Sunday, February 7, 2021

Winter walks

I've spent some time walking and cycling around the Naha area lately, camera in hand. I haven't really done that in a few years; no idea why I stopped. Anyway, it's fun to explore your neighbourhood and nearby areas - there's still so many places to discover even right around the corner.

Naha has a reputation for being a bit rundown, ugly and full of tourists. I don't think it deserves that; there are many spots around the town that are beautiful, even serene. This is Miituji park and canal just a block from the waterfront.

Naminoue beach in Naha. It's right in the city and right next to the commercial harbour so it's hardly an unspoiled wilderness. This road bridge leads to the airport further down the coast. But it's still a nice beach, and I love that we can live in the middle of a city and still have a place to cool off in the summer just a few minutes away.

Critics are right about one thing: Naha (and Okinawa) has a lot of concrete construction, and a lot of it looks worn down and broken. But that's really a result of the climate here.

With frequent typhoons you really want sturdy buildings. The hot, humid climate and salty sea winds makes everything rust, makes concrete crumble, and mould will quickly discolour anything exposed to the outside.

Yang Kyou Fang (The Golden Swallow). Probably the best Chinese restaurant we know here. It's also conveniently almost next door. They've been hurting over the pandemic, like all restaurants, but seems to still do OK. Their take-out service seems very popular — we order now and again, and there's always other customers there picking up their orders — and they have enough space to safely have some level of eat-in service.

Speaking of Chinese restaurants, this fried pork is from another restaurant called  Kujakurou (Peakock) in Ginowan. It's older and perhaps more traditional than Yang Kyou Fang. Both are good.

"Gabe Useful — Junk"

Matsuo Park in Naha.

I'm back to using my old Pentax K5-IIs. It's almost ten years old now, and starting to show its age, but honestly still the one camera I find most natural and effortless to use. And I really enjoy the results I get, even in near-darkness. 

Saturday, January 16, 2021

An Osaka New Year

 Osaka for New Year as usual. Except, of course, not like usual. Nothing this year has been.

New Year sales poster.

 On a normal year we'd go out to eat a lot. We'd probably spend New years eve at a certain bar with people we know. We would perhaps stay overnight at a ryokan somewhere, and we'd certainly go out mingling in the crowds. 

None of that happened. We did venture outside — it's low-risk away from crowds — but we ate at home every night, and we didn't meet anybody. 

We did take a Hanshin train to Kobe one day; had lunch at Raja, our favourite Indian restaurant; then took a long walk through the Kitano area on the mountain side. We picked a date and time we knew the train and the restaurant would both be quite empty. And Kitano is always quiet in the off season even in a normal year.

Hanshin station, Osaka.

Kobe. It's a worn-down port city but we like it.

A shop in the Kitano district, Kobe. We often get vegetables and other random food here when we come to Kobe.

One thing happened: I brought my Pentax DSLR with me to Osaka, for the first time in years. I'd been using a small mirrorless Olympus for the past several years; small, light and portable, but I was never really happy with it for some reason. Taking the Pentax in my hands felt like coming back home, and taking pictures suddenly felt like fun again.

Midosuji line. On my way back from Nagai park.

A cafe on Midosuji, Osaka.

San Marco curry. Good curry. Not a lot of people.

The four amigos. They all know I'm there; they were laughing and smiling when they saw me grab my camera and realized what they must look like from outside.

I'd forgotten how much fun it is to walk around at random, camera in hand. The mirroless was always a hassle to use; with the Pentax I don't need to look at it or even to think to get the right settings and take the picture. I took more pictures over this holiday than I took all the rest of the year.


We found Small Friendly Duck waiting at a street crossing, and he followed us home. He was a bit worse for wear but after a clean-up he is happy to stay with us in Osaka. Here he is posing with a matching vase of tulips.

We spent new year at home, talking and playing with our phones while Kohaku Gassen, the traditional music show, was playing in the background. It was good. Let's hope 2021 improves over its predecessor. It shouldn't be difficult.


Nagahori at dusk.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Happy New Year

The year of the cow

Happy New Year everybody! Let's hope the coming year turns out better than this one.

/Janne and Ritsuko

Monday, December 21, 2020

A Tale of Two Rice Cookers

December already - time flies. Got the long-sleeved shirts and fleece jackets out already. And we will spend New Year in Osaka as usual, and that city is definitely cold.

Anyway, we've splurged on a new rice cooker. Our old one still works fine (we'll bring it to Osaka), but for a while we've had two rice cookers here. They're both the same size, made by reputable Japanese makers and have similar functions. But the older one, from Sharp, cost around 9000 yen; while the new Toshiba is about 25000.  

Many claim that higher-end rice cookers make better tasting rice. Does the rice cooker really make a difference to the rice? Time to find out!

The Sharp on the left, the Toshiba on the right.

The picture itself is with my Olympus Pen, a camera I've never been really happy with to be honest, and here you see one reason why: the white balance just never comes out well when the light is even a little on the off side.

The old Sharp uses a regular electric heater, while the Toshiba has an induction heater (IH). An induction heater can vary the temperature very precisely and almost instantaneously, This should mean much better temperature control for the Toshiba. Our guess was that the Toshiba would be much better at keeping rice warm without burning it or drying it out, but that fresh boiled rice would be much the same.

We set both to cook half a cup (~80g) of rice, each with the recommended amount of water. The old cooker needs quite a bit more water than the new one. While cooking the Toshiba produced very little steam, much less than the Sharp. The Sharp keeps the rice at a boil, producing lots of steam, while the Toshiba induction heater can keep the pot just barely simmering.

Cooking done — they took about the same time — we sat down, each with two small bowls of rice. Was there a difference?

A simple dinner, with two bowls of rice. And, again, the colour balance is off.

In a word, yes. The flavour is the same; no surprise there. But the texture is very different. The grains from the Sharp have a nice firm center but a somewhat mushy surface. The Toshiba rice has a completely uniform texture that is pleasantly firm all the way through.

There's nothing wrong with the rice froim our old cooker; we've been happy with it so far, and we will continue to use the cooker back in Osaka. But the texture from the Toshiba is just obviously better. I didn't really expect that.

You can of course adjust the amount of water for the Sharp. But even if you do, it can't quite produce that even result we get from the Toshiba. Perhaps it's partly because the grains bounce around and rub off each other as they boil, while they lay still in the Hitachi. Now I'm curious if a 50K rice cooker might be even better...

Thursday, October 8, 2020

I get tested

Working at a research institute has some occasional benefits. One is the ready availability of materials and expertise for all kinds of lab work and testing.

The overall infection rate in Japan has been very low, and with a very few exceptions, people are still not travelling from abroad at this time (the ones that do face a two-week quarantine).

COVID the PCR edition

OIST has developed clinical PCR testing capability, and in addition to offer it to help the Okinawan prefecture, OIST also uses it internally. If you have travelled outside Okinawa on OIST business you are required to take the PCR test. But you are also strongly encouraged to take the test if you travelled privately, or if you suspect you may have been exposed for some other reason. We've had two cases at OIST so far, but thanks in part to the prompt testing, no spread within the university.

The PCR test kit. You receive it at the guard hut at the entrance, take it to your car or bathroom, do the test, then drop it into a collection box. The whole thing takes five minutes.

The test is simple: no cotton swabs into your nose, but just a bit of spit into a sample tube. You get the kit, collect and seal the sample and record the case number yourself. You get the number by email from an — I believe — automated registration process, and the result is emailed back, so the test result is effectively semi-anonymous. The manager can clearly de-identify a test, but the people running the lab testing have no idea who the samples come rom. 

The sample tube. You spit into the tube through the blue funnel. Remove the funnel, put on the cap and you're done. Easy.

The test is free (of course), but you need to take it three times: the first working day after you return you take the test, then work from home — you're not allowed into OIST. If the test is negative the next morning you can come to work. You then take a second test on the third working day; and a third on the sixth. That's probably more cautious than is really warranted; two tests would already catch all but a very few positive cases.

Interlude: Osaka

We spent our summer vacation back in Osaka. I hadn't been back since last winter, and had a number of things to take care of. But it's also nice to spend some time in a big city again. I really like Okinawa but it can sometimes feel a little cramped.


Itami airport, Osaka. Really, really empty. I seriously wonder just how long it will take for leisure travel — and all the related business — to return to normal levels. Years, likely, and perhaps it will never completely bounce back.

The city definitely felt a bit subdued. It's a bit like during New Year or Golden Week when traffic is light and many offices are closed. Most shops and restaurants are open but customers are few. Definitely a tough time.


Uniqlo in Shinsaibashi.

Ogawa in Osaka, at dusk. Neat colours. You get to see a lot of views like this when you get in the habit of running.

Big Friendly Duck was back to provide a little light relief.


When I returned (two days early due to a typhoon) I of course had to take the test. All three tests came back negative. Pretty quick and simple.

COVID the antibody edition

OIST has also been running an antibody test project. PCR tests look for virus RNA in your blood; that tells you if you are currently infected or not. An antibody test looks for antibodies to the virus and tells you if you have been infected in the past. 

The antibody tests says nothing about whether you are currently infected, or whether you are immune. An immune response only means your immune system has encountered the virus. It doesn't mean that it is actually capable of fighting off an infection.

It's not immediately useful for the tested individual, but it can tell you how many people have been infected in a population at one time or another, and so it tells us a lot about how widely the virus has spread, how easily you get infected and so on. This was a research project, not a clinical test, and participation was completely voluntary.

This time the test was completely anonymous. You picked up a testing kit at random from a box full of kit bags. Each kit had a random ID number, and a QR code that lead to "your" page on the project website. There you got information about the project, instructions on how to take the sample and the final result. At no time could anybody figure out who you were.

The antibody sampling kit. An alcohol swab and a bandaid; a test tube for collecting blood; and an automatic lancet. You remove the safety plug (on the far right) then press the lancet against your finger. It makes a tiny cut that hopefully bleeds enough to give you a good sample. I had to struggle to get enough into the test tube.

The sample is a bit more intrusive than with the PCR test: you had to donate ~1ml blood. The kit included a small finger lancet so it was still easy and painless enough; my only problem — and I heard others complain about the same thing — was to get enough blood into the sample tube before it stopped bleeding. 

Again, the test was negative. Probably a good thing. We now know that even a mild infection can cause lasting and perhaps life-long damage to your heart and lungs especially. But an asymptomatic infection with a strong immune response Could have meant a much lower chance of catching it again later on. 

I haven't heard about the overall results yet, but with such an isolated group of people on a fairly remote part of the world I would be surprised if there are more than a handful of positive results at the most.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Long, long summer

A long, long summer and a long, long year. After a very well-contained first wave of infections, COVID started spreading rapidly in Japan again, and especially here on Okinawa. 

A small part of the blame might be put on the American bases; they imported the out of control situation from the USA, and some employees apparently decided that quarantine recommendations didn't apply to them, not when they could join large outdoor parties on their national day. But that outbreak was contained pretty well.

No, the main culprit — of this as of so many other Japanese problems — is the LDP-led government. The economy is tanking, here as everywhere, and after several earlier public relations fiascos (such as spending a fortune on badly designed masks people didn't want) and dogged corruption charges they decided Something Must Be Done. Something with public appeal; something that puts money in the pocket of their corporate donors; something that distracts people from misuse of public funds.

And in a pandemic, when the key thing is to avoid crowds, avoid unnecessary travel and staying at home, what could possibly be a better stimulus idea than a "Go To Travel" summer vacation travel campaign? Yes, they are simultaneously telling people to stay at home and giving a 30% discount on resort hotel bookings.

So of course people travel. And they bring the virus along with them. Especially to Okinawa, the premier summer holiday destination. But also the poorest part of the country, with the fewest ICU beds and a shortage of qualified medical personnel. We are now the hardest hit area in the country by population.

Fortunately, the government has been as inept at creating the campaign as they are with anything else. The whole thing has been a confused mess with contradictory information and no guidance for the businesses. As Tokyo infection rates soared, they added a last-minute restriction excluding Tokyo residents, with no plan of who would pay the inevitable cancellations, or any idea if such an exclusion would even be legal.

And as the infection numbers continued swelling, people sensibly started to rethink their vacation plans. Stores on Okinawa are almost as empty again as they were during the first wave of infections, and the number of rental cars on the road — a good indication of tourist numbers — have declined a lot again after the initial burst in June and early July.

Now the infection numbers are finally dropping slightly again, both on Okinawa and on the mainland. Turns out that people in general have the sense to take precautions and avoid undue risk, whether the government wants them to or not. 


Speaking of which, the government is in turmoil again, as Abe has decided to quit. This is only about a year before he has to leave the post and call a new election, and less than a year before his last pet project, the Olympics, may (or may not) finally be held in Tokyo. 

I wish I could say the reason is political; that he was ousted in some party power struggle, or that his several corruption scandals finally caught up with him. Indeed, some Japanese seem to believe he is quitting before he can get fired. But the reason seems to be both more prosaic and more sad. He has been visibly ill lately, and the announcement came just days after a follow-up medical appointment. 

Abe has a chronic intestinal disorder; that's what ended his first round as prime minister years ago, and a lot of people speculate that this has taken a turn for the worse. This is very possible. But he is not actually leaving just yet; instead he will stay put until his party can elect a successor. He is well enough to continue to work for the time being in other words, but too ill to stay on until the end of his term in a year.

This could of course — as some speculate — simply be a pretext to leave; he has become the longest sitting prime minister, he has no real hope of accomplishing anything else of substance (the Olympics probably don't stand a chance), and leaving may take the wind out of the ongoing corruption cases dogging him. But this could also be the final political acts of a man who received some very bad medical news and is putting his affairs in order while still able to do so.

If the reason is medical there's no reason to be happy. I may dislike his politics, the corruption scandals and his lack of leadership, but I wouldn't wish a life-threatening disease on him for that either. I hope he pulls through, gets better again, and can enjoy a long healthy life out of the stress of the public eye.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Pinebook Pro

I'm bored.

I'm working at home because of the Corona virus; we've spent our weekends and the entire Golden Week vacation at home because of Corona; my emails, Line and other communication all involve Corona; NHK news and morning shows is nothing but Corona stories; newspapers, Reddit, podcasts, even Steam forums are filled with posts about - well, you know what. My life has turned into the All Corona All The Time Multimedia Extravaganza.

This is an ongoing disaster, it's disrupting all our lives, and we absolutely must protect those who would otherwise die from the disease. But I'm also fed up with the constant media bombardment about something I can do nothing about.

Okinawa has had no new cases for two weeks now, and we're finally preparing to get back to work again from Monday next week. It's probably only temporary of course; the infection rate is bound to bounce back, especially as we are moving into the main tourist season. Oh, and just to spice things up a little bit, the first typhoon of the season is expected to hit us on Monday morning. Not a strong one, but still - we got a million problems, why not add a typhoon?

I'm bored. Let's talk about something else.

Such as things I get in the mail.

A package! for me — I wonder what it could be? Oooh, it's a computer! "Pinebook Pro". It certainly looks very slick.

Around the time we moved to Okinawa three years ago I got myself a HP Spectre 360 for a lightweight, high-performance laptop. It was light, fast and beautiful. It was expensive — and as fragile as a Faberge egg.

About a year ago we spilled water on the dining table — not on the laptop, just the table. Some of the water trickled its way under the computer, where the bottom fan sucked it inside and promptly killed the machine. Repairing it would have cost as much as buying a new computer.

That expensive mistake soured me on the whole idea of a laptop for a long while. I've relied on my desktop and my smartphone. But I missed having a portable computer, and when I saw this thing I had to try it out.

The Pinebook Pro

The Pinebook Pro in all it's glory. It looks and feels just as good in real life as it seems in this image. Thin and light, fanless, good screen, good keyboard, metal shell.

In short, the Pinebook Pro is a slim fanless — completely quiet! — 13" laptop with a metal chassis and a 1080p screen; 4GB ram, 64GB eMMC storage, and slots for an SSD and SD-cards; USB A and C ports, a web camera, a headphone jack all the rest you expect from a decent modern laptop. The USB-C port can charge the machine and run an external display.

It uses an ARM processor, it's built to run Linux — and it costs all of $200.

Pine64 produces and sells single-board ARM computers, embedded systems and things like that for end users and hobbyists. But they also do fun projects such as the Pinebook Pro, the Pinephone and Pinetime (a DIY programmable smartwatch — I really need one of these!)

The outside case is metal, and feels like a much more premium device. The screen is decently clear and bright, with no corner fall-off or glare. The keyboard is clackety but feels fine and is absolutely good enough for extended use. It's not at the level of that HP laptop or a Mac, but it feels much higher quality than the $200 price tag would imply.

The CPU is a Rockchip RK3399 ARM SOC. ARM CPUs don't have to be slow — look at the Fujitsu A64FX — but this is a mobile CPU meant to sit in a smartphone. It's a "BIG-little" design, with two faster power-hungry cores, and four slow but very efficient cores. Background tasks can run on the small, slow cores, using very little power, while the big cores will run your foreground work fast.

It comes with 64GB eMMC (flash) storage built in. 64GB isn't a lot and MMC isn't very fast but you're not going to do anything really data-intensive with this laptop. A full Linux desktop installation takes about 4-6GB so almost all of the space is available for your data.

The SD-Card slot lets you boot from an SD card as well as add external storage. You can add a real SSD though an optional M.2 adapter, though it needs to be thin and low-power, and it will drain the battery noticeably faster.

The low power draw and the USB-C port has an unexpected benefit: I can charge it with my USB-C phone charger. When I write this or surf the web the phone charger can just about manage to trickle-charge the device. If I play games or compile software it can't quite keep up. Still, it means I can bring just a single, small charger for both laptop and phone.

Open Source

This is built for Linux and BSD - neither Windows nor OSX will run. As of this spring, the default distribution is Manjaro with the KDE desktop. Manjaro has been a very positive experience for me (and worth a post of its own, I think). KDE is a very polished, full-featured desktop. I haven't used it in years and I'm not comfortable with it for various reasons, but it's easy to replace it with a lighter, less intrusive desktop such as XFCE or even i3 if you like.

There are a number of other distributions available for the Pinebook already. You can easily test any of them by copying one of them to an SD card and boot it on the laptop. I've tried 3-4 different ones already; so far Manjaro — with XFCE or KDE — has been the most polished experience.

The openness extends to the hardware. The Wiki page has instructions on disassemble it and extensive documentation on the internals, up to and including the exact measurements of the case parts in case you want to mod or replace anything.

In Use

With 4GB memory, a mobile ARM processor and MMC storage, this is not a fast laptop. There are things you can't do or won't do with it. But it can do a lot — and at $200 I can literally get ten of these for that HP laptop I managed to ruin. I could break one of these every six months and still come out ahead.

The Pinebook Pro on the beach. I'd hate to take an expensive machine to a place like this, but with the Pinebook I don't worry at all.

I wanted to do a performance test, so as a quick, dumb comparison I picked building and running POV-Ray, a fun, scriptable raytracing program that's open-source.

I downloaded the latest release (, then ran two different tests: compile the POV-Ray source, and run its built-in benchmark test. All were built with GCC 9.3, using the default configuration for POV-Ray ("-O3 -ffast-math -march=native"). I didn't touch the power settings on any system, or tune things in any way.

The compilation is a decent real-world test of a common computing task, and is mostly memory and I/O-bound. The POV-Ray benchmark itself, where it raytraces an image off-screen, is fairly simple numerical data processing. I did briefly consider running some BLAS benchmarks as well, but I don't really see the point. If you need BLAS you need a bigger computer.

I ran these two tests on the Pinebook Pro using the two big cores. For comparison I did the same with my desktop sporting a six year old i7-5820K CPU; and with the four year old Lenovo X260 laptop I use at work.

The Pinebook and the 5820K both have 6 cores, but only two of the Pinebook cores are fast. The X260 has two cores in total (multithreading doesn't count), so I ran all the benchmarks using only two cores.

Compilation (left) and benchmark (right) of the POV-Ray ray-tracer on my six year old i75820K CPU, the four year old Lenovo X260 laptop and the Pinebook Pro. All run using two processor cores.

The Pinebook is about 4× slower than the others for compilation. It's about 2.6× slower than the laptop and 3× slower than the desktop for the POV-Ray benchmark.

This is really not too shabby at all. It's quite good, in fact. The Pinebook is 4 times slower compiling the POW-Ray source, but that's mostly due to the relatively slow MMC storage. An SSD would probably speed this up quite a bit.

For the POV-Ray benchmark — lots of simple math and branches — it's 2.6× slower than the X260 laptop and 3× slower than the desktop. For a slim, fan-less low-power machine like this I'm quite pleased, especially at the $200 price. Just the i7-5820K CPU itself still sells for more than the entire Pinebook Pro today.

As an aside, I'm also surprised how good the X260 laptop is. I expected it to fare worse than it did against the desktop. Now, the desktop has another four cores that will speed up the second test almost three times, but per-core there isn't much difference between them. Welcome to the end of Dennard Scaling. (1)

What You Can't Do

Steam and many games won't work. Closed source software in general is usually built for X86 processors and won't run on ARM computers. The current virus-laden elephant in this particular room is Zoom. I, and many with myself, use Zoom on a daily basis while working from home, but there is no Zoom client available for Linux on ARM.

Some open source games and applications will also be difficult or impossible to run — they may need more memory, a faster CPU or a more powerful GPU than this laptop can deliver. Gimp will run fine but you'll struggle to edit larger images. I wouldn't try to run Blender, Pytorch or Eclipse on it.

Today (May 2020) there are still a few rough edges. The power management is a little flaky, so it doesn't reliably go to sleep, and it uses a semi-low power state when sleeping that will drain your battery in a couple of days. But the laptop boots fast enough that I'm OK with shutting it down when I'm not using it.

The keyboard firmware needs some tweaking — the meta ("Windows") key doesn't work with all key combinations — and the trackpad firmware really needs another round of fine tuning to make it a little more responsive.There is a user-created keyboard firmware available but I'm not bothered enough by the issues that I want to take the risk of updating it.

What can you do, then?

Really, almost anything.

Manjaro is built on top of Arch (again, worth a post of its own) which makes a huge amount of open source software available for the Pinebook Pro. If you are able to build it on the laptop at all, you can probably get it through the repositories. Just about any normal desktop or workstation application — compilers, editors, browsers, office apps, computing tools and so on — are at your fingertips. It would be easy to create this entire post, from editing images and creating the graph, to writing and posting it online (and I partly did).

The Pinebook Pro in its natural setting: a hip seaside cafe with shabby-chic furniture and a good selection of third-wave coffee beans. 

Steam is not available, but a lot of open source games are, and even some closed-source games based on Java or Mono — Minecraft and Stardew Valley included — can apparently be made to run with a bit of judicious tweaking.

For computing, my particular niche in this world, Python and most of its enormous pile of packages work just fine. If you need something Matlab-like, you can get Octave (a Matlab clone), or move to Python or Julia for a more modern, up to date experience. I don't recommend using a tiny ARM laptop for numerical computing, but the fact is that you can.

And really, this may be slow by today's standards, but this would have been a decently fast CPU just ten to twelve years ago, and people did manage to perform serious numerical computing long before that.

A lot of modern productivity tools run in the browser today. Microsoft Teams, Gmail and so on will all work fine on the machine (Teams will take a fair bit of the limited memory, mind you). Youtube videos play OK. I'm sure you can use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram Slack and the rest.

Still missing for me is a way to run Zoom. It's our default video conferencing tool at work, I use it a lot to talk with our users, and there is no Zoom client available for download. It's possible I could get it to work though the Chromium browser but I haven't tried that yet. Of course, I can use Zoom on my phone so the problem is not insurmountable.

I would love a Pinebook version of the Steam remote client. That would let me play any game I own on it. It wouldn't be impossible - Valve has released a version for the Raspberry Pi after all.

Could I use the Pinebook Pro as my only computer? Yes, sort of, if I could also use my phone. But it works great as a secondary machine. I'd be happy to bring it for travel — once we can travel again — without fear of losing or breaking it.

And it exudes a sense of fun that I haven't felt with computers in a long time. Never mind being useful, I just enjoy using this.

1) I ran this test on a node on our HPC cluster as well. It may surprise you to know that a state-of-the art HPC node is no faster than my old desktop per-core. In fact, the cluster nodes have a lower clock frequency so they're slightly slower. 

But clusters aren't built to have very fast cores; they're built to have lots of them. I can use up to six cores on my desktop to speed things up, but on our cluster you can use up to 128 cores in a single node, and tens of thousands if you can scale across nodes. That's where the speed comes from.