Thursday, March 31, 2011

DIfferential Gears

I was going to write something else before the weekend, but I just stumbled on this absolutely genius instructional video on how differential gears work. I've known the point of a differential - give the same force to two wheels, even though they rotate at different speeds - but I've never quite wrapped my head around exactly why it works. This video made the trick.

I love almost everything about it - the black and white tones and the lighting is excellent; the examples and explanations are exemplary, though exceedingly eloquent. The one slightly annoying thing is the narrators cadence, which is just a little over. the. top. as. he. empha. sizes. every. single. word.

The video doesn't bring it up - it's about automotive engineering - and I'm not going to belabour it, but if you control the center piece instead of letting it rotate freely, you can use it to set the relative speed and the phase of rotation between the two output axes. Me and a colleague had a vague idea for using that to create a mechanically simple four-legged walker, but as so often we never found the time and motivation to actually do anything with it.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Disaster Information

Disaster preparedness is on people's minds these days. Flashlights, first-aid kits, helmets, water bottles and the like are flying off the shelves all over the country. But information is as important as disaster kits, and good information can make the difference between life and death.

The best source I know of for information on natural emergencies in Japan is JMA, the Japanese Meteorological Agency. They have several pages for disaster information in English as well as Japanese:

Earthquake Information with maps showing the epicenter and Shindo strength - effect on the surface - for any recent quake.

The Tsunami Information page shows warnings on a coastline map. Just note that tsunami effect is inherently difficult to predict and the effect can vary quite a lot depending on the local situation.

The typhoon1 season will begin in another couple of months. The JMA Typhoon Forecast page is a good place to keep on top of things. With the horror of the Tōhoku disaster still unfolding, it's easy to forget that typhoons are collectively more dangerous, and take more lives, than earthquakes do. If there's a typhoon on the way, don't ignore it and don't take it lightly.

The effects of Volcanic Eruptions are not as widespread as quakes or tsunamis, and liable to happen only in specific active areas. They're not the same level of risk as the other events; nevertheless, if you live near an active area, it can be a good place to keep up with developments.

Extreme weather early warning will alert you to heatwaves and other potential dangers. Dust storms from the asian mainland and pollen levels (Japanese, external site) can be dangerous if you're asthmatic or frail, and can be a major nuisance for everyone.

You'll get tsunami and typhoon predictions through those links above. That's sufficient for typhoons that unfold over days, but you're not likely to check the tsunami page in time unless you know a big quake has just happened, and the quake information above is only updated once a quake has already occurred. Wouldn't it be good if you could get an earthquake warning before it even happened? Nowadays you can.

Japan has a well-developed earthquake early warning system run by the JMA (English info on the warning system here). Seismometers detect the first, fast pressure wave from an earthquake (think of it as a sound), and the system determines the likely epicenter, strength and remaining time until the destructive main wave hits. The data is sent to clients such as factories, hospitals and railways, to radio receivers and to television, radio and phone companies that in turn relay warnings to the public.

You can get ten seconds warning or more in the best case, but even a few seconds can make a huge difference. In the Tōhoku disaster there were no deaths among train passengers or crew, as all trains hit the emergency brakes and stopped before the quake struck them. Factory machinery can be turned off, chemical processes stopped, gas lines can be closed and surgery and other dangerous work can be halted. Imagine the difference between standing on a ladder or standing on the ground when an earthquake hits. And as bad as the Fukushima Number One nuclear accident is, it would have been much worse had reactors there and elsewhere not already started emergency shutdown at the time of the quake.

NHK will immediately interrupt its programs for earthquake warnings2, and you can buy radio receivers that pick up the emergency signal. But they depend on you watching TV at the time, or being at home to hear the warning. NTT Docomo and other mobile networks have started sending alerts through the SMS message systems. Some recent feature-phones have applications to receive these alerts and warn the user, but many older phones do not, and no smartphones have them. Of course, smartphones can easily download any kind of app, and not surprisingly there's apps for this too.

Xperia X10
Xperia X10

A good application I use is Namazu Alert. It's free, and unlike most earthquake apps it can receive and decode the early warning messages, so you get a warning before the quake hits. You can set the minimum intensity as well as the minimum Shindo level for your alerts, and set it to only warn for quakes within a maximum distance from you. It can wake the phone and ignore silent mode if you want to be sure always to receive an alert. It'll show you all quake details and plot the epicenter on a map for you.

In practice you'll probably want to set the magnitude to 6.0 or more, and Shindo to 4 or 5; you'll sometimes have several quakes per day weaker than that, and you're unlikely to even feel them unless you happen to live fairly close. Television warnings happen only with a projected Shindo strength of 5- or more.

Some people complain that the app drains their battery. It seems that if the app can't receive push SMS notifications it will fall back to polling a website, and that eats your battery. On my phone (an Xperia X10) I had to go to the settings in the Messages (that's another name for SMS) app and set it to allow push notifications from my network provider. This app will of course only pick up Japanese earthquakes, and will only work with a Japanese mobile phone provider.

It seems to run fine; I've had it for several days now and it has warned me for the recent larger aftershocks at the same time as the NHK alerts. It doesn't seem to impact my battery life at all, so it's an easy choice to just have it running. If there's anything I'd wish for it would be to set two levels of alerts. One for smaller, faraway quakes, that I'd set to only alarm if the phone is awake and not on silent mode; and one for large, close quakes that would alert us no matter what, no matter when.
If you live in Japan and have an Android phone, this seems like a very good addition to your software library. Without a phone, the websites listed above still give you lots of good information on unfolding events.

#1 What's the difference between a typhoon and a hurricane? The name. They're both tropical cyclones but called called typhoons in the Pacific, and hurricanes in the Atlantic. Also, hurricanes get human names while typhoons in Japan simply get numbered in sequence every year (though other south-asian countries give them generic names too).

#2 Other channels, not so much, unfortunately. Here's a Youtube video showing six national TV channels when the earthquake hit. NHK, the public broadcaster, is upper left. It's kind of depressing how long takes before any of the commercial channels interrupt their programs. They completely ignore the early warning and only show any information when the quake has already hit.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Nukakas Wedding

I'm still working on The Paper That Will Not Die, and it's draining my enthusiasm for any other kind of writing. Actually, it's draining my enthusiasm for anything, period, and I'm questioning my choice of career1 at the moment. I have daydreams of working as a ramen cook or convenience store clerk; the pay sucks, but the hours are shorter and they don't need to write a paper about their work every few months.

Anyway, I found what seems to be an amazing book at another blog: Nukaka no Kekkon - Nukakas Wedding. The author takes insect behavior and translates it into human fairytales. The resulting stories, written in a children's storybook style, have an almost otherworldly feeling, and they're illustrated in a simple, clean style that goes really well with the stories.

One story is online here: The 100 suitors. It's in Japanese, but only ten pages in total, each one illustrated and with just a short text per page, followed by a page explaining the original insect behavior. Translation below:

1/10 One day, a beautiful woman appeared on a hill overlooking the village.

2/10 It caused an uproar among the men in the village. "Please marry me." "I'm the man for you." "Please choose who you'll marry!" A hundred men were asking to marry her.

3/10 "Please don't worry" she answered, "I'll marry all of you." "Follow me, those of you who want to marry."

4/10 The men jostled to follow her as she left.

5/10 As night fell, they came to a cave high in the mountains. "Here's our wedding place. Please come in."

6/10 As they entered the cave, the men asked impatiently "How on earth are you going to marry all of us?"

7/10 "Like this" she said, and breathed a white mist all over them.

8/10 The men all suddenly turned to stone.

9/10 The woman would turn one man back from stone each year, and marry him for that time.

10/10 Explanation: Many ant species will mate only once in their lifetime, but they will do so with many partners. Winged young queens will mate in flight with as many winged males as possible. The sperm isn't used at once though; instead it is stored in a spermatotheca in her body where it can hibernate for years.

The queen flies off to find a place for a nest. The hibernating sperm is activated, one bit at a time, as needed to fertilize her eggs. In this way ants can mate only once, yet carry the offspring of hundreds of partners. For example, the Japanese wood ant can carry 5000 eggs throughout her 15-year lifetime.

If this free story is any indication it seems like an excellent book. It's out of print, unfortunately, and used copies go for more than I'm really willing to pay. If it gets a reprint, or if I find a used copy at a reasonable price, I'll definitely get it.


Insects are a different world unto themselves. Kind of wish I'd studied entomology at university when I had the chance.

#1 Well.. what could pass for an actual career in fog, at night, at a distance, if you squint, don't look too closely and get distracted by a circus elephant riding a unicycle at the right moment.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Quake Short Notes

Short notes:

  • The situation remains desperate for the hundreds of thousands of homeless people in the quake and tsunami-stricken areas. Over a million households lack water, and millions lack electricity and heat. Over one hundred thousand soldiers and other rescue personnel are working there but progress is slow. The problem really is the sheer scale - the area hardest hit by the tsunami is around 700 kilometers long and up to 10 kilometers inland, but there's extensive quake damage outside that zone too. Many roads and rail lines were heavily damaged so it was simply not possible to reach many areas with substantial supplies.

    Some roads and rail lines have been repaired now and help is coming in, but people are still dying in the shelters and hospitals, dying from the cold, dying from lack of medical care, or dying from stress and deprivation. More help is needed, and will be needed for months ahead. If you can help in any way, please do.

  • Japanese police is reportedly investigating Tokyo Electric, Japans largest electricity company and the owner and operator of the nuclear power plant. The company has a sordid history of covering up accidents and falsifying safety reports. They were very slow with information this time around - reportedly, prime minister Kan exploded a couple of days after the quake when the government got progress reports faster from NHK than from the company itself, and that's apparently what led to creating a "joint" task force that in reality is completely controlled by the government.

    BBC stated that Tokyo Electric was unwilling to pump seawater at first, since it would irreparably damage the reactors. That may sound damning, but the devil is in the details. It's not self-evident that using sea water earlier would have improved the course of the accident. The damage may make it more difficult to restart the main pumps - and getting them running again is and remains the only way to permanently shut the reactors down. And of course, TEPCO and the Kanto area needs the power; if there was a feasible way to avoid years of reduced capacity it may well have been a prudent approach.

    What we've seen so far is really questionable judgement calls and bad information handling. It will be very interesting to see what made the police decide a criminal investigation is in order. Whether anything comes of it or not, I'd not want to be a TEPCO shareholder right now.

  • Sweden, like most other European countries, sent chartered passenger aircraft to evacuate citizens. We are around 700-900 or so in Japan1, and they sent not one but two airplanes with 250-seat capacity. One airplane brought 1 (one) person back to Stockholm. The other brought 13 people to Bangkok in Thailand. Meanwhile, regular flights are readily available from and to all major Japanese airports for anybody that needs to leave.

    The Swedish authorities do not seem terribly well informed; many of their recommendations right now seem to have precious little connection to reality. People living here, on the other hand, do have good first-hand information and can make better judgement calls on what to do. In reality, most of Japan is and will remain unaffected by the quake and the nuclear accident. Sweden could have booked rooms for everybody at hotels in Kansai or Kyushu for a fraction of the cost of chartering aircraft to bring people halfway across the world.

    Sending airplanes is of course a political decision as much as a safety one. The government may well realize it's unnecessary, but the public - fed hysterical misinformation for a week or more - does not, and they'd get a storm of criticism if they didn't make the gesture. Of course, with only a handful of people taking them up on the offer they'll be pummelled for sending unneeded aircraft instead. Damned if you do, damned if you don't - but that's what you sign up for when you become a politician.

  • National politics have been mostly absent so far, but has reared its head again. I haven't bothered to follow it but I understand the ruling and opposition parties are already trying to spin things for an upcoming election. Kan offered the opposition seats in a unity cabinet, but they refused. Shrewd move; it'd have made passing budget bills much easier, and would have assign both credit and blame to the opposition as well as the DPJ. By refusing, the opposition looks a little unhelpful, and they've had to bend over backwards to promise to pass any disaster-related bills uncontested, even as they accuse (fairly or not I have no idea) the government of using the disaster to move unrelated legislation through the upper house.

    The average mental age in the diet is still five or so, in other words, and there's no sign that this disaster will improve anything on that front.

I'm probably going to stop comment further on the quake, the tsunami and the nuclear accident unless something important happens. There are many more, and much better, sources of information out there, and I'm neither an expert; nor, thankfully, have we any personal experience of these events to share. Our personal impact has been completely trivial: A few barely noticeable aftershocks; a computer facility I use in Wako-shi northwest of Tokyo is mostly unavailable in order to save energy; and there's a lack of large batteries and other such items in the stores, as they're being sent to people that really need them.

So if you're a friend or relative you have no need at all to worry about us. If you want good, level-headed information there's plenty of sources out there - BBC runs a pretty good stream here. If you want to help, please consider a donation to the Japanese Red Cross directly, or via Google.

#1 The embassy doesn't seem to do a very good job of keeping track of its citizens. I remember I wanted to register at the embassy when I came here - just a phone and address so they could contact me. Instead I got a photocopied multi-page questionnaire with personal and irrelevant questions I was supposed to fill in by hand and send back by post to Tokyo. It went straight in the trash and I forgot all about it. I have no idea if the embassy knows (in the record-keeping and disaster management sense) if I live in Japan or not.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Dagens Nyheter hits a Low Point

Dagens Nyheter is the largest paper and normally a quite serious publication. The current headline is "Räddningsarbetare Har Hastigt Insjuknat" - "Rescue Workers Suddenly Sicken". The huge lettering gives you a mental image of nuclear plant workers tumbling like bowling pins before an Invisible Radiation Scythe Of Death, blood spurting from mouth and ears in classic splatterfilm style.

If you click on the article, though, your first subheading is a quote: "Det är bara att duscha bort strålningen" - "It washes away in the shower". The article is blowing up injuries among nuclear plant workers in an attempt to build panic and increase the readership.

The pedestrian truth is a total of 25 injuries or so among plant workers, some of which were sustained in the earthquake or tsunami, not in the nuclear accident. The expert they interview, nuclear physicist Forsell-Aronsson, does her best to give calm explanations, while the reporter is trying to blow it up as much as humanly possible.

Worst bit is towards the end. The reporter: "It's hard to say, but Eva Forsell Aronsson believes that people will be able to live in Japan in the future." Followed by a direct quote from her: "The area right around the plant will have to be decontaminated. But if it's one kilometer or perhaps more is hard to say."

I really have to wonder what the reporter asked her, what she answered, and how much he had to twist the answer around to make it seem thinks all of Japan might become uninhabitable, when she clearly is only concerned a one-kilometer radius might need decontamination. Perhaps "Would you say you believe parts of Japan might remain inhabitable?" With her answer "[huh? what a moron] Well, duh, of course I believe that". And presto, the expert suddenly seems to say Japan might not.

What scares me a bit is that if Dagens Nyheter stoops to this, there's probably no limit to what the real trash rags are printing. What angers me is that all of the coverage is about the power plant, with not a word on the front page about the real disaster any more. What saddens me is that a paper I respect, a paper that I used to subscribe to when in Sweden, feels fit to sink to this level in the first place.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

On Radiation

So, I think perhaps hysteria over the nuclear plant issue is getting a little out of hand in some places. Some people are leaving Tokyo - even leaving the country - over the fear of radiation. And I just recently read that the Swedish nuclear authority has been getting hundreds of calls from people worried about the effect of fallout in Sweden. Which is not ridiculous since people's fears are very real, and fear needs to be taken seriously, but the fear is misplaced and uninformed.

First, and most important, we have tens of thousands of people dead in Tohoku, and many tens of thousands still in dire need of assistance. People still miss basic shelter and water in many areas. This is the real disaster, far worse than any effect of a broken-down reactor. The nuclear thing is a noisy sideshow, nothing more.

Leaving Tokyo: Good idea - but not for the situation at Fukushima. The Tokyo area has rolling blackouts, disrupted communications and a lack of supplies, as both power and other resources are funnelled to the disaster-stricken areas. Chances are your workplace or your school is shut down anyhow, and your company may be shifting operations to branch offices out west for the time being. If you can visit relatives in Kansai or Kyushu for a few weeks that may help relieve stress in the Kanto area a little bit, not to mention relieve some stress for yourself.

Radiation: First, to be absolutely clear, I'm not an expert. I am a researcher, but not in radiomedicine, not in nuclear engineering and not in anything connected to it. Don't take my word for things - but don't take the word of other people without expertise either.

"Sievert" is a measure of a dose of radiation, like liter or cups for liquid, meter for lengths or kilogram for weights. Sievert per hour tells you the rate over time - like kilometers per hour for speed. I'll give all numbers below in the same unit, microsievert per hour (shortened uSV/h).

Peak radiation at the Fukushima I plant have been high, well into medically unsafe levels. It is truly dangerous for the workers at the plant, and people in the area have been evacuated for good reason. But the strength quickly diminishes with distance.

Highest measured radiation so far in Ibaraki prefecture, near Fukushima was 5 microsievert (uSv) per hour. Tochigi, halfway between Tokyo and Fukushima has had a peak of 1.3 uSv/h. In Tokyo the peak was 0.8 uSv/h. All these quickly dropped to near normal again. Note how the peak is lower the further away the place is. Here in Osaka there was never any detectable difference. Sweden will never see any effect from this accident at all.

Here is a live radiation counter in Tokyo. At the time of writing, you can see a slow hump of activity over last night and morning, on average around 0.1 uSv and at most 0.2 uSv/h more than usual (100 cpm is very roughly 1 uSv/h), but back to near normal again. The lower graph is the typical level.

Normal total background radiation ranges from 0.15 to 0.5 uSV/h. Exactly how much depends on where you live - Scandinavia, for instance, tends to have relatively high background radiation, with about 0.45 microsievert per hour, and there are some places in high mountain areas that naturally give you over 5 uSv/h. Tokyo, on the other hand, lies at the lower end of the range, as you can see at the link above.

Flying exposes you to more cosmic radiation, simply because you're above much of the atmosphere. While you're chewing on a rubbery chicken and watching last years hit movie on a grainy monitor you're getting about 7 uSv every hour, more than the peak value in Ibaraki.

Let's say you decide it's a good time to escape home to Sweden. The entire peak gave you around 1 uSv extra radiation, the nightly hump also totals around 1 uSv (an average of 0.1 uSv for ten hours). The constant background level in Tokyo is about 0.2 uSv/h now. You want to leave Tokyo and get home to safe, dependable Stockholm. You hop on the airplane, which gives you about 75 uSv during the trip - 75 times the peak, and 75 times the slow hump last night - and arrive in Sweden.

Sweden has a constant background radiation rate at 0.45 uSv/h - more than twice what you have in Tokyo, and higher than during that hump of activity last night. If you live in an old stone house the rate is higher still. So, leaving Tokyo for Sweden means increasing your radiation exposure, not decreasing it.

This doesn't matter, of course, as all these values are far below any unsafe levels. What is unsafe? Around 100 000 microsievert over a year - that is 11 uSv/h for a year. Occupational limits are about 2.2 uSv/h for a year, but that's work-related exposure over and above any other sources. At about 0.2 uSv/h in Tokyo you'd need five times that level to reach workplace limits and up to fifty times current levels for a whole year to get into real unsafe territory.

More on the Reactors

Good news, first: All nuclear sites except for the accident-striken Fukushima I1 in northern Honshu are in cold shutdown and safe.

Bad news: the situation at Fukushima I seems to deteriorate. Reactors one and three - the original problem reactors - haven't worsened, and some reports seem to say they've stabilized. But now reactors two and four are having problems too. Unit four has had two fires above the containment building, near the spent-fuel storage tank. Unit two has had an explosion that seems to have damaged the containment. There was a spike of radiation around the time, that now seems to have died off again.

Good news: all effects are purely local at this time. Unless things go very, very bad the effects will stay local. Of course, no matter what happens, the already shoddy safety reputation of the Japanese nuclear industry is going to suffer badly, and rightly so.

Bad news: A number of power plants are shut down, and are not going to start up again in the close future - or ever, in the case of the reactors at Fukushima I. Tokyo is facing rolling shutdowns to ration power at least until the end of April, and northern Japanese power companies say they'll need to ration power for the next few months.

Right now a lot of companies and other facilities are shutdown and powerless in the Tohoku region, but once they restart operation, and rebuilding gets under way along the pacific coast, power consumption is going to increase again. And mid summer - June to August - is the most power intensive time of year, due to the demand for air-conditioning2. And as many plants are unlikely to start up anytime soon, Tokyo may see a return to rolling blackouts at the height of summer.

If one power plant has an emergency and shuts down it doesn't matter much how much time it takes to get it operational again. But in a place where one event - a large earthquake - can shut down many plants at the same time, the time to restore power becomes a real safety issue. It is probably a mistake for a country like Japan to lean on such an unreliable source to the point where it can cripple the reconstruction after a disaster like this.

The question is what combinations of other sources could be a feasible replacement. Geothermal energy is available and underused here. The country is mountainous and there's plenty of wind - way too much wind during typhoon season, so safe, dependable power units would cost a fair bit to erect. Wave power and offshore wind is also susceptible to tsunamis of course, and a large offshore wind park crippled by a storm or tsunami is no better than the reactor it replaces. Solar is still expensive, but costs are coming down.

Any buildout of renewable source is a long-term project in any case. At least in the medium term, this would mean increasing imports and burning of gas and coal; energy sources that cause plenty more damage to health and environment than nuclear does. But they are rather more dependable, have better worst-case scenarios, faster to repair and bring up again, and it's easier to build smaller, distributed plants that are more resilient to disaster. I don't like the idea - if there's anything we need less of, it's coal-burning power plants - but that's probably what'd take to offset the unreliability of nuclear.

#1 "daiichi", "daini" and so on means simply "number one" and "number two". I noted English-language media seems to treat it as given names, not numbers.

#2 It sounds like a frivolous luxury to northern Europeans, perhaps, but the summer heat is no joke around here. You will have weak and elderly people dying from heatstroke unless they can cool their homes.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Nuclear Plant Breakdown

The effects of the Tohoku disaster is still unfolding, and it'll be longer before we even know the rough extent of the damage. It's not just that the quake and tsunami were very powerful, but that the effects are spread out over a very large area. If you are abroad, Our Man in Abiko points to Japanese Google where you can donate directly to the Japanese Red Cross from anywhere in the world. There's links to lots of English-language information there as well.

There's a serious unfolding nuclear situation happening, and it has been getting a lot of sometimes a little hysterical press coverage.

UPDATE: There's a really good post describing what's happened right here.

  • Peter Ennis makes the point that this is not a Chernobyl-scale disaster. Any effect, even in the worst case, is local and relatively limited. Basically, the reactor cores were shut down properly, but the cores keep generate some heat, so they need active cooling until the temperature drops below water boiling point. It's that shutdown cooling that has been failing.

    From this point of view, it is not a strong argument against nuclear power. The plants came through a disaster of historic proportions rather better than most structures. The burning oil refinery in Chiba alone has likely caused more health and environmental damage than these nuclear plant failures.

    The major reason the cooling has failed is because the plants depend on active high-volume pumping systems. This is apparently a very old design (the plants ore more than 40 years old) and more modern plants rely on passive systems that wouldn't have failed in this situation. This really is an argument for replacing old outdated plants with modern ones that are much safer, more efficient and generate much less waste.

  • Tokyo is preparing for rolling blackouts. About 30% of Japans energy comes from nuclear power, and most plants in Kanto and Tohoku are shut down since the earthquake.

    A quaint feature of the Japanese power system is that there's two separate standards: All of Japan uses 100 volts, but eastern Japan, including Tokyo, runs on 50Hz while western Japan, including Osaka and Nagoya, runs on 60Hz. There was no national regulation in effect when Japan was being electrified, and different power companies settled on different standards.

    This quaint difference turns into a serious issue now, however. Power plants in western Honshu and Kyushu are on line, but because of the different transmission frequencies it is difficult and inefficient to transfer power from one area to the other. Western Japan can't transfer enough power eastward to compensate for the disaster power losses, and so Tokyo is facing power outages. A large amount of power infrastructure will need to be rebuilt in eastern Japan, and it's certainly possible that they decide it's worth the pain to switch the entire country to 60Hz.

  • This post-disaster situation shows how nuclear power is a bad match for a country like Japan. A reactor takes a few days to shut down in an orderly way, and another day to start up again. With any kind of emergency shutdown or disaster damage you will need extensive inspection, testing and possible repairs before you can even ask for permission to start up again. And according to media reports, the plants that have resorted to seawater flooding are almost certainly permanently lost, as the water (with the salt and impurities) damages a lot of sensitive materials in the reactor. It's going to take years to fully restore the capacity.

    Gas, coal, oil, pellet and waste-burning plants are apparently fairly quick to restart; there's just a lot fewer sensitive components, there's less to go wrong, and the possible consequences of a fault are a lot less serious than for nuclear plants. Distributed systems like wind, solar and geothermal plants offer lower energy density but are of course very resilient by their distributed nature. Unless they're heavily damaged they can all be online again shortly after a disaster. I know Sweden keeps gas and oil plants mothballed, ready to start up whenever there's a sudden, serious shortfall of the regular power generating systems.

    By contrast, nuclear plants have a long cycle time, and depend more than perhaps any other energy system on a distributed, well-functioning network of supporting resources to operate. With a large-scale disaster like this, you can have a major portion of the entire system - even units with little or no direct damage - effectively disabled for weeks or longer, exactly when you mostly need dependable energy to make up for the loss of other plants.

So, the nuclear accidents don't show that nuclear power is particularly unsafe for a country like Japan (even taking into account the rather bad safety record of Japanese nuclear operators). It does show that it's not a good fit for the kind of place that can experience large-scale disaster damage. And since the economics of fission-based nuclear power is quite unfavourable (nobody would build a nuclear plant without heavy public subsidy) and likely to become worse over time, it would seem wise not to put a long-term bet on nuclear fission over other energy sources in the future.

Oh, and it shows that putting critical infrastructure in the hands of private operators without enforcing nationwide standards is a bad idea that's going to bite you somewhere further down the line.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Earthquake - we're fine

Since a number of people are asking, me and Ritsuko are both fine. Osaka is far to the south of the center and we barely even felt it. Other than that we probably don't know any more than you do.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Kare Ramune

"Ramune" is an old word for lemonade, and "Curry Lemonade" or "Curry Soda" is exactly what it sounds like. Ritsuko came home one day recently with this bottle of curry-flavoured soda. The drinks market is fiercely competitive in Japan, and companies release a constant stream of odd drinks. They're usually novelty items, on sale for a limited time and often in a limited area. If something turns out to be popular it may get wider distribution, and once in a while a new drink may actually become a permanent country-wide fixture.

Curry Lemonade

Curry Lemonade

Curry Lemonade is not such a product. We speculated about the taste before opening it. I thought it'd have a neutral sweet flavour but a curry-like smell and I was close. The smell is spicy, thick and hot; similar to Garam Masala, the spicy Indian spice mix. it prepares you for something peppery and hot, but the flavour is mild and sweet, with only a hint of (I think) cardamom. Me, I'd have preferred a slightly more adult taste, with more spice and less sugar.

It's not bad all but it is a novelty drink. Do try it once, but once or twice is enough.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

(Belated) Happy Birthday!

We celebrated Ritsukos birthday last week. And as usual for our birthdays, we went for dinner somewhere we would not normally go.

This year we went to Kobe. A quick lunch at a German hot-dog place (Kobe is good for non-Japanese food), a walk around town for a few hours, then a beer at Ebisu Bar right by Sannomiya station. It's a European-style pub where you can sit for an hour or two over a beer and talk. It's exactly the kind of place I often used to visit when in Sweden, and that I sort of miss here. They have some good dark beers on tap too, which is not something we're spoiled with here.

Dinner was at Ito Grill, by Nankinmachi in Kobe. As the name implies it's a steak and grill restaurant, vaguely French or western European in style. We had a terrine; soup; an excellent fried flatfish with mashed potatoes, vegetables and balsamico sauce; their signature beef stew; and dessert. It was all very good, if somewhat light on seasoning in my view (I'm a little too fond of salt for my own good). We had a good view of the charcoal roast oven, and while the stew was really, really good the steaks in that oven made our mouths water just looking at them. Perhaps we'll go again some day, just to try the steak.

Ritsuko got a new camera as her old one died late last year, a Panasonic GF2. I'm pretty impressed by it; a major step up from a small-sensor camera in quality, while remaining small and compact. Anyway, it meant we only had that camera with us, so I don't have any shots of my own from the dinner.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Missing My Mug

I broke my coffee mug at work the other day. I'd just washed it, and the wet mug slipped out of my hands and shattered on the floor.

It wasn't expensive or special. Just a plain white ceramic cup with a wide mouth tapering off to a narrow base that made it easy to use, if a touch unstable; I've toppled it more than a few times, with coffee all over my desk as a result. To my surprise I really miss it.

I've had the mug for five years now, at three different labs, and used it every day at work. Never really thought about it - I don't even have a picture - but I guess I just got used to the mug, and now it's gone.

I brought another mug from home, one I got at the Cup Noodle museum a few years back; it's nice, but it's not the same. It'll take a while. We really do get attached to things, don't we?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Jurassic Chocolat

Valentine's day in Japan is when women give chocolates to men; they reciprocate a month later on White Day. It's the season for fancy and unique sweets, in other words, and while a lot of luxury valentine's chocolate is actually bought by women for themselves, there is a lot of gift chocolate made specifically to appeal to men.

A couple of years ago Ritsuko got me these wonderful Chocolate Tools, and last year I received this set from the same Kobe chocolate maker. I didn't think there'd be any way for her ever to top that, but oh, was I wrong.

Jurassic Chocolat

Jurassic Chocolat - cool, a dinosaur perhaps?

Hmm, Tools?

Uh? A manual and a set of tools? Not just a dinosaur methinks.

Tools Of The Trade

Ahhh! A hammer to break the hard chocolate crust; a spoon to dig up soft stuff and a brush to carefully remove small bits. Let's go digging for bones!

Break The Surface

Carefully break the hard crust. It takes a fair few whacks to make it crack. The hammer is surprisingly heavy and solid.


We're through. The crust of dark chocolate is pretty thick and quite hard, but the layer beneath seems to be much softer and crumblier.

Chunky Chocolate

make a good-sized opening, and spoon away bits of crust so we get a nice surface to work on.

Remove That Gravel

Carefully remove the chocolate gravel with the brush - we don't know how deep it is and we don't want to harm anything below it.

Something There!

Ah, there's something there! A bit of bone-white chocolate is poking through.

Careful, Careful...

Carefully brush away the gravel; we don't want to break anything.

A Fossil

It's a fossil - a tasty white-chocolate fossil embedded in a slab of dark chocolate.

Chocolate Fossil

Jurassic Chocolat.

This is incredibly geeky, and amazingly wonderful. Ritsuko knows me only too well, I think. I spent a glorious sunday planning the shoot, setting up lighting and camera (I realize now I should have raked a side-light across the slab on the last image), then slowly digging up and uncovering the chocolate fossil, taking pictures all the while. It's not just a bit of candy, it's a whole day of geeky entertainment.

It's good chocolate too. We've eaten all the crust already, and we'll use the gravel for hot cocoa. We haven't started on the fossil itself yet so I can't say how the white chocolate tastes, but it should be as good as the rest. Thank you, Ritsuko, for a wonderful gift!