Monday, May 30, 2011

Typhoon #2

Typhoon #2 hit Japan over the weekend. It ran right over Okinawa main island then aimed straight for Honshu. Okinawa, Kyushu, parts of Shikoku and southern Honshu all saw a good deal of damage; uprooted trees, mudslides, turned-over trucks and so on. About 65 people have been injured, though thankfully nobody has died.

The typhoon aimed straight at Osaka, and just as it was about to hit - it got downgraded to a tropical storm and veered off out into the sea. There was storm damage all around but in Osaka itself we just got a good downpour and a little bit of wind. This often happens with typhoons.

One possible reason is that Osaka lies very sheltered in a river delta at the and of Seto inland sea, with Shikoku and Awaji acting as sea-side buffers, and the mountains in Wakayama and Hyogo protecting it from land. Another popular explanation is that Osaka is too loud, too coarse and too vulgar for such high-status weather systems; typhoons try to avoid the embarrassment of being seen anywhere near the city. My money is on the second theory.

Friday, May 27, 2011


Sogo and Daimaru

Tsuyu - the rainy season - has arrived in Kansai. It's early; it normally starts around the second week of June. Also, Okinawa is expecting its first typhoon of the season already, and it may even reach Honshu in a few days. While typhoon season typically starts around now, it's rare for the early typhoons to be strong enough to hit Japan directly.

The weather service has predicted a hotter summer than normal; let's just hope it won't be as bad as last year. Much of the country is going to have energy supply problems already, and a heatwave will make the problem worse. Of course, it would give us an excuse to go snorkelling...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Too Many Papers


Time for some bellyaching. I have a collection of RSS feeds from various research journals that show me recently published papers I might be interested in. This morning I had 208 new papers waiting for me.

208 papers that might interest me. In one day. Just from the small subset of journals I have RSS feeds for. I spent an hour just eyeing through the titles, and of those 208 papers there were five that I clicked through and will take a real look at.

First, this tells me I need to set up better filtering. Most papers are of no interest to me at all, but most journals will simply push a list of all their published papers and not give me a choice of what to see. The problem with filtering is of course that I might miss papers that turn out to be relevant. I can live with that.

Second, it is incredibly annoying when a journal RSS feed contains only the title, not the abstract - "Nature", "Science", "Nature Neuroscience", "Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience" and "Neural Computation" are all guilty of this. If I have 200+ new items to go through then I am not going to click through every promising title to find out what the damn paper is actually about. I end up only clicking on the papers that are obviously relevant and ignoring the rest. Yes, I may miss relevant papers, but I can live with that.

Oh, and a special mention to "Science", which has no feed with only the new papers. Instead they see fit to publish only an RSS feed with everything in their latest issue. I'm not very inclined to read editorials, "Science 50 years ago" or blurbs about new books or exciting new laboratory equipment when all I want is to dig out from under my morning pile of papers. And sometimes they publish their RSS feed before the corresponding web page is actually available. If I get an error page when looking for a paper then I am not likely to remember to try again tomorrow. In fact, the "Science" feed is annoying enough that I consider removing it. I may miss relevant papers that way, but I can live with that.


How can I live with missing potentially relevant papers? Because I'm drowning in relevant papers already. The challenge isn't lack of information; the challenge is to not get overwhelmed by all the new information washing over me every day. As I said, I found five potentially useful papers this morning; that's a typical number, and I might stumble on to another few before the day is over, without even looking. Just a quick look at the new papers, perhaps follow a reference or two of theirs in turn and I'll spend most of my morning catching up with new papers. A focused search for information will easily eat up the rest of my day.

I'm very unlikely to miss something truly important. I'll hear about any ground-breaking new paper soon enough. But the vast majority of papers aren't ground-breaking; most are barely of interest to anybody but their authors1, and is it's relevant to me I'll likely stumble on to the same info in some other paper later on.

This flood of papers keeps getting worse. I - and everybody else - will have to continue to narrow down our interests, to drop sources, to become quicker and more ruthless with out sifting, and - yes - missing things in the process. If we don't, catching up with current research will leave us with no time for any actual research of our own.

What will go? If my own experience is any guide, any journal that makes finding and reading their papers difficult will lose out. Anything I can't find through normal searches; any publication with restricted online access; any paper I can't download directly. If it's truly ground-breaking, then I'll hear about it. If not, I'll just find the same information somewhere else.

#1 Yes, this goes for my own work as well. Most of science is about crossing t's and dotting i's, and makes very little direct difference for anybody else. That doesn't mean it's useless; it's all work that needs to be done, and the rare, high-profile breakthroughs depend on it for them to happen. This should perhaps really be the subject of a separate post.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Gakkenflex TLR

Ritsuko gave me a Gakkenflex for Christmas last year. It is a kit film camera from Otona no Kagaku; I wrote about their wonderful Stirling engine kit. I've built it and used it for a few rolls now.


The Gakkenflex is a twin-lens reflex camera - a TLR. A TLR, just like the better known SLR (for single-lens reflex) is a solution to the age-old problems of "how do I see what I'll get, and how do focus this thing?" It uses two lenses, one to focus and one to actually take a picture.


A TLR to the left and an SLR to the right.

The idea with the TLR is that you have two lenses: the upper lens points to a mirror and then on to a focusing screen on top, while the lower lens points directly at the film or digital sensor. The lenses have the same focal length and are mechanically coupled, so that they both show the same scene and are always focused at the same distance.

The result is a compact, light, simple and reliable camera in a convenient rectangular package. With separate lenses there is no shutter lag and no finder black-out when you take the picture. It's one of the great design successes in the camera world. Hundreds of models have been made, by dozens of companies over the years, all with the same basic design.

There's a few drawbacks, though. The two lenses see the world from somewhat different angles, so close up the finder no longer shows you exactly what you'll get. The design makes it difficult to use polarisers and split-density filters, and if you want replaceable optics you need sets of two lenses for every focal length. The solution for that is the now very popular SLR. As you can see on the right above, we replace the two lenses with just one lens, and make the mirror flip up and down. When down it shows the image on the focusing screen, and when up it lets the image through to the film or sensor. We'll see exactly what we're going to get.

The SLR is another trade-off, of course. The finder goes dark while you take the picture, and as the mirror needs to move away there is a noticeable time lag between pressing the shutter and taking the picture. Also, the mechanism is quite noisy and vibration prone, and the faster you make the mirror the more noise and vibration you get. An SLR typically needs to use faster shutter speeds than other camera types or you get blurry images.

One drawback of the TLR is that the finder image is flipped left-to-right - but the image is flipped on an SLR focusing screen too. We get a correct image in most SLR cameras because we add a prism on top of the finder. This prism re-flips the image and projects it straight back so we we can look through straight ahead. Nothing prevents you from adding a prism to a TLR finder. We use a prism for 35mm SLR cameras because the small focusing screen is hard to see and hard to focus. Most TLR cameras are medium format, and to cover the large, bright focusing screen you need a very big, heavy glass prism. The Pentax 67 I've written about has a removable prism that weighs more than half a kilo - half the entire camera weight - so I normally never use it.


The Gakkenflex is a kit camera - you get the parts and put it together yourself. The kit consists of a thick booklet and a tray with all the camera parts. The booklet is a fun, informative look at the history and mechanics of the TLR, tips for using the Gakkenflex, various ways you can tweak and change the design and so on. The instructions are detailed, with clear step-by-step illustrations.

Gakkenflex Kit

All parts, in the tray.


We begin by assembling the sides with the film winder. The left side here has the film "counter" - a toothed wheel that will rotate half a turn for each 35mm frame.

Shutter Assembly

The shutter parts to the left, and the finished shutter on the backside of the front plate to the right. This is the most complicated part of the camera.

The camera uses a leaf-shutter; the longish leaf-like blade in the picture above that covers the center hole is the shutter itself.

That leaf is spring loaded - you see the spring top left. There's a one-way catch, like a door latch, on it halfway up, and a curved hammer-like part in the top center, sits right next to it. That hammer is also spring loaded, so if you rotate it counterclockwise, against its spring, it'll swing down, pass by the catch and wind up the spring.

If you then release the hammer it'll rotate clockwise, grab the catch and push the leaf away from the lens opening. As it continues to push, the catch will slide off the edge of the hammer and the leaf spring will return the leaf to cover the opening again.

We tension and release the hammer by the shutter lever on the right. It has a catch too - the outer half-circle - that grabs the hammer. As you push the lever the catch tensions the hammer, until it slides off the catch and releases the shutter as above. The lever is spring-loaded too (that's the large spring in the center on the left), and will return the lever when you release it.

The harder the hammer spring, the faster the leaf will be pushed away. And the harder the leaf spring, the faster it'll return - but then you'll need a still harder hammer spring to work against the leaf spring. The included springs give you a shutter speed of around 1/100 seconds, but you can of course change it by replacing the springs.

Neat, simple design.


We've put the front plate, the sides and the film chamber together. The slanted grooves at the top is where the mirror will go and the round hole is for the upper focusing lens.

Lens Assembly

Here's the lens assemblies. The upper row is the picture taking lens with its aperture disc, and the lower is the focusing lens. The two lens elements are identical; there's no particular reason they must be, though. Many TLR cameras have a simpler and cheaper, but brighter, focusing lens with a larger open aperture. You want as much light as possible for focusing and the image quality doesn't matter so bright and cheap makes sense.


Add the mirror and screen, the back plate and the finder shade/covers (here opened up), and we're done. One Gakkenflex, freshly born.

You focus by turning the lenses. The lens barrels are threaded - one clockwise, one counterclockwise - and they are coupled by the gear teeth around the rim. As you screw one lens in and out, the other lens follows right along.

The knob on the upper left in the picture is for winding the film, lower right is for rewinding it. The lever at the front is the shutter.

Done! Now, what have we got? A tiny, so-light-it-probably-floats 35mm camera with fixed - around 1/100-ish - shutter speed and fixed aperture about right for 400 ASA film. I'm not kidding about the size or weight; put it in a coat pocket and you'll forget it's even there. The construction is not very sturdy, but then, it really doesn't have to be.

Yashica Mat and Gakkenflex

The Gakkenflex together with a Yashica Mat - really a lightweight, compact camera, but it looks big and menacing next to the tiny 35mm Gakkenflex.

The finder is portrait oriented and 35mm-sized, which makes framing a challenge and focusing mostly guesswork. Bring a loupe or magnifying glass to make it easier. The taking lens is a single element, so we're sure to get lots of interesting effects near the corners of each picture. The ability to focus is a step up from the Fuji single-use cameras, but while Fuji tries to minimize lens aberrations, the Gakkenflex positively celebrate them.


Book. Painted ad for a long-gone bookstore on Nagahori street, Osaka.

This pretty much sums up the kind of image quality you get: colorful, a little dreamy, with decent detail in the center that fades to dark, vignetted blur towards the edges. And of course both focusing and framing is hit and miss.


You can take fairly normal outdoor shots, but you can also easily use the blur to give you a fake toy- or model-like quality to your images. Here's one of the main roads through Kobe.

Slippery Slope

With darker scenes you may have to brighten afterwards, and that brings out the vignetting in the corners. Here a delivery truck is stuck on an icy slope in Ikoma, with the driver putting on snowchains. It's getting hot and humid here in Osaka now, and this picture makes me miss winter.


The fixed shutter speed is no problem in low light - just hold the camera steady and take multiple exposures. With care it'll look no different than a single shot. This is Nakanoshima, from Yodoyabashi.


If people are moving around, though, it'll be obvious what you did. Umeda subway station.

Going Home

You can play with the effect, of course; here the train is arriving at Kita Ikoma station.

Moving Image

Or really play with it - here's an impressionistic portrait of Ritsuko in a Kobe pub. Not that you'd know by looking at it.

This is a seriously fun camera. The kit is one of Otona No Kagaku's all-time best-sellers, and for good reason. It's made to be easily tweakable by its users, and there's thriving communities dedicated to hacking and playing with it. Change the aperture, make it square-format, swap lenses, make it a pinhole camera, take it underwater, add a finder prism - you can easily spend so much time playing with the design you forget to take pictures.

But the pictures are not bad at all. The cheap lens and vignetting imparts an ethereal, otherworldy quality to the most mundane scenes. The low resolution and heavy off-center blurring means that even low-end lab scans can bring out all that the camera has to offer. And the finder ensures you'll always be surprised - positively, more often than not - by the pictures you get back. Here's the full set of images

No Bikes

No Bikes. Karahori, Osaka.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Super Cool Biz


Not so Cool Biz.

A recurring feature here every summer lately is "Cool Biz"; a campaign to limit air conditioner use in offices during summer and have office workers dress a bit more casually - no tie and no jacket - to combat the heat instead. This campaign has taken off, and it seems most offices go casual between June and September or so.

Captains of Industry

Cool Biz.

This summer the campaign becomes more important than usual. The Tohoku disaster has caused major disruptions in energy production. It's not just - or even primarily - the broken-down reactors at Fukushima; a couple of major coal and gas power plants were also heavily damaged, a number of power plants were emergency shut-down, and one plant - Hamaoka - that lies right on top of a fault overdue for a quake has been ordered to halt until safety measures can be strengthened. A number of other reactors are due for yearly maintenance and inspection and are or will be shut-down for summer. If no reactors get permission to restart again - and in the face of the ongoing Fukushima disaster it would be difficult - Asahi Shimbun estimates that 42 out of 54 reactors, 80% of the nuclear capacity, will be offline during the hot summer months.

The government is setting an enforced 15% power savings target for eastern Japan during summer, and capacity is stretched thin in western Japan as well. The environmental agency is instituting "Super Cool Biz" in their own offices, where they allow employees to wear t-shirts, jeans and Hawaiian-style short-sleeved shirts. They also recommend extending the Cool Biz period to between May and October.

A Style All His Own

Really Cool Biz.

I don't expect a lot of companies will go as far as allowing t-shirts in the office, but NHK did have a segment last week on a company that institutes "Extreme Cool Biz" this summer, with no air conditioner at all, just fans and open windows, and employees wear t-shirts or tank-tops. It's a web design company, with an average employee age of 25 or so, which makes it a tad less surprising perhaps. You're unlikely to ever find the branch manager of a major bank in a tank-top at the office (and when you consider the physical condition of middle-aged office workers I doubt you'll want to).

Cool Biz doesn't really affect me personally; I wear the normal academic uniform of jeans and open shirt all year round. But I do see it during my commute of course. It's become a sign of summer when the dark coats and ties all but disappear in the subway, and when the coats and ties return you know we're due for autumn. It almost makes me wish for a festival or something; each company with its own salaryman dance troupe parading down Midosuji street on the morning of June 1st, ceremoniously casting off their coats and tie to welcome the summer.

I've noticed a possible longer-term change. Some years ago, salarymen all wore their suit jacket and tie in the mornings, ready for the office. But the past couple of winters more and more office workers - up to one in four perhaps, this winter - elect to go casual for their commute, and put on their tie and coat only once they reach the office. It seems Cool Biz is gradually eroding the perception of proper business attire. After all, if it's OK to wear an open shirt when it's 35 degrees, why not when it's 25? The strict suit-shirt-tie uniform is certainly here to stay for now, but I would not make any bets for the next generation.

Resting on a bench

Relax Biz.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


I'm slowly working through the images from Okinawa. At the same time I'm starting preparations - for going to Okinawa. I'm going to OIST in June as tutor for a three-week course in computational neuroscience. Posting will continue to be light for a while.

Meanwhile, do read Cookies by Douglas Adams. It is a retelling of a classic urban legend, but he does it masterfully.

Friday, May 6, 2011


We're back from the Yaeyama islands in Okinawa, with sunburns, bottles of awamori and black sugar umeshū, pineapples and bananas, sand absolutely everywhere, and with piles of laundry and an even bigger piles of work awaiting us at home. It'll be a while before I do a picture post on the trip; I have four rolls of 120-format film and two underwater single-use cameras to develop and scan, and I have a backlog of work that really takes precedence.

The Yaeyama islands in Okinawa are the southernmost and westernmost part of Japan; closer to Taiwan than to Okinawa itself, to say nothing of Honshu. We visited Ishigaki island - population of almost 50000 people, and with a convenient direct flight from Osaka; Taketomi island just ten minutes by ferry from Ishigaki; and Iriomote, the largest island of Yaeyama and second in size only to Okinawa itself but with a population of only about 2000.


  • We're spoiled with reliable weather forecasts here in Osaka. In Yaeyama, the forecast matched reality only a few times and then only by random chance. Even the current weather was wildly off; the first two days the weather agency reported clear blue skies even as we faced heavy clouds with occasional rain showers. The latter part of the week was supposed to be mostly rain but we had mixed clouds and sunshine with hardly a drop from the sky.

    One reason is probably a lack of data. These are small islands in a large ocean, and you don't have many weather stations out on the open sea. But the main reason is that the weather just isn't very predictable. It can swing from sunshine to rain then back again within an hour, and the same small island can have very different weather, with clear skies on one end and a rain storm on the other.

    The lesson is, don't rely on a good weather forecast on one hand, and don't let a bad forecast deter you on the other.

  • Minshuku - guest houses - or small family-run hotels are great places to stay. Service and general standards isn't always a match for a regular hotel or resort of course, but it's more personal and approachable. The food too, if meals are included, is always more interesting and memorable than bland hotel fare. The service tends to be more personal too; the owner of Iriomote Island Hotel brought a group of us up a nearby mountain at dusk to see the fireflies one night for instance.

  • I have to revise my opinion of Okinawan soba noodles. I tried them twice on my single previous overnight trip to the islands and found them bland and fatty, even disagreeable. This time we had soba a number of times - at soba restaurants, as part of our set meals - and they were invariably delicious. Maybe I had bad luck with them on my previous trip, or perhaps I have broadened my culinary horizons since. Or, perhaps, Yaeyama-style soba and Okinawa-style soba are different. I'm going to Okinawa for work this summer so I guess I'll find out then.

  • Habu, the poisonous snake, is a real danger, but one I am less worried about now than before the trip. About a hundred people get bitten every year and people can die from a bite, though nobody has in the past few years. The snakes are mostly nocturnal so bring a good flashlight - the light will help you see them in time, and will scare them away before you ever get close. Other advice is along the lines of: don't stick your hands or feet into a dark hollow, especially if it hisses; stay away from the edge of the road at night; and don't try to pick up a snake while drunk.

    A hundred cases per year in all of Okinawa, an island chain with a population of over 1.3 million people, and maybe twice that when you add all the tourists. Very few people actually get bitten in other words, and they tend to not have followed the basic safety advice above. Keep the danger in mind, be a little careful and you'll be fine.

  • Many, perhaps most, tourists come for fishing, diving and snorkelling. If I fish at all, I prefer low-intensity angling - throw out the hook and float, wedge the pole in a tree, then go to sleep for a few hours - so Hemingwayish deep-water fishing is not really my thing. Diving is a serious equipment sport with bagfuls of expensive stuff to haul around, and you need a medical examination, a safety course and a license to even begin. Snorkelling, on the other hand, is light on both equipment and preparation, so Ritsuko suggested we get masks and snorkels and try some shallow water snorkelling.

    We did, and it is amazing - extraordinary - even without fins and just paddling around in chest-deep water at the inner edge of the coral reef right next to the beach. Snorkelling alone is reason enough to travel to Okinawa, and I can't wait to go again. I'm entertaining the idea of summers spent snorkelling on Iriomote and winters snowboarding in Hokkaido once I retire. Only 23 years to go...

  • A substantial proportion of Yaeyama islanders, younger ones especially, are from outside Okinawa province. Many people we talked with came from Kanto, Kansai or other areas on Honshu. Some people had a previous connection to the islands; they were born there but moved to the mainland as children, or they or their spouse had relatives in Okinawa. Other immigrants have no previous connection. The owner of Iriomotes only ramen place is an avid diver and moved from Tokyo with his wife and children to live close to the excellent diving areas. The sea, the relaxed lifestyle and the climate all bring people from other parts of Japan.

  • Awamori is the local drink, a distilled rice wine similar to shōchū, but made with long grain rice and a different yeast culture. It's quite pleasant when you cut it with water and ice, or with hot water for a toddy. Orion beer is everywhere of course, but Yaeyama also has a local microbrewery with a good weissbier.

The trip was a rousing success. Golden Week really isn't the best time of year; june or october-november supposedly has better weather and even warmer water. Taketomi is a bit, well, touristy. Ishigaki is a pleasant town and works great as a base for visiting the other islands. Next time I want to revisit Iriomote, and perhaps also go to Yonaguni, the westernmost island in the chain, and the westernmost point of Japan. Next time.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Asparagus with Kaviar Mayonnaise

Since we're in Okinawa for an entire week, I took the liberty of scheduling this post before we left. We should be on Iriomote right about now, perhaps on a jungle tour, and we're probably having a great time. Unless, of course, the ferry sunk, a typhoon hit or we've been attacked by any of the fascinatingly dangerous wildlife (where's the full-body chain-mail bathing suit when you need it). I

Anyway, I wanted to share with you a simple asparagus side dish we've been making lately, now that it's in season. It really is simplicity itself, with only three ingredients and almost no preparation time.

  • Take some green asparagus - about two per person or so. Cut off the hard bit at the bottom (you can feel the hard part), then cut each stalk in four pieces.

  • Steam the asparagus for a few minutes, until they're just getting soft. I guess boiling is fine too, we just haven't tried it. Check that they're done with a toothpick, and don't forget them, whatever you do. Soggy, limp overcooked asparagus is no fun. Cool them in cold water.

  • Meanwhile, take some mayonnaise and either Swedish kaviar (salted, smoked cod roe in a tube) or Japanese mentaiko (marinated pollock roe) - the taste is surprisingly similar. Mix to taste in a small bowl; start with about a tablespoon of each, then adjust until you find a good balance between the creamy mayonnaise and the salty roe.

  • Arrange the asparagus either all on one plate, or separately for each person. Dollop a bit of the mix on top, then serve.

Asparagus with kaviar mayonnaise

Asparagus with kaviar mayonnaise.