh egg ("卵かけご飯") for dinner. A chaser of laxative sent me to the bathroom once around bedtime and again the next morning.

When you get to the clinic you sit in a waiting room with half a dozen other patients and drink a bottle-full of laxative over the course of an hour, until the only thing coming through you is water. You dress in a hospital gown, get an enema for that extra-fresh squeaky-clean feeling and are led into the examination room. You're finally ready for your closeup.

* * *

Screening groups of people without symptoms for diseases often only make sense if you're in a high risk group, only once tyou reach a certain age, or (as for prostate cancer) sometimes not at all. Overall, we are probably erring on the side of too much testing, not too little. It's a big issue, and needs a post of its own.

Screening for colorectal cancer starts to make sense once you reach 45-50 years or so. This is one of our most common cancers, and also one of the most treatable. If you find it early the cure rate is nearly 100%. But if you find it late it can often be lethal. And as it often gives you no early symptoms, it's a common cause of death for people in middle age.

The cancer usually appears on polyps that sometimes form in the large intestine. Polyps are quite common, and some people are more likely to get them than others. The best way to prevent cancer is to find and remove the polyps before they cause any trouble. And if one is already turning cancerous you want to find out early, before it spreads outside the polyp itself. In such cases simply removing the polyp during the exam is often all you need; no drugs or hospitalization is necessary.

The easiest test is a stool sample that looks for small traces of blood. You poke a sampling stick into your poo right at home, bring it to the clinic and get the results in a few days. It's not hugely accurate but it's quick, cheap and easy so you can repeat it every year. I've done that for a few years already.

A colonoscopy is much more accurate and will find other things as well, not just polyps, but it's also a lot more invasive. People that tend to get polyps may do it every year, while the stool sample test is sufficient for most other people.

* * *

The examination room is dominated by a steel-frame bed surrounded by piles of hospitalish devices; things with LCD monitors and tubes, things that go beep, that sort of stuff. A couple of nurses in protective garb guide me to the bed where I lie down on my left side, bum conveniently hanging free at the long edge of the bed. I get a saline drip (we've lost a fair amount of liquid with the laxatives after all) and a mild sedative.

The doctor is affable and friendly. I can see the monitor and the sedative has only made me relaxed, not sleepy, so I ask a tentative question about what I see on the screen. Turns out he is just as talkative as I am, and only too happy discussing a job that he clearly loves.

He runs the endoscope through my large intestine up to the ileum, where the appendix and the small intestine starts, then back again, explaining all along. At one point during the return we get into a digression about the appendix, so he runs the endoscope all the way in again to show me. The whole thing was way more informative and much more entertaining than I imagined.


Part of my upper (transverse) colon, I think. Not the most exciting part of this anatomy perhaps, but I really appreciate the composition of triangular forms in this frame.
By the end the tranquilizers were really kicking in (perhaps the nurses were adding more to make us stop talking already) and I was getting quite dizzy. A nurse led me to a reclining chair in the recovery room where I collapsed and promptly fell asleep for half an hour.

Once I woke up I got dressed again, then met the doctor in his office for the results. As I already knew there was not a hint of polyps or of any other problems. My colon is apparently in rude health.

As I had no problems, my plan is to do a stool sample test every year as usual, and redo the endoscopy in five years time. That should be a good balance for me between the risk of missing something bad on one hand, and the risks (it's not completely risk free) and inconveniences of the colonoscopy on the other.

If you are approaching my age or older, and if you don't test yourself for polyps already, then this is a very good time to start. The test can save your life of course, but also be the difference between a quick ten-minute procedure or major surgery and months and years of brutal anti-cancer treatment. The stool sample test is silly easy, and there's really no excuse not to do it.