Sunday, May 31, 2009

Cellphone Dependency

Stereo Cellphone
Stereo Phone

Some fun stats in Asahi Shinbun about cellphone dependency here in Japan in the paper. No, not "do you have a cellphone" - that's close enough to 100% not to matter - but where you bring your cellphone.

The highlights are, I think, that over 90% have their phone next to their bed as they sleep; over 50% bring their phone to the toilet; almost 50% have it next to them as they eat; and almost 20% take it to the bath.

I do wonder how those numbers are skewed by the fact that a lot of people use their phone as alarm clock (we do at home), and that whenever you go to the bathroom at work or outside you bring your pants - and the cellphone in its pocket - to the bathroom with you by default.
Oh, and the survey says that 48% of university students secretly use their cellphone during classes. It may be right but a bit misleading; from my experience here the other 52% simply don't bother hiding it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Dice Rolling Machine

Not my usual fare, I know, but: A guy runs a website that caters to play-by-email boardgame players - backgammon, risk, that sort of thing. He needs lots of random numbers - lots and lots of numbers - and to make the players happy he needs to get them from real dice, not a random number generator. So, proving that anything worth doing is worth way, way overdoing, he built an automatic dice rolling machine that can generate over 1.3 million dice rolls per day:

I am so very envious right now.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Elsevier, again

Remember that fake scientific journal I wrote about? The one that looked like a real research journal, with articles made to look like research papers, and published by Elsevier, major scientific publisher? The one that Elsevier got paid to publish by pharmaceutical company Merck in order to push the now withdrawn medication Vioxx?

That magazine was, as it turns out, not an isolated occurrence. They've owned up to another six such journals and a whole imprint of fifty journals that is dedicated to deliberately push marketing (read that last link for a pretty balanced take). I'm sure it's made Elsevier a lot of money. Not doing a whole lot of good for their credibility of course.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Salaryman Senryū

There's a yearly contest for the best "Salaryman Senryū" (comic Haiku), and this years top ten has just been announced for your reading pleasure. Unlike haiku the composition rules for senryū are relaxed; there's no absolute demand that it adhere strictly to a 5-7-5 pattern for instance. You could see this as a finger on the pulse of the life of the corporate worker; if that's the case, then this year he's worried about growing fat and about losing his job.

My Japanese is pretty bad, still, and I have all the poetic verve of a cement mixer; nevertheless, here's a couple of my favorites in translation:

#4 about a fad diet:

朝バナナ 効果があったの お店だけ
"Morning Banana" \ its benefits extended \ only to the shop

#5 "metabo", weight increase:

やせたのは 一緒に歩いた 犬の方
excess weight got lost \ when we walked together \ only by the dog

#7 about cost cutting - including bonuses and raises - in the workplace

コスト下げ やる気も一緒に 下げられる
company cuts costs \ they get cut together with \ my motivation


Japan Blog Matsuri is a monthly blog roll, where bloggers writes posts around a chosen theme. This months theme is a picture post on your favourite place in Japan.

Me, I like Namba. It's the central district in south Osaka and generally rowdier and less buttoned-up than the somewhat higher class Umeda in the north. This trend continues toward the south with the Tennouji district, infamous for housing some of the poorest and most crime-ridden areas in Japan. Of course "most crime-ridden" still means I'm safer there than I'd be in central Stockholm.

Namba's not beautiful; nor is it old and historical. But it has more life and more happening than any other place I've ever been. I can happily spend a whole day just walking somewhere in the area, not even bothering to bring a camera along. Mill with the people in Doutonbori; check out the weird fashions of Amemura or the arty galleries, restaurants and cafés around Yotsubashi (our favorite Chinese place recently closed, unfortunately); shop for electronics, parts, robots, toys, power tools, audio equipment, manga and DVD in Den-Den town, or any cooking equipment and restaurant supplies you can imagine along Douguya-suji; or check out the clubs and bars of Shinsaibashi if you're in that kind of mood.

Sogo and Daimaru

Namba in Osaka is perhaps my favorite place in Japan. The area can change dramatically with just a few steps down some street. It's not beautiful even in the best of times, so bad weather is not a problem when you visit.

Busy Shinsaibashi (repost)

Shinsaibashi shopping street. If you ever need a crowd, this is where to look.


Host club host going home at dawn. Namba is home to a large restaurant, club and bar district with places ranging from the stodgy to the disturbing.

Beer bar

Towards the south the streets get narrower and the shops get sleazier. Still perfectly safe of course; I've never felt threatened or unsafe anywhere here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Flu Closings Not Working As Expected

The number of infected is up to 191 people, and a lot of schools are closed for a week. Most infected people are high-school students so I guess it makes some kind of sense. Not all schools are closed, however; as the link above hints, jurisdiction over things like schools is an unholy mess of overlapping and conflicting responsibilities here. The Osaka prefecture, for instance, can order all schools in Osaka prefecture to close - except for those in Osaka city and Sakai city. They're the biggest cities and their schools are not under prefectural control. And private schools are private and can't just be ordered to close.

Of course, the incubation period of the virus seems to range from a day up to nine days, so a week-long break might really be too short to break the chain of transmission. Besides, it's high-school students we're talking about here; compulsive socializers, with a primal urge to see each other at any cost. The kind of people that would meet up during a hurricane just to show each other how cool and unimpressed they are. What are the chances that they simply meet each other out on the town instead, rendering the school closings ineffective? And true enough, the Osaka evening news featured a broadcast from Amerikamura where large numbers of middle- and high-school students have gathered today to celebrate a few days off school.


Street corner in Amerikamura, just a few minutes from Namba in Osaka:1. The whole area is full of fashion shops of the more embarrassingly juvenile kind - faux-reggae clothes, belt buckles with skulls, t-shirts with pot leaf patterns, that kind of stuff. Teens are drawn to the place like moths to a flame.

Day care centers are also closing. Which impacts young mothers that work part- or full-time. They can no longer go to work since they need to stay home with their kid. According to a television report this morning, many such young parents gather at each others home. That way the kids have friends to play with, and the parents can help each other out so some can go grocery shopping (or even go to work part time) while the others watch the children.

Great idea - except that it defeats the whole purpose of closing the day care centers in the first place. And instead of having the kids watched by trained nursery staff that knows to look for early signs of infection and knows what to do if they see it, you have parents that of course really have little clue about what to do.

To their credit, a number of people have begun speaking up about this current hysteria, and some of the media is giving them a voice. Some doctors have rightly pointed out that many of the current measures don't really work. All they do is disrupt people's lives and incite panic. Our Fearless Leader, Osaka Governor Hashimoto (who seems to be putting on some weight; might want to go easy on the takoyaki there) has called for a step-down on the pandemic response and start treating it more like a normal flu outbreak. The radical measures are out of proportion to the current severity and spread of the disease. This is already happening to some extent. For instance, Osaka city now disregards the guidelines for a pandemic that requires infected people to be treated at hospitals. As most current cases are very mild, people are allowed to recuperate at home if they wish. This alleviates the pressure on the health care system and it's more comfortable for the patient.

So cooler heads may indeed prevail. But this is a country that will panic over the most trivial health issue, so I fully expect the whole nation to have a field day with this over the next month or so.


#1 If this blog were an actual news outlet I'd have to point out that this is archive footage, not taken today. But it isn't so I won't.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Flu: Everybody Please Panic In An Orderly Fashion

We seem to have Swine FluThe Flu Formerly Known As PrinceSwine Flu established in Japan1. We got 3 9 12 32 46 59 96 confirmed cases here in the Kansai region this weekend, and the media is in full disaster feeding frenzy. Every news and commentary program is about this outbreak and they all illustrate their commentary with footage of people wearing paper masks. There's segments about school closings (most victims are high-school students), about the situation in other countries and about how stores are sold out on masks. Solemn university-wide e-mails inform that we're now on Level Two on some scale or another. We should refrain from non-essential travel; contact the university health department if we have any flu-like symptoms; gargle (people are big on gargling here); wash our hands; and of course wear a mask.

People here love masks, and not only during porcine pandemics. You see the masks everywhere during flu season and in spring, when pollen counts are high. They do keep out a lot of pollen, and they stop your coughs and sneezes from bothering others. As a side effect, a mask prevents you from touching your face, a common way to catch infections and the reason we're advised to wash our hands during flu and cold season.

Paper Mask

The typical disposable paper mask most people use here.

But the kind of cheap disposable mask the gentleman above is wearing can't really protect you from a virus; it's really little more than a piece of conveniently shaped tissue after all. A real surgical face mask can protect you against bacteria and it has a minor effect against a virus; for reliable protection, however, you need a mask rated for virus protection (the ratings name differ by country; it's called things like P2 or N95). [Note: I'm no physician, so don't take any of this as the plain truth; read footnote #1 below2.]

Using real masks is not really an option for most people. First, to use an antiviral mask properly you need to know what you're doing: how to put it on so it fits you tightly and correctly; how long to use it before it needs to be replaced; how to take it off without accidentally touching virus-laden surfaces and getting infected; how to dispose of it so it doesn't infect someone else. Do you know how? I certainly don't3. Also, virus-protective masks are pretty expensive and somewhat uncomfortable.

The reality is that most people will wear the mask wrong, will start to use it but soon give up, or use the mask only when they're seen by other people. I sometimes see people wearing paper masks with the nose uncovered, for instance, completely defeating any protection. Or taking it off when talking on the phone, as if the virus would be polite enough to wait until the call is over before it tries to infect you. Overall, even a real mask would be largely (though not completely) ineffective as a large-scale protection measure.

So while there's a minor benefit to wearing a mask, it seems the typical official recommendation is that you use an antiviral mask if you're in close contact with a sick person (if you're nursing a family member for instance), learn how to use it properly and make sure you really do use it all the time. If you are out and about, there is no reason to bother with a mask as the benefit is very minor.

Are masks - cheap unrated masks especially - completely pointless? No, not at all. There's several reasons to use a mask and avoiding infection is only one of them. A cheap mask won't prevent you from becoming infected but it does protect other people from you. As you breathe, cough and sneeze, the water droplets in the air mostly stay in the mask rather than spreading far and wide. And as we saw earlier the mask prevents you from touching your face. If you aren't diligent about hand-washing this can help stop you from infecting yourself.

But the most important thing about the mask is, I think, that it's a security blanket. People may know or suspect that it's nearly useless in practice, but it gives them a way to do something constructive about a scary, confusing situation they have no control over. It lets people control their fear, and it gives them the confidence to go outside and conduct their daily lives without being paralyzed by fear and uncertainty. The mask is also a signal to others. It shows them that you're mindful of the situation, careful and conscientious. You're wearing a mask so you're probably doing all those other protective measures you're supposed to and thus you're safe to be around. Masks may not slow or stop the spread of virus, in other words, but they may well slow or stop the spread of unfounded panic. And that may in the end be more important than the virus itself.


#1 Note those "seems" and "I think" in the text: I'm not a medical professional of any kind. I've never studied medicine and I have no more or better information than the average twelve-year old. I have no idea what I'm talking about. This post does not constitute medical advice. Do not depend on information here for any medical decisions. This post may contain information that is outdated, misrepresented or outright wrong. Do not read this and drive at the same time. Keep out of direct sunlight. If a rash, lower back pain, headache or a serious case of death occurs during reading, please consult your physician. Do not mix with isopropanol. Do not eat. Do not cover. Duck and cover. The satanic messages you think you hear when you read the text aloud backwards are just an illusion. Lift with your knees, not with your back. The backstroke is possibly the most scenic of swim styles. You have to be this tall. Void when wet.

#2 It's the one right above.

#3 See footnote #12.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Hatoyama is new DPJ leader

According to Mainichi Shinbun, Yukio Hatoyama is elected new DPJ leader, beating the other challenger Okada.

I don't know much about either Okada or Hatoyama so I have no strong opinion on this. I do know that Hatoyama is a hereditary politician while Okada is not. On the other hand, he does have a bouffant hairdo to rival North Korea's Kim Jong Il who managed to grab power and stay leader in his country for many years now; a good omen of sorts for the DPJ perhaps.

[Edit] I'm just saying:

Perhaps they can exchange barbershop tips during top-level meetings. Left from, second and fourth from DPJ website, third Creative commons.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The race is on

..and it's a sprint. DPJ (read:Ozawa) decided that an election for the next leader should be held sooner rather than later. It's due tomorrow Saturday, which is very, very fast. "It is" also decided that it's an election among the Diet members only rather than the party rank and file. The aim is clearly to push Yukio Hatoyama, a long-time Ozawa loyalist, as the next leader over Okada, the other front runner.

It's certainly fair enough; Ozawa may be leaving, but it's due to external pressures, not because he has disgraced himself within the party. It's only natural for him to have a say in choosing his successor. Besides, what's the point of being a politician if you can't even play politics in your own political party?

Will Ozawa's plan succeed, though? The majority of factions in DPJ lean towards Hatoyama, but Jun Okamura points out that the grassroots and the general public favour Okada. Enough diet members may well read the election tea leaves and break with their factions to give Okada the upper hand. Who will win? I have not a clue, but we have less than two days to find out.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Ozawa is a Goner

Ozawa, leader of opposition party DPJ has resigned, quit, abdicated, taken his leave, thrown in the towel, hung up his gloves, punched out and left the stage. Always the bridesmaid and never the bride, the fat lady has well and truly sung.

His office was under investigation for taking illegal campaign contributions from a construction company. This is a bit of a liability when your party's election strategy and its whole reason to exist is based on opposing the ruling party LDP for being the kind of corrupt party that accepts illegal contributions from the construction industry.

This is putting a bit of a crimp in the LDP plans to use Ozawa's personal impopularity (the guy can apparently antagonize people by simply being in the same building) and the cloud of the bribery investigation as issues in the coming election. Tobias Harris of Observing Japan has fingered Katsuya Okada as a possible successor. Like prime minister Aso he comes from a very rich family (owners of the Aeon supermarket chain) so he's had no need to dabble in the murky waters of campaign contributions. And unlike Aso (and more than half the LDP government) he has not inherited his seat from a relative, the frequency of which is a peculiarly Japanese state of affairs that has been gaining unfavorable attention lately (in no small part due to Okada himself bringing it up).

News in general and political reporting in particular really is a story, in the classical sense. You build rapport with the characters, where some are cast as heroes and others as villains. You see the underdog prevail and triumph, then be brought back to earth by hubris. There is a flow to the reporting that enhances the dramatic tension and maximizes interest in the story.

Nobody consciously does this. No reporter or editor decides that it's time to stop writing nice things about politician A and bring him down (it's unlikely to work if they did), or decide that a browbeaten party has suffered enough and is let back in the press' good graces. This ebb and flow is decided collectively, by reporters, by the readers and by the political actors themselves. There is a rhythm that resonates with the readers; the articles that follow that flow get the readers and web hits, while those that don't are ignored.

The press have spent a lot of time now beating down on Ozawa (and the DPJ) for the construction company money while they've been giving the LDP a bit of a free pass in its current role of recession fighter ("brave Aso battling Impossible Odds"). But the press is now free to shift their focus to speculation on the new DPJ leader ("who will be the Anointed One?") and possibly shift the LDP storyline onto the (not so positive) performance of the coalition during the recent economic disaster. Ozawa has loomed large on the political scene here for many years but has always been a bit of a drag on the DPJ platform; without him the dynamic changes substantially. It looks like the election may become even more interesting than thought.

You may call Japanese politics many things, but "boring" is not one of them.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Golden Week postscript

The Golden Week holidays are over. It mostly rained away this year but that's no big problem for us; we're not really outdoorsy people anyway. We did go out a bit, to meet a couple of fun relatives and friends for Thai food near Tennōji in south Osaka. We also went to Kobe of course, but not to eat Indian food; there's a German wine importer and restaurant up towards the mountain side and we thought we'd get lunch there. Unfortunately we managed to hit the busiest time of the holidays and the place was already packed. We gave up and had lunch at a small Turkish restaurant right next to the Kobe mosque instead. Next time we'll book a table. The pictures below, by the way, really look better big; click on them for the larger version.

Port Tower

The Kobe Port Tower. Not the most original of images, but it is a landmark, and I hadn't tried this kind of approach before.


Nankinmachi, or Kobe Chinatown. About 8 second exposure (Acros 100 is very good with long exposures). It's a fun area but it's always so crowded we never actually eat here.

Artist in Residence

A former warehouse in Kobe harbour called TENxTEN houses a sort of arts and crafts exhibit where Kobe artists and craftsmen display their work, but also sometimes actually work there one or two days a week. There weren't many people around - it's not exactly well-published and the website is really ununformative - but it was fun to take a look.

Yuki Junzo shown here is a sculptural artist that was working on creating fake rusted steel plate from newspapers as we showed up. He is a fun guy and really enthusiastic about explaining how he works and what he does. Apparently he also has a few pieces on display at the museum in Nagai park, south Osaka; I have my Japanese lessons just around the corner from the park so we'll probably drop in tomorrow after lunch.

I was using iso 100 film at the time and the studio space was really dim so I needed a 1 second exposure for this scene, which is really too long for shooting people. Fortunately, when you ask Mr. Junzo to please sit still he doesn't kid around - it's one second, and still he's tack sharp, with not a hint of movement. Sometimes you're just really lucky.

We both spent time studying - Ritsuko worked on her english and swedish while I caught up on some grammar homework, and I'm making another concerted effort at the kanji. I baked some sourdough bread and we both spent some time walking around Osaka, both around Namba where we live and in Umeda.

Yokobori Residence

Houses along Yokobori canal around the corner from our building. Not exactly a pastoral scene perhaps, but a lot more interesting than some random bit of nature I think.

Over the holiday I tried out Fuji Acros 100 film with the Pentax. Great detail, fine grain and easy to scan and postprocess, but iso 100 is really too slow for handheld use. At iso 100, anything darker than sunlight benefits from a tripod, and dusk or indoor shots absolutely demand it. The pictures here are from that roll. At Yodobashi Camera they now have Kodak Ektar 100 in 120 format. Ektar is a new color negative film that has gotten great acclaim for the color and fine grain; it was only 35mm at first but got so popular they recently released it in medium format as well. I've bought a box and I'm currently shooting a roll of it just to see what the hype is all about.


A salaryman on his way on the only beautiful day of Golden Week. He wasn't actually this glum; he'd been smiling at the sun along with everybody else but composed himself into this serious businesslike demeanor for the picture. This was the only picture I could take handheld on the entire roll.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Typhoon Season

Typhoon 1 and 2, Japanese Meteorological Agency
Typhoon #1 and #2
Click for JMA info

The Golden Week holiday marks the end of early summer, and true to form we now have the season's first two typhoons emerging in south Asia. #1 is south of the Japanese islands, and #2 is southeast of Vietnam. Neither is going to make landfall here (one will stay in the south, one will pass by far east of Honshu), but it means the early summer is ending and the rainy season is coming up.

Last year we didn't have a single typhoon hit this area. It's unusual but not unheard of. We're not likely to be as lucky again this year I think. Fortunately we live in a major city so we could live and work here more or less indefinitely without ever having to actually go outside.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Elsevier and Merck Fakes Medical Journal

This is pretty disturbing: Merck, big pharmaceutical company, has apparently set up a fake medical journal, the "Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine". They've used it to publish dodgy and made-up data under the guise of "science". To make the fake journal look real they paid off Elsevier, one of the major scientific publishing houses, to set up the journal under their name. This is bad. More about it here and here and here.

When you get a drug from your physician, how do you know it'll work for your specific problem? How do you know it's even safe? Well, your doctor tells you it should work and is safe, but how do they know? They look at the published data on the drug, which in turn is based on experimental medical studies of that drug, studies that are published in peer-reviewed medical journals.

Now, some studies are good, some are bad. It's really quite difficult to make a good experimental study; there's many, many pitfalls along the way. A bad study may have too few patients to give any good data, or have some methodological problem, or are mishandling the statistics, or are even not really asking the right questions at all. A good study avoids all that. In medicine you often have the question of impartiality. When a study and the people working on it are independent of the company making the drug all is well and good. But when the study is paid for by the pharmaceutical company, or the main researchers are getting a lot of money or junkets, then impartiality can and should be questioned. There's many (far too many) examples of studies that have been altered to suit the funding company, had data faked to conceal some problem, or the whole study silently dropped altogether when the results turn out to be unfavorable.

Medical journals in particular really want to be vigilant to this kind of thing. Decent journals require upfront declaration of all connections (monetary or otherwise) between the researchers and the company and editors try to determine if there's a conflict of interest that may invalidate the study. Reviewers try as best they can to figure out if the study is any good - if the statistics hold up, if there's any problem with the methodology and so on. It's common even for good, solid papers to have to be rewritten with further clarification of some point, or require additional data and analysis to cover some problem area. Bad, biased papers can (and do) slink through this net it's fairly unusual.

Merck figured out they could bypass this pesky quality control by paying Elsevier, a major scientific publisher with a rather shady record for integrity, to create a fake journal. Which they happily did, even going so far as to recruit an actual physician to be on the "review board". Apparently not a single paper was ever actually peer-reviewed; they were lousy studies that would have been rejected by a real journal, or thinly disguised marketing material - fake papers, in other words, the kind of thing researchers lose their jobs and careers over. Merck then used these fakes to sell their products to physicians. Since the fake journal was published by Elsevier nobody would question the source; no reputable publishing house would actively deceive its readership - it's customers and contributors - after all? Of course that's exactly what Elsevier has done.

So here we have a problem: this only came to light by chance. There's no way of knowing how much seemingly solid data about Merck products safety and efficiency is actually fraudulent. So we - I and you and everyone else - have no way of knowing which of their product claims are real and which are made up by the company and then deceptively pushed as honest research. Here is a partial list of Merck products; do you know which are backed as safe or effective by faked research reports? Neither do I. You want to use any of their medicines? Neither do I.

As for Elsevier - they're a large company, one of the biggest scientific publishers in the world. This is a list of journals. 2325 journals, according to that link. How many other of those journals are paid-for fakes masquerading as real research journals? No idea. And if they accept payment for setting up fake journals, do they accept payment for placing bad papers in otherwise good journals too? Should it surprise us if they did? The Elsevier ethical guidelines are here; this is especially rich:

Elsevier takes its duties of guardianship over the scholarly record very seriously. Our journal programs record "the minutes of science" and we recognize our responsibilities as the keeper of those "minutes" in all our policies, including the guidelines we have adopted to support editors, reviewers and authors in performing their ethical duties.

We are committed to ensuring that advertising, reprint or other commercial revenue has no impact or influence on editorial decisions.

I won't be publishing in Elsevier journals in the future, and I will no longer accept reviewer invitations to one of their publications. My considered opinion, as a researcher, is that Elsevier can go fuck themselves.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Golden Week is here

Golden week, the spring holiday, is here again. It's not one holiday, but a series of back-to-back one day holidays. We had emperor Showa's birthday last Wednesday, Constitution Day on the 3rd, Greenery Day on the 4th, and Children's Day the 5th. The 3rd is a Sunday, but fortunately Japan has this delightful custom where, if a public holiday falls on a weekend, the day off is shifted to the next available workday. I could only wish that Sweden had a similar tradition.

Anyway, it means we're off work from tonight up through Wednesday. The way the weekend falls this year we're working yesterday and today; next year and the next after that the weekend will fall neatly into the three-day gap and probably create a whole uninterrupted week of holidays for a lot of people. We'll go to Kobe to eat (not a major surprise to anyone) and we'll go out to dinner with a couple of fun relatives. Other than that we have no plans to do anything, which suits us just fine.