Thursday, April 26, 2012

Precise Pangolin Is Live


Ubuntu 12.04, codenamed Precise Pangolin1, has finally been released. If you don't know about it, take the tour. Time to update your machines if you run Ubuntu Linux — and perhaps time to give it a spin if you do not. The easiest way to install or try it out is to download it and put it on an USB stick (there's step-by-step instructions on the site).

You can boot your computer from the stick and run Ubuntu right on the USB stick itself, with no installation needed. It will be slower than a real installation of course (USB memory is slow), but you can do just about anything with it that you could with a real installation — run software, install and remove apps, change any settings on the stick to suit you, and so on. It's a great way to try it out without committing to anything, and as all changes are saved on the stick it can be your portable Ubuntu system you can boot and use on any computer anywhere.

The release timing is perfect for us living here in Japan. We can download the new version on Friday morning. On Saturday we enter Golden Week, where back-to back holidays give us more than a week off to geek out with a new operating system spend with our families. I plan to update my desktop and laptop both. With a whole week off, I'll have plenty of unhurried time to make sure everything works before I come back to work.

There's a new version of Ubuntu every six months — why is this one so significant? It's a Long-Term Support (LTS) release. Every three years Ubuntu releases an LTS version that is fully supported and updated with security and critical bugs for six years. Also, an LTS release is focused on bug fixes, polish and stability more than on adding the latest in bleeding-edge coolness. It is, more than any other Ubuntu release, one that is supposed to Just Work.

So this is perfect for things like your work computer, for instance. You set it up once, then have it just do its thing the same way year after year without any nasty upgrade surprises. My desktop at home is almost three years old now; a bit old, but still fairly fast and more than capable. I use it for backups, for film scanning, for image processing and for working at home. It runs the previous LTS release right now, and the upgrade to 12.04 is going to be perfect for it. It's old enough that I will never upgrade the machine again; when it breaks I will replace it with a new one, and install the then-current LTS release.

My laptop, on the other hand, will get 12.04 next week — and then I'll upgrade it to 12.10, Quantal Quetzal, in six months. I like to run the newest stuff I can on my laptop, and 12.10 will add a lot of new, exciting (but perhaps not all that stable) changes to the system.

So LTS releases aren't really separate from the steady stream of Ubuntu releases. Rather, they're like stable stepping stones in the stream of upgrades. You can choose to only step on the LTS releases every three years to stay guaranteed dry, or wade through the excitement of fresh new six-month releases and risk getting a little wet now and again.

#1 Ubuntu releases get a code name in the form of "Adverb Animal", with the next letter of the alphabet every time. The next one is Quantal Quetzal, the one after that is yet to be named but will begin with R and so on. It will be interesting to see what names they choose for X and Z.

Monday, April 23, 2012


I bake from time to time. It's a lot of fun, and the bread tastes much better than supermarket bread. It doesn't take a lot of skill, money or equipment. All you need is some kind of oven, the ability to follow instructions and a fair bit of time.

Details really matter for the results when baking so it's a good idea to be precise with your measurements, temperatures and times. That way, when the bread doesn't turn out the way you wanted it, you can tweak the recipe and try again. Every oven is different, for instance, so you want to keep the ingredients and times the same while you figure out the best temperature settings for your oven.

I give all amounts below by weight; it's a lot more precise than volume measurements, and if you have a good scale it's actually easier and less messy than dealing with a pile of measuring cups, spoons and other utensils. You put a bowl on the scale and add the ingredients one by one, resetting the scale as you go. Quick, simple and no extra dishes afterwards.

Wheat flatbreads cooling off.

These flatbreads are inspired by Scottish baps and make for a very good breakfast bread, or for take-along sandwiches. They're soft and light, but stay pliable and doesn't crumble easily. We keep a pile of them in the freezer and take out a couple each night for us to eat the next morning. Slice them lengthwise with cheese and ham in the center. For a meatier sandwich add tomato slices and lettuce; a thick chunk of liver pate or meatballs cut in half; or perhaps sliced egg and mayonnaise. If you make them a bit thicker they make good hamburger buns too.

Flatbreads, 12

530g Flour
8g Dry yeast
14g Salt
50g Butter
130g Milk (+ a bit for brushing the breads)
200g Water

Heat milk and water to about 36°-40° (slightly warm to your — freshly washed — finger). Mix flour, yeast and salt. Semi-melt the butter and work it in with your fingers; the flour will become slightly grainy, like when you make a pie dough. Add the liquid and work the dough for about ten minutes until it's nicely bouncy.

Let the dough rise for 45 minutes, then stretch and fold it a few times so it gets a little stiff and rubbery. Leave it again and let rise to about double size; it takes another half an hour to an hour, depending on the temperature.

Cut into 12 pieces (76 grams per piece)1, shape them into round buns and let them rest for 15-20 minutes under a cloth. Use a rolling pin to roll each bun into a thin flatbread, about 8-10cm diameter, and place on a baking tin. Brush each flatbread with milk, then powder them with flour2. Let them rise for 30 minutes while you heat the oven.

Bake in about 230° for 15 minutes or until they start to darken just a little bit. Pile them up, wrap them in a cloth and let them rest until they've cooled; this gives them a soft, pliable crust. Eat them within a few days, or you can freeze them for weeks or more as long as you keep them in an airtight bag.

#1 Really, get a decent scale if you can. Electronic ones are good, cheap and really useful for all kinds of food, not just for baking.

#2 The easiest way is to put some flour into a tea strainer and shake it over the breads.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Kanto Noodles, Kansai Noodles

Kantō in the east and Kansai in the west are very different. Kantō has Tokyo, the capital and the largest city in the world. Kansai has Osaka, the second largest metropolis, and is the cultural birthplace of Japan. They have different dialects, different electrical systems1 and different culture. And different taste in food.

There is a north-south dividing line roughly around Nagoya, where you can supposedly see a definite shift in taste in food. Natto is popular in Kantō to the east but not so much in Kansai to the west. Eastern soy sauce is thicker and sweeter than the light, salty western one. Kansai-style okonmiyaki gives way to Kantō monja.

We've long heard that fast food and pre-made food manufacturers actually make different versions of their products for the two parts of the country. But how different are they? When Ritsuko last went to Tokyo, she bought Nissins instant Kitsune Udon and Tempura Soba in a Tokyo convenience store. We bought the same thing here in Osaka for comparison.

Soba and Udon
Nissin instant noodles. Top row is udon, bottom is soba. Tokyo style to the left, Osaka to the right. The graphic design is different, but I can't honestly say I see anything recognizably region-specific in those differences.

We've tried both the soba and the udon now, and the two versions really are quite different. The dried noodles seem to be the same in both cases. As far as we can tell, the aburaage in the Kitsune udon and the tempura pack in the Tempura soba are identical too.

But the soup base has nothing in common. The eastern soup comes in a wet soup bag for both the udon and the soba, and is thick, dark and sweet. The western soup is a dried powder and is much lighter, with a clear seafood tone from the underlying soup stock, something completely missing in the eastern Tokyo-style soup. It's no accident that it mirrors the difference in soy-sauce between Kantō and Kansai.

In the end I think I prefer the eastern style soup for soba, while the thin, light western style broth goes well with udon.

#1 Western Japan, with Osaka, has 100V and 60Hz while eastern and northern Japan, with Tokyo, has a 100V and 50Hz system. Why? Because the country allowed private companies to determine their own standards when Japan was first electrified, rather than imposing a single national standard.

Why did the two electrical companies choose different frequencies? Because they each bought power equipment from the cheapest supplier — an American company, with 50Hz equipment in one case, and a German company offering 60Hz equipment in the other.

So Japanese manufacturers and consumers have paid the extra cost of two separate electrical standards for over a century, just so two companies could save a trivial amount on their initial installations. Capitalism is no more optimally efficient than evolution2.

#2 Without getting too much into it the actors in both systems effectively use so-called "greedy" strategies, where you try to make the short-term optimal choice at every point. Depending on the problem space, this means that you are unlikely to ever come close to a global optimum. There is no guarantee that such a system is stable either; the "invisible hand" probably doesn't exist — any such complex system is inherently unstable — and a completely unfettered economic system is likely to crash and burn with alarming frequency.

Economic systems can get around this by regulation; by having a disinterested referee that adds friction to the system and sets ground rules that align short-term individual interest and the long-term societal one. Evolution — well, individuals, groups and species frequently die out because of short-term adaptations that are clearly disastrous in the long term. If life was made by a designer it would be by a designer in desperate need of a straight-jacket, heavy sedation and a monitored room in a secure facility for the very, very nervous.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Real spring, finally. Forget the padded coat, umbrellas and the lousy office heating system. Soon it'll be time for sandals, umbrellas and the lousy office air conditioning system instead. But right now, between the icy cold of winter and the fiery heat of summer, the weather is mild and wonderful.

Sakura is blooming at an elementary school in Shinsaibashi, Osaka.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Tip: LaTeX Templates

Do you use LaTeX? It is a wonderful text creation system, often used for scientific publications but useful for much else as well. The results are so ridiculously beautiful it's almost jarring whenever you see a normal word processor document next to the LaTeX version.

LaTeX comes with good support right out of the box for basic document styles. And if you write a research paper, the conference or journal will often have a predetermined style file you simply download and use. But for many other things it can be difficult to get a good document design — you'll have to search the web for scattered style files and examples, or try to design it yourself with predictably lousy results.

LaTeX Templates is looking to change that. It's a collection of high-quality template documents ranging from theses, to CV and cover letters to calendars, notebooks and reports. It's not a large collection yet, but what is there is of high quality and promises to grow over time.

You can use a document template as-is, or tweak it anyway you want. Or use them for inspiration and tips on how to achieve special typographic tricks in LaTeX without spending hours looking all over the net.

(Crossposted to G+)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Brainwashed Foreigners?

Japanprobe has a good piece on "brainwashed foreigners".

I don't know, precisely — introspection is notoriously error-prone — but I don't feel I fit either of the Foreigner types characterised in this piece.

I meet "clean-room" people now and again, though the most common variant seems to be the cultural one: young people in love with manga, J-pop and the rest, and expects Japan to be a gleaming futuristic sci-fi backdrop to their own transformed lives; a chimeric refuge from the mundane society they are running from. When they find out Japan is just a country like any other — when they realize they never left their own problems and insecurities behind — they feel bitterly betrayed.

The "Yakumo" type would be people who see and love Japan as it really is, warts and all, and simply want to live their lives here. I'm certainly closer to this "type", but I'm not sure how well I fit here either.

I didn't come to Japan because of Japan after all — I got a job and it happened to be located here — and I ended up staying because of a single Japanese person, not because of Japan itself. Now I really do enjoy living here in Osaka in particular, and I hope we will stay here for many more years to come. If push came to shove, though, we'd probably be about as happy in my native Sweden or in any of a dozen other countries.

(Reposted on Google+)

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Not Much Here About Japanese Politics Lately

I haven't written about Japanese politics for the past year or so. There are reasons for that.

When you write something you pick a point of view, then describe what you see from that point. You describe the structure of things, you ascribe intention to actors and meaning to events. You create a narrative. This is true for even the most dry, fact-filled writing; the most important advice we give to students learning to write research papers is to tell a story. Weave your research into a tale of sorts. You can't simply "state the facts"; that will give you a nice list of facts, but not a coherent, readable text.

What does that have to do with Japanese politics? Right now, to my eyes, there is no structure to describe. The actors have no intention and events have no meaning. It takes a far better — and far more knowledgeable — writer than me to find a point of view that makes sense, and to wrest structure and narrative from the chaotic events of the past year.

The always inestimable MTC touched on this in the latter part of a great post, in a manner far better than I could do myself:

Is it important or not that 4 sub-cabinet level officeholders resigned their posts on Friday, especially as the Deputy Prime Minister tells the press on Saturday that the Noda government is not accepting their resignations (J).

Who knows?

Will the Liberal Democratic Party under Tanigaki Sadakazu vote against the government bill raising the consumption tax to 10% in a de facto joining of hands with Ozawa Ichiro and those members of the Democratic Party of Japan loyal to him? When the LDP's manifesto calls for a raising of the consumption tax to 10%?

Who knows?

As the analysis article's unintentionally hilarious four-word paragraph...

"Then again, maybe not."

...indicates, arguments in either direction, with up and down thrown in to boot, all seem equally valid.

I haven't written about Japanese politics because plainly nobody knows what they are doing, nobody knows where current events will lead, and nobody has a clue what Japanese politics will look like six months from now, never mind years into the future.

The three largest parties combined don't even reach 50% approval rating; the most popular alternatives are "None" followed by the national offshoot of a local Osaka party - a national offshoot that still has no candidates, no detailed political program and that does not in fact even exist at this point. We do know the current structure is slowly falling apart, in other words, but it is still far too early to get a hint of what will replace it.

You may ask why such an orderly, smoothly-working society as Japan can have an utterly dysfunctional political structure. I say it is because society here mostly works well, not despite it. In many other places this level of chaos and lack of leadership would spill over into society at large. It'd cause civil unrest, crime and graft, economic damage, perhaps even civil war. People would not long accept such a dangerous situation and would react quickly to redress it.

But here the society just keeps ticking over, mostly unconcerned about the lack of direction at the top. Belgium is another example where they managed well over a year with no government at all, with few ill effects. It has been allowed to continue for so long because the effects are small.

That can't last indefinitely of course. Short-term effects are small to none, but there are long-term, large-scale issues that need to be addressed eventually. There is a real risk that the political disintegration continues to the point where there is nothing left to reassemble once the situation really does become pressing. The short-term resilience may paradoxically contribute to making the long-term effects far worse.

We'll see. Meanwhile I'll keep silent about it until there is some hint of a coherent narrative again.