I'm on my way to Okinawa and OIST where I'll spend a few days working with the other people in my group. Internet meetings have been surprisingly effective, but sometimes you do need to sit down face to face and work directly with each other.
Meanwhile, here a few autumn pictures from the Sorakuen Garden in Kobe. I had no idea this place even existed, and we only stumbled onto it while on our way to dinner recently. It's a small oasis of peace and quiet close to the city center. Well worth the small admission fee to get away from the noise and bustle for a little while.
Sunday, December 8, 2013
Friday, December 6, 2013
As you may have noticed, I have turned off the Google+ integration of blog comments here on this blog.
The initial idea was good: bring together comments on posts here, and comments on G+ into one single thread. That way it didn't matter where people came to read this stuff, they'd all see all the comments. Having to register was frankly a small bonus to me; I used to spend a fair amount of time just removing spam around here.
However, it didn't really work out that way. In practice, comments were still split up; G+ posts had their own thread, while comments posted from here showed up in another. People still didn't see all comments made, and that rather defeated the original purpose.
Worse, if commenters here chose an option not to have their posts appear on G+ — most did, and it was sensible, all things considered — then not only did they not show up on G+, I didn't get any notification of any kind that anyone had posted a comment.
Also, I got feedback from a few people that they were commenting less or not at all because of this change.
So, from last week I've reverted this change. Comments are once again local to this blog only. Much better for everyone, I think.
There is one change: I do require all commenters to log in now; with a Google account, or through Open ID. I'm sick and tired of spam, and it has been a tremendous relief not to have to deal with it on a daily basis any longer.
Note that while anonymous comments are no more, you can still be pseudonymous. Make a throwaway account on Yahoo or wherever, and use OpenID to log in if you want. It's not a big hurdle, and it does keep a lot of the spam away.
Monday, December 2, 2013
Another year, another attempt at the JLPT — Japanese Language Proficiency Test — Level N1. As always, it's held on the first Sunday in December.
You get assigned to the test site, and it can vary from year to year. This year I took the test at the Osaka Sangyou University in Daito in northeastern Osaka. I took it here last year as well. It seems perhaps this site is only for N1 level tests as I didn't see any signs or anything for lower levels. Perhaps they've started to divide test sites by level. dd
Two things hit me this year. First, I often seem to have luck with the weather. I can remember only one single time it rained; all other years it's been beautiful autumn/winter weather with clear, high skies, autumn leaves and that fresh bite of cold in the air. It's a good time of year here in Kansai.
Second, as far as I can remember I have always been assigned a seat on the left hand edge of a table. Never once in the middle (when there is a middle seat) and never on the right hand side. After eight tests (or is it nine now?), it's really fairly improbable — the odds are around 1 in 850 — to happen by chance¹.
Of course, the chance for it to happen to me is small, but with hundreds of thousands of test takers in a year and five levels to take, thousands of people take the test multiple times, so it's all but certain that it happens to someone. So it's unexpected, but not at all strange; there's no need to find an explanation other than random chance.
This one is taken with the Xperia Tablet Z, by the way; camera quality is not unimportant of course, but a good camera is not necessary (nor is it sufficient) for a decent picture.
The test itself? Well... The good news is that it did feel a bit easier than last year. The listening, especially, was fairly comprehensible to me; most of my problems were really more of the "which answer fits the situation better?", or "I lost focus and missed the beginning" kind, not "I don't understand what they're saying". I guess weekly meetings in Japanese, over a noisy low-fi internet connection, has really paid off.
The bad news: I got the ending time wrong by ten minutes for the first half, so I had to leave the last reading questions altogether, and just blindly mark something. The reading questions at the end account for a large part of the score so this is going to hurt me badly. I expect a score somewhere in the 80's point range, and I really need to have improved to manage a score in the mid-90's again.
On a positive note, I can see this as a build-up year, with more time to finish up the kanji and the N1 grammar, and I'll have an excuse for an autumn day-trip like this again next year.
Saturday, November 16, 2013
Small pieces of structural plastic have been showing up in the washing machine filter lately. And now it's started to make expensive-sounding noises when it runs.
It's already eight years old, and will need to be replaced rather than repaired. I guess it's time to spend some quality time in the serene quiet and zen-like stillness of the Yodobashi Camera appliance department. And some quality money.
It's interesting, by the way, how I've just taken a thing like this for granted. We're able to wash our clothes at any time, from dirty to clean in an hour, without effort, and never even thought about it. But now that we can't rely on this working, it feels like a small part of our safety net is yanked away from under our feet. Our effortless life style is really composed of many, many puzzle pieces like that washing machine; ignored and invisible, but a lot more complicated and fragile than we think. It's good to be reminded of that from time to time.
Thursday, November 7, 2013
On the 7th of November 2003 — ten years ago today — I arrived at Narita, bag in hand, for a one-year research project at a lab in south Kyoto. The idea was to do a small project, return to Sweden, then look for work. Things did not turn out according to plan.
|To the left we're at a restaurant in Kobe in the summer of 2004. To the right we're having coffee in Hanoi in autumn 2013. Both pictures by Ritsuko.|
A lot of things can change in ten years. When I came here I was 34 years old, single and staying in a one-room short-term rental unit out in nowhere. Now I'm 44, married to Ritsuko, and we're living in a spacious apartment in central Osaka.
I came to Japan holding a six-month Cultural Activities visa — the researcher visa application was late, so the embassy in Stockholm issued this to let me leave for Japan in time. Of course, calling robotics research "cultural activities" was probably stretching the rules well past their breaking point. Now I have a permanent residency permit that doesn't expire and lets me do almost any work I'd like.
At 34 I weighed about 90kg, had a dark beard and a receding hairline. Now I weigh 68kg, the beard is turning white, and my hairline is nowhere to be seen.
When I stepped off the plane at Narita in 2003, I didn't know more than a few words of Japanese. Today I can read newspapers and novels with some effort, and I can make myself understood in most situations.
My first job here was a project-based post-doc on a yearly contract. Ten years on, my current job is ...well, a project-based post-doc on a yearly contract. So not everything changes, I guess.
The next ten years? You never know of course — I wouldn't have guessed at my current life ten years ago — but I think we'll still live in Osaka. I'll be 54, probably white-haired, and hopefully nearly fluent in Japanese. What I'll work with is anybody's guess, but I'm getting too old for post-docs and I don't have the language skills for teaching. Whatever I do, though, I'm probably enjoying it. Time will tell.
Monday, November 4, 2013
Summer vacation, and we spent almost a week in Hanoi. It's not the first time in Vietnam, as we went to Ho-Chi-Minh city almost six years ago, but it's the first time in Hanoi. We've been to Kuala Lumpur and we spent new Year in Bangkok last winter, but Vietnam feels distinctly different from other Asian countries we've visited. It's more mentally tiring than any other place I've been, but perhaps also more rewarding.
We stayed in the Old Quarter, where the original narrow street layout is retained and most buildings are, if not old, then at least very much looking the part. The area merchants are mostly organized by street, so you'd find hardware stores lining up along one street, a cluster of cafes on another, and kitchen supplies spilling out on the sidewalk on a third. There's plenty of tourists around — the south end near the Hoan Kiem lake is a bit of a tourist trap — but it still feels very much like a living, breathing part of the city.
The traffic is the same chaotic mess we remember from Ho-Chi-Minh City, where nobody cares much for traffic rules and nobody stops for anybody else; though in a nod to basic self-preservation people mostly do stop for red lights in large intersections. Mostly. You cross a street by stepping right out in traffic and calmly — and predictably — walk across while bikes and cars zip by close enough to touch.
Many people drive small bikes, though there's a fair number of cars too. There's only a few bicycles, and I can't blame anyone for not risking life and limb in this environment. The bikes are mostly new or well maintained, and there's some electric bikes around as well. While they're somewhat rare (one bike in 20 or 40 perhaps) they're often driven by younger, trendier-looking female drivers. Helmets are common but far from ubiquitous.
The traffic does work, in the sense that there's no gridlock and you do get around. But a quick check on Wikipedia shows that Vietnam has a fatality rate of 24.4 people per 100 000, almost five times that of Japan. Hard to say if it's the large number of bikes (much more likely to be in an accident) or the lack of rules, but in any case driving here is something to avoid if you can.
Calypso Grabd Hotel is a boutique hotel, just six stories high with about three rooms per floor. The rooms are spacious and airy, and seem to have been renovated fairly recently. The room facilities, faucets and so on are clearly chosen for their design as much as their utility — we actually had to ask the front desk for help a couple of times when we failed to figure out how things worked on our own. The service was friendly and professional the whole time we spent there.
Wifi access quality was a bit hit and miss, but it was tolerable. The breakfast is really good; you have a small buffet of bread, fruits and so on, and you can order any number of light meals from pho to BLT sandwiches. I'm partial to soups in the morning but rarely get the chance, so a bowl of pho was pretty much a perfect way to start the day for me.
We came right on the day of the Mid-autumn festival, a yearly childrens festival. Hordes of people, many of them kids, thronged all over the area. The chaos and noise didn't exactly help with the initial culture shock.
This must the time of year for weddings — or perhaps it's the festival weekend — but around the Opera house, Hilton hotel and Hoan Kiem lake there were a lot of wedding photographers and couples in wedding dress out on photo shoots. And when I say "a lot" I mean that we must have seen more than a hundred couples in the span of a few hours.
The single greatest event for us was a half-day cooking class at Hanoi Cooking Centre. It's a school and cafe north of Old Town, with a range of classes and events; we took the "food from the coast" class.
We were seven students in all - a couple from the US; a photographer and his twin daughters from New Zealand; and me and Ritsuko from Japan. The teacher first took us to the nearby market where he introduced the ingredients common in Vietnamese cooking; after asking if anyone would like to try it, he also got a duck egg with a chick inside and some live grubs for us to taste later.
The class was hands-on (not always the case elsewhere, apparently, so check beforehand), where the teacher first demonstrated how to do a part of the dish, giving us useful pointers along the way, then we tried it ourselves at our tables. We cooked for four hours, but it felt like no more than an hour or so. Time really flies when you're having fun.
We made four dishes in total: prawn, pork and rice rolls, clams steamed in beer, squid cakes and a crab and pomelo salad. The prawn was great — we've made it twice at home since — and the squid cakes and pomelo salad are also really good. The steamed clams need something to offset the tartness of the beer, though.
Meanwhile the teacher prepared the duck egg and the live grubs. The grubs were straightforward: quickly fried in a hot skillet, then flambéd before serving with a glass of beer. A nice soft and spicy snack.
I was rather more nervous about the duck egg. It was boiled for 20 minutes — it's a meat dish, so it needs the time — then peeled. I needn't have worried. The chick is still very immature and hasn't even developed bones yet, so it's pretty much unrecognizable; it's just a bite-sized chunk of duck meat. And slow-cooked in its own juices for twenty minutes it becomes very juicy, tender and flavourful — delicious, in fact. It's popular as a late-night street snack, and no wonder. If I get the chance I will certainly have this again.
Food is a central theme for us when we travel. We choose our destinations based on the cuisine (if you've seen one historical site you've seen them all), and our planning revolves around what, where, and when to eat. And Vietnam has an abundance of foods.
Bia Hoi is known as the cheapest beer in the world, at about 4-5000 dong or 25 yen per glass. It's brewed literally overnight, shipped out in steel barrels in the morning and any left-overs are thrown away by closing time since it doesn't keep. It's mostly served at street-side cafes, not in "real" bars or restaurants. To my surprise it's not just cheap, it's quite good. It has a very fresh, raw kind of grassy flavour that's really refreshing. If you could find a way to store that flavour in a regular beer I bet it would sell well.
A lot of life in the Old Quarter happens right on the street. Restaurants, cafes and shops spill out onto the sidewalks, along with parking, storage and displays. People use the smaller streets to ply a trade, play games, having a party or just relax with their neighbours, even as a steady stream of bikes weave right among them. Alleyways are effectively people's back yards.
Hoan Kiem is a lake south of the Old Quarter, surrounded by a large park. It's a great relief to take a walk around the lake after fighting through the narrow streets of Old Quarter or the busy thoroughfares of the modern city. You're not the only one with that idea of course, so it's not exactly quiet, but it's still relaxing, especially at night.
The modern parts of the city are more orderly than the Old Quarter, but there's still the same sense of private and public spaces intermingling in a way that feels very foreign — in a good way — to someone from Japan or Sweden. I hope this attitude doesn't disappear, and perhaps even spreads a little to other societies.
No place has left such a strong impression on me as Hanoi. The sounds, the smells, the light is all very different from anywhere else I've been, and I'm still reminded by it more than a month after we came back. We will visit Vietnam again, and soon. The whole set of Vietnam images is available here.
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Here's a quick note of a couple of interesting papers: Attention to Bright Surfaces Enhances the Pupillary Light Reflex (Journal of Neuroscience — paywalled) and The Pupillary Light Response Reveals the Focus of Covert Visual Attention (PLoS One, Open Access)
The pupillary light response is the reflex that contracts the pupil in bright light to let less light in, and relaxes (opens) it in darkness. It's exactly like the aperture on a camera, and one of the ways we adapt our eyes to very different light levels. Just like a camera aperture, by the way, the pupil size also changes the depth of field. That's one reason it's much harder to read in dim light than in bright light when you are middle aged and have presbyopia.
The thing about the light response is that it's completely automatic. A circuit senses the amount of light coming in, and if it's way bright it contracts the pupil a bit; if it's really dark it relaxes it. Separately, the pupils can also actively dilate when you get excited; you see something (or someone...) that really interests you, the pupils will react along with your blood pressure, sweat glands and so on. But that's independent of the light level.
What these papers show is that the light level-adaptation is not quite as independent and automatic as we thought. The amount of dilation depends not just on the overall light level, or the light at the point of focus, or even the amount of light we believe is coming in (rather than the amount that is actually coming in), but also on the brightness of the area you're mentally attending to.
Let's say you keep your eyes fixed on one spot. But your attention wanders across the scene. If you attend a bright area — a shining lamp, say — then your pupils will contract a bit, even though the amount of light coming in the eyes doesn't change. And if you then attend to a spot in deep shadow, the pupils will relax to let more light in.
This makes sense of course. You want the spot you're attending to to be clearly visible; not too bright and not too dark. So the pupils should adapt to that area specifically, not just to the whole scene on average.
The first paper shows that the response is stronger with larger differences in luminance. So attending to a a brighter target will constrict the pupil more. Darker targets did not dilate more, though, and it's not clear to me why.
The second paper uses a cueing experiment to show that the amount of constriction is connected to the reaction speed when the cue appears. This probably implies that the constriction also shows how strongly you're attending to the target, as well as the target brightness itself.
In other words, our pupils react to what we're actually attending to; and to how strongly we attend to it.
This is interesting all by itself, but as the second paper points out, this could potentially be useful for tracking covert attention, along with the overt attention we get with eye trackers. A whole generation of experimental psychology theses are waiting to be written using this!