Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year

2015, the year of the sheep.

A happy new year from Janne and Ritsuko.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Netherlands

We went to the Netherlands this August(1). I went for work — the Neuroinformatics 2014 conference was held in Leiden — and Ritsuko came along to see the sights. No time for a real vacation this year so I took a weekend off at the end of the conference, and we spent that together in Amsterdam(2). Since we're leaving for our New Years trip tomorrow morning, it's well past time to post about this.

Japan is hot in summer. Europe, by and large, is not. I did vaguely remember this as we were packing, but we grossly underestimated just how miserable the weather can be. The moment we stepped off the plane to Schiphol, we realized we should have left t-shirts and sandals at home in favour of padded coats, scarves and umbrellas.

Leiden. Wet and cold when we arrived, but quite beautiful.

Leiden is a picturesque university town. It reminds me a lot of Lund and Uppsala in Sweden, with a lot more waterways. And frankly, like Lund, Leiden also seems to be the kind of place you love living in as a student for a few years but eventually outgrow.

Bicycles everywhere.

Boat Life
Apparently you can't live here and not have a boat. Puttering around on the canals certainly looks relaxing.

A few larger boats parked along one of the canals early in the morning as I was going to the conference site.

The conference was held at the faculty of law. As the name "neuroinformatics" can tell you, it dealt less with pure neuroscience and more with modelling, data analysis and management and things like that. The talks and posters tended toward the concrete and practical. As many of us come from the informatics side, there was also a refreshingly positive attitude towards Open Source and data sharing, something that's unfortunately largely missing within much of the neuroscience field.

INCF 2014 Poster session
The INCF poster session. The long, narrow hall worked better than I thought it would; people would drift up on one side, then down the other, without causing any jams.

Einstein Lectured Here
Apparently Einstein lectured in this room when he worked here. I know this because the organizers reminded us of that fact about twice a day for the entire conference. ^_^

Antoinette Christina
Antoinette Christina. Did I mention the boats? Lots of boats.


There are many places I like to visit. But there are only a few places I could imagine living permanently. Amsterdam may have become one of them. The city is a beautiful mix of old quarters and newer, and criss-crossed with canals. And the relaxed attitude among its inhabitants really grabs me. This is a place where "work-life balance" doesn't mean "the only balance is all work, no life".

There Are Canals
There are canals. Oh but are there canals. Very picturesque, very soothing. But I can't but wonder just how often the canal-side buildings get water damaged.

A creative door design at a row of townhouses. The buildings on either side had the same doors but with the numbers shifted.

We stayed at Bed and Breakfast Margot. It was the first time at a B&B for us, but we had nothing to worry about. A beautiful room with a view of the canal, and our host Margot served up a wonderful breakfast that could have kept us going all day had we only been able to eat it all. Highly recommended.

Bed and Breakfast Margot
Our room, facing the canal. Beautiful and relaxing, and the view is great.

The downstairs entry hall and kitchen. Beware those stairs; navigating them with a heavy suitcase is painful.

The Dutch language is sort-of, kind-of like Swedish. I feel I can almost understand it, and I probably could with just a few months practice. It was sometimes almost unnerving; I'd hear bits of a conversation, and without focusing on it I could pick out the overall meaning. But once I realized that and tried to listen in, I no longer understood. Margot, the bed and breakfast owner, said she sometimes watched Swedish television dramas, and had no problem following the story.

Amsterdam is famous for legal marijuana and legal prostitution — no, we didn't try either. I'm vaguely in favour of having it legal and controlled; it seems better than the alternative. The prostitution business seems to be fairly well controlled and run, and it's clearly a tourist draw not just for sad single guys. You can see entire families walking through the red light district, and couples shopping for toys and visiting the museums and exhibitions. No pictures, as that raises too many privacy issues.

The drug business, however, seems to be its own worst enemy. The shops look seedy, run-down and dirty. They're not charmingly disordered and hippie-like, just sad and depressing. The kind of places where you expect wet stains on the seat and cigarette butts in your coffee. Whatever the product, it would never cross my mind to enter a shop. When their legal status is already under attack, fulfilling every prejudice of catering only to the desperate and the addicted does not strike me as the wisest business approach.

Holland is not well known for its food. That's not because the food is bad - far from it - but simply because the traditional cuisine, like Swedish food, doesn't stand out as uniquely different from its neighbours. If you know German food you are not going to encounter any big surprises in Amsterdam. But the food we had was all good.

It's not just a kebab. It's a symbol of Europe. Seriously. This one in Leiden, Netherlands, was cheap, filling and delicious - and all but identical (right down to the selection of sauces) to one I would have received in a good kebab place in Stockholm, Madrid, Prague or in any small town across the continent.

I love Japanese food. But one thing I do miss in Japan is the European pita kebab. I take every chance to eat this whenever I return to Europe. It's origins is vaguely middle-Eastern-Turkish-Greek, but it has spread across the continent, soaking up influences along the way, and now it has a strong claim to be one of the few true pan-European foods.

If you're looking for the germs of a new pan-European identity then forget old paintings or dusty culture. Look at the new cheap, popular foods - the bastard children of a dozen culture clashes - that we create and enjoy.

When foodies, cultural gatekeepers and the far right all hate and fear it — when everyone with a stake in national rather than European identity feel deathly threatened — then you know you're looking at the future of European identity. And it looks bright. Also delicious and covered in garlic sauce.

Dutch herring. Similar flavour (and surely a shared origin) to Swedish pickled herring. We don't eat it on bread like this — at least I've never done it — but it's a quick, tasty meal. I actually had this for lunch twice, it's so good.

Sari Citra
A friend recommended Sari Citra toward the southern end of the city center. It's an Indonesian restaurant; as it was a Dutch colony, there is a lot of food influences from there. This is a café-style place where you can eat in or take-out. Everything is fresh and very good, and it is well worth the trip. There's an outdoor market just around the corner worth a visit as well.

Sari Citra
Set meal at Sari Citra.

Pub Arendsnest is another recommendation, and just a couple of blocks from the place we stayed. If I had no other reason to move here, this would almost be enough by itself. Good, relaxed atmosphere, and an amazing range of ales and stouts on tap. It would probably take months of occasional visits to really sample all the things on offer. If you like beer, this is the place to go.

Pub Arendsnest, along one of the many canals.

FEBO. I guess tosome this is scraping the bottom of the culinary barrel. Not just a hamburger joint, but a vending-machine style hamburger joint. But it is also fun, and it's also quick, and the food is more varied and tastes better than the usual big burger chains.

Mint tea
Everybody and I mean everybody was drinking mint tea. Pour hot water over a fistful of mint leaves, then add honey to taste. Simple but very warming on chilly days.

You can't throw a bottle of genever in this town without hitting an outdoor market. The narrow streets with small squares and open areas seem well-suited to stalls and carts, and they seem to happen everywhere. There's plenty of markets selling used goods, off-brand items, and cheap knockoffs. But there's also markets full of cheese-mongers, fruit and vegetable sellers, fish and meat.

Did we buy cheese? Yes, we bought cheese. Did we buy a lot of cheese? Why yes, we did buy lots of cheese. We still have some left now, four months after the trip. Good cheese.

We got corn! Yay!!
We got corn! A happy couple grocery shopping at an outdoor market.

Hats? Hats.
A hatmaker at one of the markets. I got one for myself; it's a good hat.

The Snake
Amsterdams local anarkists sport the usual creatively decorated building.

Schiphol Pod
Schipol has a completely automated luggage check-in system. When you shove your ticket into a slot it opens the pod bay doors a hatch where you put your bag for weighing, then attach the printed luggage tag before the close button sends the bag on its way. Pretty cool; I wish I could check in myself into my own pod in the same way.

I've flown into Kansai airport many times by now, and I've never seen a dog patrol of any kind. Except this time, flying in from Amsterdam, we had not one but two drug-sniffing dog patrols walking around in the baggage reclamation area. I couldn't imagine why.

Morning View
Amsterdam in the morning.

#1 Is this post late? Why yes, it is late. Deadlines is the hobgoblin of little minds(1.5).

#1.5 As are accurate quotations.

#2 Before anybody thinks we're living the high-life: My job pays for my coach ticket and my hotel room during the conference. All other costs, including any fare increase from not returning directly after the conference, is paid by ourselves. And no, I don't get any money back if the ticket ends up cheaper.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Osaka Festival of Lights

I've been a little too stressed for my own good lately. So I took the Sunday off this weekend, and didn't even log in at work all day. Instead we went to see Osaka Festival of Lights (大阪光の饗宴). Every winter, Midosuji avenue is decorated with lights all the way from Shinsaibashi up to Nakanoshima island. And around Christmas, there's a lighting festival in the park on the island itself. Lots of people, lighting displays and stalls selling food and drink.

The weather had finally turned after a week of miserable rain and dampness. We left home early and walked up Midosuji to a Vietnamese restaurant for lunch. There were a lot of people around; some were waiting for the illumination, while others were just enjoying the break in the weather. After lunch we spent a couple of hours at a café studying Swedish and Japanese (no points for guessing who studied what).

Right-wing speaker vans were out in force, probably because of the recent election. A single van parked near Yodoyabashi was criticizing Christmas. In a desperate tone the speaker urged people to "remember that New Year is a Shinto holiday! Don't you even care Tuesday is the Emperors birthday!?"

Of course, Christmas isn't much of a holiday here. You don't get time off work, and it has no religious or cultural meaning; it's a dating day for young people and another excuse to add festive decorations and sell stuff to people. I can't imagine how oversensitive that right-winger must have been to burst a vein over this.

Hot wine is really popular right now, and most food stalls sell it. This stall also sold hot sake, and frankly I like it even better than hot wine when it's cold outside. It's less sweet and sticky, but just as warming.

As dusk approached we arrived at Nakanoshima. The crowd was large already, and the food stalls were doing a brisk trade. At many festivals you'd mostly have snacks and junk food — hot dogs, taiyaki, yakisoba and so on. Here, though, one of the two food areas is dedicated to Western-style foods, mostly catered by restaurants. We had borstj, pirog, and clam chowder in a hollowed-out bread. Later on we also had okomiyaki and beef kushiyaki. Healthy living.

The highlight of the festival was a projection event on the Osaka Public Hall. It was a fun little animation featuring Anooki, French animation characters. Here's a YouTube video of the animation: Anooki á Osaka.

You are feeling sleepy... Very, very sleepy...
You are feeling sleepy... Very, veeryyy sleeepyyy... This one was fun; the display is actually animated and set to music, so the picture doesn't really convey the full experience.

I haven't felt this refreshed in months. For the first time in a long while I managed to forget about work for a while and just enjoy taking pictures and watching people. I wish I could do this more often.

All the bridges around Yodogawa are illuminated as well (though I vaguely think they are all year round). This is Tenjinbashi bridge as we were leaving for home.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Kobe Port

Part of the fun of using film is trying different film and developer combinations. Rodinal is the the oldest film developers still made, and one of the most popular. It's very cheap and easy to use — you dilute the inexpensive syrup 1:25 or more right before you use it, and it practically has no best-before date.

It does tend to increase the visible grain, so until now I've used it only with low-speed film. On 35mm you'd use it with fast film only if you're looking for a gritty, high-contrast look. But with larger negatives the grain becomes correspondingly smaller. So I recently tried using medium format Delta 400 with Rodinal. The results are really quite good:

Kobe Port Tower
Kobe Port Tower. Ilford Delta 400, Rodinal 1:50.

This looks great to me. Both the highlights and shadows retain detail even in a high-contrast scene like this. And at full resolution (about 25Mp in this case), where the scanner is already losing image detail, the grain is noticeable, but not at all intrusive:

Crop of Port Tower image
100% crop of the above image; the full image is about 25 megapixels. This is the limit of my scanner resolution, and the grain is no problem at all.

Here's another image from the same roll:

Meditating. Ilford Delta 400 in Rodinal 1:50.

I like this look a lot. Sharp and clear, without excessive contrast. I'm certainly going to use this combination more in the future. Might even try it in 35mm, just to see what it's like, though I suspect it gets a little grainy for my taste.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


It was time for my yearly attempt at the Japanese Language Proficiency Test this weekend. It's usually a nice autumn day off for me; take a walk with the camera; mill with other students at a university campus; breathe the crisp autumn evening air on the way home.

Many students are doing last-minute cramming right up until the doors openand the test starts. I'm not sure that really makes much sense for level 1. There's just too much material to cover.

But the past few months have been more than a little stressful at work. I've got too many things left unfinished, and not nearly enough time to finish them. When I left for the test Sunday morning I was unable to leave my work behind. Taking a day off didn't feel relaxing; it just felt annoying and wasteful.

At least the weather was good.

In the end, my heart just wasn't in it. I kept worrying about the issues at work and couldn't focus properly on the test. I probably did quite badly, and now I wish I had simply gone to the office or spent the day working from home instead.

Early December isn't the best time of year for this sort of thing, with all the deadlines piling up before the New Year. Next time I should probably take the test in summer instead.

Osaka Castle
Osaka castle on my way home from the test.