Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Typhoon #11

This is the current projected path of typhoon #11. See the white circles? That's the probable area of strong effect. Se the small yellow circle? That's Osaka with Kansai Airport in the center.

That last, big white circle? That's the projection for Friday at 3am. That's a few hours before our morning flight from Kansai Airport to Prague. Yes, the center of that small yellow circle.

We night have a problem. It's not just the flight itself; Kansai Airport lies on an island, connected to the mainland by a longish bridge. That bridge closes for traffic if the winds are high or gusty enough. We might have our flight leaving on time but we can't get to the airport over the closed bridge.

Time to look for a few alternatives. I'm going to Prague and CNS to hold a tutorial, and that tutorial is scheduled for Saturday, the morning after we arrive. If the flight is delayed by a day I miss the tutorial. And as that's the main point of me being there, that wouldn't be good.

We'll see if we perhaps can rebook the flights a day earlier (though that adds another hotel night) or perhaps fly from Tokyo (adding the cost of both hotel and train). If neither is possible — or they ask for too much extra money to rebook — we'll just have to take our chances and hope we leave on time after all.

As they say: oh well.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Odds and Ends

I did the JLPT again last Sunday. Gave it one more shot to see if I might pass it. I won't. The listening comprehension isn't too bad — it'd be odd if I didn't do well at that by now — and I can sort-of digest most texts they throw at you. But grammar... It's not just that I'm not good at grammar; it's that I find it boring and tedious, and really, really dislike studying it. "It's amazing what you can't accomplish if you really don't want to." as someone said.

So I give up on JLPT for now. I don't actually need the test for anything, and it robs me of the enjoyment I normally find in learning the language. Instead I'll go back to reading fun stuff again — I haven't read a line in my latest mystery novel for months — and on improving my writing skills. Real-world useful skills (such as knowing terms for "autopsy" and "blunt instrument") rather than test questions. Perhaps I'll try again in a few years.

We're going to Prague in a week. The CNS 2015 conputational neuroscience conference is held between July 18-23, and we'll hold a tutorial on using NEST, MUSIC and other simulation tools. I'll have a poster on our current work of course, and there are some interesting-looking workshops at the end of the conference. While I work, Ritsuko will spend the week rambling through the streets of Prague.

I've been to Prague once more than 15 years ago, as a grad student, and I remember it as perhaps the most beautiful city I have ever visited. I'm both anticipating and dreading the return visit. I hope that it will be as amazing as it was that one time; and worry that my nostalgia-tinted memories are setting me up for disappointment.

The weather is uncommonly lousy this year. We have two typhoons approaching at the same time (I hope our flight next week is OK), and it's been raining almost every day the past few weeks. The only upside is that the train smells less of Eau de Sweaty Salaryman than it usually does this time of year.

But this morning, as I was walking from the station, I heard the cicadas for the first time this year. Not a lot of them, yet, and the morning drizzle put a damper on those that were there, but at least there's hope that the rainy season will soon be over. It better be; our umeboshi will need sun-drying in a few weeks.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Better Instant Ramen

In an ideal world we'd leave our offices around midday and sit down for a leisury two-hour meal with our families. A few hours of slow home-cooked food and brisk conversation to clear our minds before we stroll back to work for the afternoon.

For most of us that ideal world does not exist. We have half an hour at a local lunch restaurant or a quick convenience-store bento before going back to work. And sometimes we're reduced to eating a sandwich or instant ramen at our desks.

That's not all bad, though. I like instant ramen. It's quick and tasty, you can prepare it with only a microwave or a hot-water bottle, and it's not so much unhealthy as simply lacking in healthy bits. It's really, really easy to improve on the plain packet of ramen. Here's my lunch Wednesday last week:

Almost everything you need for a nice lunch.
You need a pack of ramen. This time I use old-fashioned Chicken Ramen, but any kind is good. I also got a small bag of store-brand cut vegetables — lettuce and corn in this case. And I brought the raw egg from home in the morning. For cooking you only need a pair of chopsticks and a microwaveable bowl with a lid.

Start by heating water in the bowl. It takes about four minutes. Feel free to surf the web while you wait.

Adding the ramen.
Add the ramen into the almost-boiling water. Chicken Ramen is a little special since the flavouring is mixed with the noodle, not in a separate bag. That makes the noodles really tasty even before they're cooked, by the way; and Nissin even sells pre-broken Chiken Ramen noodles as a snack.

Cook the noodles in the microwave. Use the same time it says on the packet. You can cook pasta in the microwave in this way too.

Add the egg, and mix.

Add the egg and mix it roughly. You don't actually want the egg to set; instead it should thicken the soup and make it thick and filling. The egg adds protein, rounds off the flavour and makes it less salty.

Mix in the cut salad.
Lastly, mix in the cut salad into the thick soup. You have soft, springy noodles and crunchy, fresh vegetables in a thick, rich soup. Add an orange or apple for dessert and you've got yourself a meal!

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Birthday Time of Year

It was my birthday yesterday, and true to form we took the chance to go out to eat. This time we headed to a place called "Lawry's", an American steak chain in Umeda. It was quite good, especially the main dish, a cut of rib roast with mashed potato, stewed spinach and creamed corn. I particularly appreciate the grated horseradish and cream - though perhaps in deference to Japanese palates he horseradish was served separately from the whipped cream, not mixed into it.

The main dish was a cut of rib roast. Very good, but a lot of food. This was the "California" cut, the next to smallest cut they had, and it was really too much for me. They offer a still smaller cut in Japan called the "Osaka" or "Tokyo" depending on the location, and that would have been plenty. Even that was too much for Ritsuko, who had to leave some behind.

About this blog

As it is my birthday, and as I was away for a week in Tokyo for work just recently, I decided to take the whole weekend off. And this is when I realized I haven't updated this blog in a month.

It's not just the blog either. I have film scans from this winter still waiting to be edited. I haven't read a page in my current book for months. There's a bag of parts on my desk for an antenna amplifier just waiting to be put together, and it's been there since April. I sat down to work a bit on a small software project of mine today and realized I last touched the code in January.

Out of Office
An office building in Umeda has an outdoor office space, so people can work and have meetings outside. Good idea.

The reason is work, of course. This is the last year of our project and the last year of my employment, and the effective deadline for results is uncomfortably close. That's why I spent a week in Tokyo earlier in June, working directly with the other researchers on the project.

But there's other things as well. I'm going to a conference called CNS (Computational NeuroScience) in Prague in mid-July, where I'll hold part of a tutorial on using NEST and MUSIC for neural network simulations. And the next JLPT — Japanese Language Proficiency Test — is the coming Sunday.

So it's difficult to find time for things that need sustained focus. There's always something more I should be doing for our project, or preparing for the conference. When I do have a stretch of uninterrupted time it's better spent on studying Japanese rather than on an idle hobby.

Quail eggs
Quail eggs are common here, but they're usually sold in the same kind of clear, plastic packages you get hen eggs in. Practical and cheap, but boring. Ritsuko found one place that still sells them in cardboard boxes like this one. Makes them look special, even precious, doesn't it? Like marbles, or polished rocks.

But all is not lost. The end is in sight. JLPT will be over next week (not that I'll pass, mind you). And much as I look forward to CNS in July, it'll be one less thing to spend time on afterwards. Our project will effectively end with a symposium in October, so that, too, will calm down a bit in a few months time.

Once we get into autumn I should have more time to spend on other things — and more time to write about it.

Sunday, May 31, 2015


Fukuoka manhole
Golden Week saw us heading to Fukuoka, out toward the northern end of Kyūshū. It's not too far — just 2.5 hours on the train — and reputed to be a very pleasant, relaxed city, famous for its food. Besides, I have never set foot on Kyūshū in my life, so it was time we went(1). The plan was to spend three relaxing, quiet nights there right at the beginning of Golden Week.

Japan is decently large, but transportation is excellent, so most of the country is close if you live near a major city. From Osaka you can reach pretty much all of Japan within three-four hours or so, using the Shinkansen or low-cost airlines. We can leave on a Friday evening after work and be anywhere by late evening, then return home Sunday night, leaving two full days of vacation on a normal weekend.

I met Ritsuko at the station right after work and only ate a little before boarding the train. Pretty hungry by the time we arrived so we had a bite at a standing izakaya at the Hakata station.

Fukuoka is plenty large enough to have a subway system. It's uncommonly well-designed I think; it's modern and well-maintained, but retains a neat retro aesthetic with wooden benches and cream stone tile.

Subway tunnel, Fukuoka.

We were looking for peace and quiet, but that didn't take Hakata Dontaku into account (Hakata is the largest ward in Fukuoka). It's a summer festival, held — unbeknowst to us — every year in Fukuoka, right at the beginning of Golden Week. With about 2 million visitors it's one of the largest festivals in the country and Fukuoka, needless to say, is anything but calm and tranquil during those days. We did wonder why hotel rooms were so curiously hard to find when we booked the trip.

HKT48 (I think)
HKT48, an AKB48-spinoff performing at one festival scene. Note the glittering points of light in the audience as people record the event with their phones. This is the only festival-related shot I took.

Karatsu manhole
Festival or not, we would have peace and quiet or kill ourselves trying. Fortunately it was quite easy. The festival itself is held only in part of the city center; stay away from that area and you have a surprisingly pleasant city and its surroundings to explore.

The first day we took a train down the coast for a day trip to Karatsu. It's a small town with a castle, a beautiful seaside landscape and nothing much else. The weather was great; sunshine but slightly hazy to take the edge off the light and the heat. It's a 45-minute ride, but that makes it sound farther than it really is. The train connects directly from the subway, and lets you see everything as you slowly pass by. It all feels like you've stumbled into a Miyazaki-movie.

Searching for Shellfish
We took a walk to the seaside area from Higashi Karatsu station. After lunch we walked down to the beach. The tide was out, and most people were searching for shellfish in the sand. Big clams are grilled, and small ones are used to flavour miso soup.

My Bucket. Mine.
The seaside and Karatsu castle.

Pier Fishing
Locals are fishing on the pier.

Karatsu Castle
Karatsu castle.

Fukuoka is famous for its food — a major reason we picket it as a destination of course. Hakata ramen is a popular type of tonkotsu ramen, but it's also well known for mentaiko (pickled, salted fish roe - think "Kalles Kaviar" if you're Swedish) and motsunabe (hotpot made from tripe or offal).

Ramen Stalls
The canal-side ramen stalls in Fukuoka are famous. Too famous — it's become a tourist trap. It was right around the time of the festival of course, but there were huge throngs of people along the river side. Anyplace you wanted to eat, you had to wait in line for 10-15 minutes or longer, and order your food beforehand.

Ramen Stall
Hakata ramen stall. You take a seat, and your ramen — assembled at great speed from ingredients cooked elsewhere — is shoved into your lap. Eat, then leave for the next one in line. The ramen? Not very good. The experience? Stressful and no fun. Go here for the pictures, but eat elsewhere. The famous ramen chains likewise had long lines of people, but we discovered that it's only true for the shops in the central district where all the tourists come. Get away from the center and the shops are quiet, peaceful and without waiting lines.

Izakaya dinner. Mentaiko omelet (easy and fun to make at home); motsunabe; and gyouza. Excellent.

Dashi Vending Machine
I thought I'd seen pretty much every kind of vending machine around by now. Apparently not; this one sells fish-based dashi, with or without a whole fish in it. I guess the manufacturer is located right in this neighbourhood, and the machine is a clever advertisement. The demand for street-side dashi can't be enough to make a profit.

Fukuoka feels very unhurried. People just aren't rushing around the way they do in Osaka. It's as if it's managed to become a big city (over 2 million people) without losing the sense of being a local town. Walking around is a lot of fun.

Starving Hysterical Naked
Another "interesting" t-shirt at a local market. It's a bit different from the normal word salad though; I suspect this may be an actual slogan, a band name or something like that.

Back Streets
Fukuoka entertainment district back streets.

Another kind of entertainment.

The last day, still determined to avoid the festival, we first visited the Hakozakigu botanical gardens — at least in part because it was just down the road from the hotel. It's not a big garden but it's quite beautiful, with a large variety of flowering plants. The outside cafe was a pleasant spot for a break before leaving.

Drops II
More close-up water drops. I like how some drops add enough magnification that you can clearly see the petal cell structure.

A fair amount of people around, including this sketching gentleman. I'm impressed by his glasses; I would never be able to keep them apart.

Ohori park is a large, varied park close to the city center, with a good-sized lake and a few islands in the middle. It's a wonderful spot to spend your free time, and many people do. There's cafes and restaurants along the north edge; you can walk around or sit and rest; jog, run and play at the playground; you can fish in the lake, or rent a paddle boat or water cycle.

Swan Boats
Admit that it looks quite fun. We'd have rented one ourselves but the waiting line was long.

Practice Makes Perfect
Japanese have a problem. Many, many people play instruments — it's part of a well-rounded education — but most people also live in fairly tight quarters, close to their neighbours. Flutes, ukuleles and so on are quiet enough, and pianos, drums and guitars have electric versions. But where do you practice if you play the trombone, or the French horn? Public parks is the answer. You see this quite often.

You can do all sorts of things in the park. Or, do nothing at all. Enjoy the moment.

Hanging wisteria. You couldn't turn around around here without bumping into wedding photographers taking wedding pictures of their clients.

This was not just a fun trip. Fukuoka was much more of a city than I expected it to be; big and bustling, but the pace was unhurried and pleasant, the city is beautiful and the food is delicious. It shows up in rankings of the most livable cities in the world, and it's easy to understand why.

The Kyushu shinkansen. Didn't get to go on it this time, but maybe some day.

#1 Actually I've never set foot on Shikoku or even Awajishima either and they're what - half an hour away? I see Awajishima from my desk every day, yet I've never been there. Ridiculous, I know.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Please forget "That's difficult."

There are easy instruments to play, and there are instruments that are hard. The ukulele beginner will be able to play tunes much faster than the kid with a violin. Ask me how I know. Some dances such as the waltz are fairly easy; others, such as classical ballet, are very difficult.

The horn is a notoriously difficult instrument. But the world is full
of students that can belt out horn tunes with both grace and skill.

Some sports are quite simple to get into, while others need lots of practice to even begin. There are accessible fields of study and fiendishly difficult ones. There's easy and hard languages, hobbies, arts, and jobs.

But they are all easy or difficult only in their beginning stages. It really only describes the time and effort you need to become moderately competent. Once you know how — once you can do it — there's no longer any perceived difference in difficulty. You do your thing and the sound, or dance move, or electronic gadget you wanted appears.

And the very topmost level of performance is about equally difficult to achieve no matter how easy or hard the beginning stage may be. That top level is at the limit of human ability, whether measured in body control, mental ability or sheer hours of focused perseverance.

Running? Easy. Small children do it every day.
Running longer, faster than anybody? Not easy at all.

Anything will be reasonably easy once you reach competence. And true mastery will always be very difficult and time consuming. You will spend the least amount of time in the beginning stages — unless you get bored and give up.

So don't pick your major, or your instrument, or your hobby because it looks easy. Pick it because it seems like fun and because it seems like something you'll want to do for many years to come. Once you're no longer a beginner, easy or hard no longer really matters.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Fukuoka (pre-post)

We spent a few wonderful days in Fukuoka in Kyushu over Golden Week. I'm working on the pictures, but that will (as usual) take a bit of time. So meanwhile, here's a quite lousy phone cam shot of the hotel baths.

Recent Hotel, Fukuoka

One great thing about Japan is that even very cheap business hotels often have public baths, and they frequently include a sauna of some sort. This time I was quite early to the baths and nobody else was there, so I could sneak a quick picture without bothering anybody.