Thursday, December 31, 2009

2010

Happy New Year

Year of the Tiger.

Happy New Year. あけましておめでとうございます。

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Towards A More Progressive Viewpoint

No, not progressive politics, progressive eyeglasses. I got a pair recently, since I was having real trouble reading small print. Bifocals or reading glasses are one of those inevitable things in life: if you don't need them now, don't worry - you will, eventually. As we age, we all start having trouble focusing close and eventually we will need reading glasses or bifocal glasses to help us. It's called presbyopia, and everybody gets it sooner or later. Up until now I've had only a vague notion of what bifocals and reading glasses actually do.

Lenses and focusing

At the top a lens - our eye, say, or a camera lens - is focusing on an object very far away. The light through a lens bends so that it all comes together at a point1. When that point hits our sensors on the left (whether a piece of film, an electronic camera sensor or our retina) we get a sharp view of the object.

Below we've moved close to the object. The light from it now comes from much steeper angles. But the lens still bends light the same amount as before. The light rays on both sides act like a see-saw, with the lens itself as the center point. So the point of focus moves further away.


Lenses and focusing

We need to change the focus depending on the distance. At the top is how a camera lens does it: the point of focus is behind the sensor, so we move the lens forward until the point of focus is on the sensor again.

The second picture illustrates how our eyes focus. Since the lens isn't bending the light strongly enough, we squish the lens so that it becomes thicker and bends light more. We can do that since our lenses are soft and jelly-like, unlike the glass lenses used in cameras.


Lenses and focusing

Like many, many other people, I'm near-sighted. At the top we see the cause: the retina in the back of the eye sits too far away from the lens. Even when the lens is as flat as possible it still bends light too much to bring far-away things into focus. We can fix this with a convex lens, like the one on the right, that'll effectively weaken our own lens and let us focus far away. Think of it as the curve of the convex lens being subtracted from the curve of our own lens.

Presbyopia is the inability to focus close, and at the bottom we see the reason for it: as we age the lens gradually hardens, and it can no longer thicken enough to bend the light for close objects. The way to fix this is with a convex lens like the one on the right that will help make the eyes stronger. The curve of the concave lens is added to the curve of our own lens, effectively making the combination thicker.


So, with presbyopia you can use a convex lens to get closer focus. Cheap reading glasses sold here and there are exactly that2. This is sufficient for people with otherwise good eyesight.

With nearsightedness you use a concave lens to get infinity focus. Now, here's a problem: what do you do if you're both near-sighted and presbyopic? As you can see in the figure above, the corrective lenses are opposites: one cancels out the other. How do you make a lens that corrects for both at the same time?

Well, you don't. A concave lens for near-sightedness worsens presbyopia - it makes the minimum focusing distance longer - while a convex lens for presbyopia worsens focus at infinity. This is why they're called reading glasses; you can't see far away wearing them so you only use them for close work.

Since glasses for near-sightedness worsens presbyopia, people can get around mild presbyopia simply by removing their glasses or looking below or above the rim when they read; you see this quite often. But once the presbyopia worsens it's no longer enough. People that have astigmatism as well - like me - need glasses at all viewing distances, so removing your glasses doesn't help much.

You could have two pairs of glasses of course, and switch between them. That's a hassle, though, so you'd really like to combine them into one pair. The traditional - and still best - method is simply to "cut out" the lower central part of concave lenses for near-sightedness and replace with convex lenses for presbyopia. That gives you those characteristic half-moon bifocal glasses that people instantly recognize as "old-folks glasses". While they're really the best type of glasses, they're not well liked.

Instead we have progressive glasses, so named because they go smoothly from a nearsighted concave lens toward the top to a convex (or at least less concave) lens at the bottom. This is actually very complicated; you want the change to be gradual, without too much visual bending, blurring or other weird effects during the transformation. We don't look through a point in the glasses, but through a whole area, so a single point in the lens may both be part of the lower edge of the concave near-sighted area toward the top, and part of the convex presbyopic area at the bottom at the same time. Add the astigmatic correction for people like me and the lens surface will get quite complicated.

There's apparently many progressive lens designs, but they are all compromises between conflicting goals. In my case I get far sight in the upper center; near sight in the lower center and towards the edges; and middle sight in a roughly H-shaped area in the very center and along the left and right edges.

One effect that creates problems for some people is that these are lenses, and they don't just move the focus forward or back. Concave lenses make things smaller, and convex lenses make them bigger - magnifying glasses are just strong convex lenses after all. Now, eye-wear lenses are typically fairly weak, but the effect is not negligible. The eyes of near-sighted people tend to look smaller, and the eyes of strongly far-sighted people can look huge behind their glasses.

This also means that the world looks a bit smaller and zoomed out when you wear concave lenses for near-sightedness. And the world looms a bit closer with convex reading lenses. This is normally fine; you quickly get used to it. But with progressive lenses the world gets smaller in some areas of your field of view and larger in other areas, like a funhouse mirror. And as you move around and move your head things shift between these areas to bend, stretch, distort and generally make you feel a little like you're drunk. People normally get used to this - I had no problems - but some people never really adapt. They're better off with bifocal glasses instead.

There are progressive contact lenses, by the way, where you get far vision in the very center and close vision around the edge, but people who've tried them don't seem too impressed. Another way is to wear a contact for far sight on one eye, and close on the other. Me, I'll just rather wear glasses; I've done so for most of my life after all, so this is no problem for me.

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#1 You have perhaps heard the term "diopter". It's a measure of how strong a lens is, and is really just the inverse of the distance from the lens to the point of focus when you focus on something infinitely far away. So a 1-diopter lens will bring the light together one meter behind the lens. A 2-diopter lens brings it to a point 1/2 meters away; a 10-diopter lens focuses infinity at 1/10 meter - ten centimeters - away and so on.


#2 As an aside, "macro filters" for cameras are the same thing too: an extra lens you screw in front of your ordinary camera lens so you can get closer and get a bigger picture of small things. They're an inexpensive way to play with macro photography.

For SLR cameras, you can also get "extension tubes". They're hollow tubes that fit between the camera and lens and simply move the lens further from the sensor so you focus closer than you normally could.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Back to Work

We're back from Hokkaido. We came home late last night and only did the most pressing things (like putting away all the salmon, squid, sausages and cheeses we've bought) before collapsing in bed.

Today is a work day for me, and tomorrow is the first day of the New Year holidays, which last until monday next week this year. We have a single monday workday before a week off, in other words, and needless to say, the department isn't exactly a buzzing hive of frantic activity today. There's a grand total of three students in the main room, and none of the other postdocs or faculty have yet to show up. Most of them have taken the day off, of course.

Me, I have a poster and a presentation to prepare for next month, and I've yet to finishn the modeling I was hoping to have done by then. So I work today, and I expect to plod away at it over the holiday as well.

I have plenty to do, there's a big pile of pictures to go through, and two rolls of film to develop and scan. Don't expect quick, complete Hokkaido holiday coverage here in other words.

Crane

Japanese crane, Hokkaido. Quick train shot.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Interlude

We've arrived in Sapporo after three nights in eastern Hokkaido. Haven't had time to really go through the pictures taken so far, but here's one from when we left for Hokkaido from Osaka:

Fuji

Mount Fuji.


Here's a handy tip: For various reasons (mostly to do with atmospheric dispersion), shots taken from an airplane tend to look much better when you convert them to black and white.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!

We're in Hokkaido for Christmas, where we're relaxing far away from the stresses of city life. We had a sleep in, had a long walk in the snow-covered countryside, I've just returned from a long soak in the hostel's hot spring bath, and with any luck we'll be stuffed to the gills with sushi and beer by tonight. And just so you see what we're leaving behind:

Shinsaibashi

Crowds gather along Shinsaibashi shopping street to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas. Go ahead, click on the image; it looks much better large.


Big Duck

Huge Friendly Duck says Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Huge, Friendly Duck Is Back (And We're Leaving (but only temporarily))

The Huge rubber duck that floated by Nakanoshima island in Osaka this summer is back! There's a winter light festival happening along Nakanoshima southern beach, from the western end up to the City Hall, and the enormous rubber duck is also back for a repeat appearance. Which makes me inexplicably happy. The festival is apparently up until the 25th, so if you happen to be in Osaka, there's still a chance to go see it.

Big Duck

It's my favourite humongous friendly rubber duck, really. Surprisingly difficult to photograph, though. By the way, if you happen to go here, there's a really good, inexpensive Indian restaurant in the basement of the building just next to the duck. You can take the stairs from the riverside right to the back entrance.


In other news, we're leaving for our winter holiday in Hokkaido tomorrow morning. Which partly explains my relative silence here - I've been trying to finish up some stuff before we leave. We're going to Akan national park again, then to Sapporo for a couple of nights. It should be a lot of fun; I've been looking forward to this all autumn.

Nakanoshima

The trees along Nakanoshima are decorated, and there's some hot food stalls and things like that as well. Dress warm; the wind along the river is freezing.


Christmas Display

There's some Christmas-themed displays as well. We only got this far before the cold got the better of us, so I don't really know what it looks like towards the City Hall.


Parrot

One guy brought his parrot for a photo shoot. He had a padded cage and only brought it out for a minute or so. My guess is, he's making a New Year's card.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

An Apple A Day

Ritsuko has plenty of friends and acquaintances spread out all over Japan. There's a stronger tradition of gift-giving here than I'm used to; it's not just for celebrations or holidays, but you send stuff to each other now and again for no particular reason. One friend of Ritsuko's (a friend of her fathers, originally) lives and works in Aomori; visiting him was one reason we went there in August last year. Aomori is famous for good tuna, depressed economy and great apples. So, last week, we got a box full of them (apples, not economies):

An Apple A Day

An apple a day - that's 32 days, half green, half red. And they're big enough that one is plenty for both us to share.


Time to look up some new apple recipes, methinks. We've gotten a box every year for the past few years, and while they're really, really good - juicy and tender and with a perfect balance of sweetness and tartness - they are big and there's quite a lot of them. I sometimes fry them: peel and slice, sprinkle some sugar and cinnamon on both sides and fry in a pan until they start to brown. Eat with ice cream. This year I'd like to try making a real apple pie, though; if anybody has a good recipe (with ingredients easy to find in Japan) I'm all ears.

Aomori, by the way, will get a direct Shinkansen connection late next year. At 320km/h it'll eventually cover Tokyo-Aomori in about three hours, faster and more convenient than flying once you consider the airport travel time, check-in, baggage claim and so on. I really like the Shinkansen. You go straight from one city center to the other without having to transfer or wait in some nondescript departure hall. And with comfortable seats, lots of legroom, little noise and on-board internet I'd prefer it over flying any way.

We could leave Osaka in the morning; have a leisurely lunch and some window shopping in Tokyo; then leave for Aomori in the afternoon, with plenty of time to check in at the hotel and have an appetite-building stroll along the waterfront before dinner. Next year.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Sunday

Yay, a completely free Sunday! It's been hectic lately, with work, the JLPT test and all, so I decided I'd take this Sunday off. I would not read any research papers, not study Japanese, not even check my email (well, not a lot). I could develop some film, I could read a book, I could snuggle with my wife, I could ...

"The building fire inspection is next week so we need to tidy up the balcony. And it's New Year in just a few weeks so we might as well give the balcony a thorough cleaning while we're at it."

... I could spend the day scrubbing a year worth of grime off the air conditioners, the bay doors and the walls, I guess.

Now it's Monday morning. My shoulders and arms ache whenever I move. My hands are still red and swollen from the cleaning liquids, and they hurt from scrapes, cuts and abrasions - plaster looks good, but it's like cleaning rough sandpaper. I'm happy to be back at work again, where the most physical thing required of me is to occasionally lift my coffee cup.

I did get to develop a roll in the morning, though. We had a wonderful mushroom pasta for dinner. And the balcony looks great.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Amazing Store

Ikea is amazing. No, not their furniture, but about how very, very good they are at selling things. It doesn't matter if you want or need anything or not when you go inside; once you walk out that door you will have a bag full of, well, stuff - useful-seeming, well-designed, inexpensive stuff, true - that you only vaguely even remember picking up on your endless trek through the store.

We went to Ikea today for groceries. They're by far the best source for essential foods like pickled herring, lingonberry jam and gravlax around here. And food was really the only thing we needed. But somehow we still came home with a pillow, a picture frame and other odds and ends I'm pretty sure I had no idea we needed up until now. I'm still pretty sure we don't actually need any of it, in fact.

So they're good. But even more, there's never any overt sales pressure, no blaring "Extra! Cheap!" signs or pushy salespeople. You never feel forced to buy anything; it's just that you run into piles of really cool stuff throughout the store, somehow looking far better and more useful in that pile than it will ever do once you get it home. You know this, and you still end up buying it. That's not just good, that's sublime.

Oh, and the herring is pretty good too.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

JLPT 1

Yes, it's the time of year again, when the leaves have fallen, when the rain turns cold and miserable, and when people's thoughts turn towards the year-end parties and the coming holiday - and when foreigners throughout the country gather to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. Like last year I took the level 1 test, and like last year I'm going to fail.

Which is fine; I took it just for practice. Unlike last year, however, it didn't feel impossible. I have a decent idea on what parts of the language need improvement (everything) and how much more I need to improve (a lot.) The JLPT is being remade next year, with a new level in between the current 2 and 3, a somewhat different scoring system, and new names for the levels. Oh, and level 1 will reportedly become slightly harder.

So I figure that to the extent passing level 1 has any meaning1 I might as well take the new test rather than the old. My current plan is to make a real attempt on level one this time next year, and if/when I fail that, try again in June next year. Of course, the vagaries of life can and will interfere (when work and study competes for attention work wins every time) but that's the plan at least. I've already started going through the vocabulary and kanji "for real". We'll see.

--

#1 A lot of people seem to really overestimate the value of a JLPT1 certificate. Here's a bit of reality: If Japanese proficiency is important for a job, then having JLPT1 or JLPT2 may make the difference between landing a job interview and not doing so. But that's it - no interviewer, in Japan or abroad, is going settle with a test score. They'll make sure you actually can use the language, including conversation and writing which are not covered by the test. Actually knowing the language is critical in other words; having a test certificate is much less so. "Studying for the test" is relly pointless in this case.

And if Japanese is not important then a JLPT test certificate is much like being treasurer at your local photography club, or having a forklift licence - it makes for a nicely rounded CV but it's not going to have any material effect.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Hatoyama Gets Off

CAN YOU HEAR ME?
The current DPJ government here in Japan was voted into power to break with old-time ruling party LDP, in part because of the habitual political funding sleaze. However, Hatoyama Yukio - DPJ leader and current prime minister - has been fighting a criminal investigation about fraudulent political donations since he was chosen as DPJ leader. Oh, and he was chosen because his predecessor Ozawa - now party whip - was, and still is, under investigation for fraudulent political donations. I've heard plenty of cynical comments about this around the lunch table lately.

The amount a person or a company can donate to a politicians fund-raising organization is pretty strictly limited. Notably this goes even for the politicians themselves; even if you're very rich you're subject to the same limitation on how much money you can give and use for your own campaign1. Running for office and staying in office both take a lot of money, though, so it's not surprising that people habitually try to circumvent or outright ignore those rules.

To the relief of the prime minister and his party, the prosecutor has decided not to indict him. Hatoyama was suspected of creating fake donors - using the names of dead people, and of unwitting people who never donated anything - and padding receipts to funnel 350 million yen of his own money into his political organization. The prosecutors have determined that one of his aides - who had access to some of his funds - probably acted alone in registering fake donors. They can't show that Hatoyama himself actually knew about this.
 
Now, I don't move in the kind of esoteric circles that the likes of Bridgestone heirs do, and I realize the value of money is different to people like him, but I do find it stretching my credulity to believe that 350 million could just go unnoticed and that he never asked what might have happened to it. I mean, it's not the kind of money that can get lost under the sofa cushions - it'd be obviously too lumpy to sit in.

"Um, it seems there's been 350 million yen withdrawn from this account since 2004? About 100 million per year."

"Yes, sir, quite right."

"Oh. Where'd it go to?"

"Sundry expenses, sir."

"Ahh, I see. Detergent, pool cleaning and such, no doubt. Oh, but just look what a lot of donations the campaign fund got over the same period! About 100 million yen extra each year. Amazing isn't it!"

"Yes sir. Quite, sir. Amazing, sir."


Another part of the investigation is about 900 million yen given as "loans" to the organization from his mother. This is a different issue, and related to the Japanese tax laws. The inheritance tax is fairly substantial here, so there's a lot of legal do's and don'ts about what you do with your assets. These "loans" where never meant to be repaid; they were effectively gifts to Hatoyama from his mother (his brother also received similar "loans"), and probably intended to get around the inheritance tax. He and/or she will probably have to pay gift tax on that money, and possibly a penalty as well.

As an aside, an inheritance tax sounds reasonable, and probably is when done right. The problem is, in practice it hits very unevenly, and can end up with the opposite effect from what was intended. If you apply an inheritance tax evenly on all assets you get effects like widows forced from their family homes and family-owned companies broken up in order to pay the tax. That seems morally wrong to the public and is politically unpalatable, so most countries' tax laws give special - and rather arbitrary - exemptions for such things. But all exemptions give more loopholes for people to get around the tax, which lawmakers then try to close with more specific laws.

We end up with a situation where, if you use your savings to buy a home your children will pay no tax once you pass away, but if you sell the home to move to assisted living - or you just prefer to rent an apartment rather than buy - they'll have to pay tax on that very same money. If you're wealthy enough to own a controlling stake in a company your inheritance tax rate will end up much lower than if you don't. And you get laws like gift taxes between family members, that people - like the Hatoyama's - then try to get around by disguising the gifts as loans or something else.

As the system grows more Byzantine, the one constant throughout is that the more money you have, the more opportunities are open for you to lessen or avoid the tax altogether. The tax ends up hitting those will less money harder than those with more, and the few families with huge fortunes ends up paying almost nothing at all, relatively speaking - which more often than not is completely opposite of the stated goal of such a tax.

Sweden got rid of the inheritance tax a few years ago; it cost almost as much to administer as it brought in revenue, and in practice it had none of the equalizing effects it was supposed to. It's still politically contentious, though, and if the opposition wins the election next year it's not unlikely that some form of the tax is reinstated. The leaders of all three parties in the opposition coalition - the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Communists - know the tax is useless in practice. But it's a potent symbolic question for the Communists, and reinstating it'd be a cheap way to placate their members and gain their support for the overall budget. Ah, well.

#1 A noble intent to level the playing field, no doubt, but in practice you pretty much have to be wealthy to stand for election anyway; you don't have time to hold down a job and campaign at the same time. If you and your family can't afford you to quit your job, campaign for a year and then find yourself unelected and unemployed then you don't have any business in politics. And of course, if you're wealthy you're likely to have wealthy friends, relatives and business contacts that are happy to donate to you and round up more donations on your behalf. The thought is nice, though.