Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A Japanese Driving Licence II: Learn to Drive

So I got my licence. Of course, I last drove in traffic about fifteen years ago, before I came to Japan. And I probably haven't driven a car since 1993 when I got my motorcycle licence. 2016-1993 = *mumble* *mumble* middle age *mumble*

Having me behind the wheel of a car, in a major city, in left-hand traffic, after more than twenty years would be a disaster waiting to happen. So I've done what any sane adult would do: join a travelling circus take driving lessons.

No, I'm not going up there before I know what I'm doing.

Driving schools offer short refresher courses for people who no longer remember how to drive ("paper drivers") or want to brush up specific skills. They may have lived in a big city and never owned a car, or their spouse did all the driving. Or they do drive, but only in a quiet rural area.

I enrolled at the Orix driving school (warning: Japanese website design) in Minato-ku last week. I picked them only because getting there from home is convenient — they're right along the Chuo subway line — and because they had a special offer on their paper driver course, with 17000 yen for three lessons.

The first lesson was on their enclosed track. It let me get used to driving again and let the instructor evaluate my skill level without any old ladies being mowed down in the process. Turns out I do remember how to drive. Controlling the car, looking the right way, and starting and stopping smoothly came back to me immediately. I took the narrow S-turn and "crank" sections — a staple of the Japanese driving test — without trouble.

Typical Osaka intersection.

The second and third lessons were out in traffic. At first we just circled around the fairly quiet streets in the harbour area, then we moved towards Nishi-ku and the high-density traffic in Namba.

Osaka is possibly one of the worst places in Japan for driving. Like Tokyo or Nagoya it's a big, busy city with lots of traffic and a complex road environment. But Osaka is worst in the country at following traffic rules(1). Pedestrians and bicyclists see signs, red lights and road markings as an annoyance or an art installation to enjoy while you saunter across the road or weave between cars going the wrong way along the middle of the street.

This is a public road. For cars. Good luck.

To my surprise I got — well, not used to it, exactly, but I got resigned to the traffic fairly quickly. The speeds are pretty low overall, and people do drive conservatively. Speed regulation takes a bit of time to get used to. In Sweden, speeds are 50 or 30km/h, and it's easy to guess which just from the road. The default speed in Japan is 60km/h, but almost every street is regulated differently, with signs specifying 30, 40 or 50km/h, often with no obvious reason.

Traffic lights work a little differently in big intersections. You have a general red or green light, but also green arrows for the different directions. If the light is green you may turn, but there may be crossing traffic. If your arrow is green you can go, and all crossing or oncoming traffic has a red light. In busy intersections it can be impossible to see if the coast is clear when turning right so this gives you some safety. Except in Osaka, of course, where people tend to run red lights…

Smaller road in northeast Osaka.

I'd been prepared to add a lesson or two if needed. But at the end of the third lesson my teacher told me that I'm doing well enough to drive by myself in Osaka, and should be able to drive anywhere in Japan now. Good enough for me. I can figure out the highway tolls and tower parking systems by myself.

This time I won't let my skills go bad again, so I'll make a point of renting a car every six months or so from now on. We'll probably just end up going to IKEA or something, but since driving practice is the point that doesn't much matter of course.

Highway Crossing
Highways? I'll figure them out. I hope.

#1 Osaka has the highest all-over crime rate in the country, so I'm not too surprised.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Driving in Japan I: Get A Japanese Driving Licence

Friday was the first day of my (hopefully rather temporary) unemployment. With a bit of free time on my hands, I'm taking the opportunity to do something I should have done years ago: convert my Swedish driving licence(1) to Japanese. I haven't done so mainly because we live in Osaka, with excellent public transport, and because owning a car(2) is quite expensive. A registered parking space in Osaka city would by itself cost more than my daily commute to Kobe every month.

But now that I am differentially employed we no longer know what I will do or where we will live. Rural Japan has nothing like the dense subway and bus networks of the big cities so it's prudent to make sure we can get around anywhere just in case.

Converting a foreign licence can involve taking a theory test or even a simplified driving test for many countries. But for Swedish licences it's only paperwork, with no actual testing involved. They interview you and look over your documents to make sure that your training corresponds to what you would get in Japan; and that you lived in that country for at least three months after getting the licence. That's so young Japanese don't go to Indonesia or some place, get a licence there in a one-week intensive course, then convert it to a Japanese licence when they return.

The process is not difficult, but there's a fair amount of things to keep in mind. You need to assemble a pile of documents:

The Chuo-ku ward office.
  • Your licence and your passport, and copies of them. If you have renewed your licence since coming here, bring your older licences and passports too.

  • A certified translation of your licence. You get that from JAF (Japanese Automobile Federation). The main point of the translation is not the language itself, I think, but that they translate the specifics of vehicle classes into the Japanese equivalents. Car and bike sizes and weights, allowable passengers and that sort of thing.

  • Your 住民票 or Certificate of Residence. You get that from your local ward office. Just tell them what you need it for and they'll give you the right document.

  • A picture, 3cm by 2.6 cm. This is not the picture that will end up on your licence. This is attached to your application so everybody can confirm that the same person is applying, taking tests, sitting for the licence picture and so on.

  • Proof that you lived in the country for three months after getting your licence. A passport with an entry stamp to Japan is not enough. I brought my Ph.D. certificate (showed that I went to grad school in Sweden), a Japanese certificate for my first job here that showed my address in Sweden, and a statement of financial support (also in Japanese) that showed my Swedish address at the time. Things like a phone bill or rental contract would work fine too.

Here's the steps I took, in turn:

First, go to the main JAF office. In Kansai that's in Ibaraki in Osaka, towards Kyoto. It's small and fairly quiet, and I think all other people there were also foreigners looking for a translation. For the most part, JAF's services involve things like emergency assistance, publishing maps and things like that; you don't normally need to visit them in person. This is one of the few things you do on-site. It took them about 30 minutes to translate the licence.

Furukawabashi station on the Keihan line.

Then, go to the Osaka prefectural police Driver's Licence Center in Kadoma in the north-east of Osaka city. It's along the Keihan line; you ride the express to Moriguchi, then change to a local train for another four stops to Furukawabashi. Walk south for about 1.5km and you're there. Pretty neat area, with lots of shops, some good cafés and a Kurazushi if you like your kaitensushi cheap and cheerful. I know I do.

The Osaka Prefectural Police Kadoma
Driving Licence Center.
When I get there they tell me that they accept applications between 8:30 and 13:30. As it's already past 2pm I'm too late. But they were happy to check my documents and see that I had everything I'd need.

I come back the next morning around 9am and met by chaos, with hordes milling about queueing up for their licence exams. If you come there to actually take the theory and driving tests you need to be there in the morning to get through the entire process by the end of the day. So the place is infested with nervous 20-somethings lining up for their licence exam applications, not unlike ants descending on a picknick.

Fortunately, the foreign licence exchange is a separate counter and not busy at all. You walk up, they check the documents you have and give you a two-page form to fill in. That form asks you when and where you took your licence, and what, exactly, you did to get it. What driving school did you use, or did you practice privately; what kind of theory test did you take - how many questions, yes/no or multiple choice; what did you do during the practical test and so on, and so on.

You fill it in as best you can (English is fine), and bring the form back to the counter. There a policeman who I swear could play the lead part of "insubordinate but likeable younger detective" in a police drama looked it over and asked me a series of detailed questions about the order of licence renewals; what, exactly, I did during car and motorcycle driving practice; and how the driving tests were conducted and in which order. I had to explain the ice-driving test in some detail; Japanese drivers apparently don't do that.

It took about half an hour in all. It's all in Japanese; I could handle it without problems so you don't need to be fluent or anything, but if you're not up to explaining the finer details of your driving school experience you'll want to bring somebody along to translate for you. While we were talking, the pile of licence test takers were finishing their eye test behind us.

Next you pay for the licence at the cashier. The cost depends on the vehicle classes you want to convert. I converted heavy motorcycle as well as regular car, and that totals about 7000 yen in all. You move on to the eye exam — it was empty by the time I got there — and take the ten-second test. They only test up to the legal limits, so really, if you can't pass this you probably couldn't find the eye exam room in the first place.

On the way back to the application counter you need to register a PIN code on a machine. This completely mystified me at first, but it turns out to have a point later on. You fill in two four-digit PINs — any code you like — and it spits out a ticket with the two PINs and a bar code. Hang on to that one; this will be the PIN code to access the digital data on your licence later on.

Maneuver test for small bikes. Looked really easy, to be honest.

Return your documents to the counter. There they will explain the exact terms and conditions of your licence. I'm a new driver in Japan so my licence is good for less than three years — until a month after my third birthday — and I'll have to put that "new driver" mark on any car I drive for the next year. Also, as a new driver I have some restrictions for motorcycles; I'm not allowed to ride a bike with a passenger for the first year and things like that. But I only converted my bike licence for old times' sake so I don't really mind.

You get your documents back, along with a coloured card (mine was blue) with a time slot for the photograph and licence delivery on the second floor. My slot was 30 minutes later; enough for a can of coffee and a few pictures of the area. Meanwhile the huge pile of people are now lining up behind the test counters on the second floor. Get to the photography counter well in advance. They announce the time slot and card colour for the next group. You get called up by name, line up and go in one by one. Remember the PIN code ticket? You shove the ticket into a machine there, sit down, they take your picture and you're done.

Go across the hall — the test takers have all disappeared to the testing rooms by now — to the licence delivery room along with the other people in your time slot. After ten or fifteen minutes a young office worker comes in, runs through a speech about responsibility and driving carefully, then calls each one up by name to deliver the licence. Congratulations, you are now a licensed driver! In all, the process took about two hours from the time I stepped into the building until I left. Not bad at all.

Licensed to drive. Now I just need to learn how again.

#1 is it "licence" or "license"? "Licence" is the noun, as in "A licence to kill". "License" is a verb, as in "You are licensed to kill cartoon villains for entertainment".

#2 I actually have much more experience riding bikes than driving cars, but my biking days ended when I got married. We decided that bikes are dangerous so we don't ride them any more.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

End of Winter

It's about 7° outside today, and a dreary ice-cold rain has covered Kansai all day long like a wet, clammy blanket.

Curry-udon with fried chicken is perfect in depressing weather like this. 
Not the best for my body, perhaps, but great for my soul.

But this is the last of winter. We had a short spell of spring weather already last weekend, and by next week temperatures will start rising. And you can smell spring approaching even in this rain. Winter will end in just a few weeks.

And so will my job. For the past four years, I've been working in a team trying to model motor-related areas of the brain, and the muscles of the arm, in order to better understand the origin of motor symptoms of Parkinson's disease. The research project ends this month. I am unlikely to do another one.

I was a programmer long before I started university. Graduate school was not meant to be a career change, but a rare opportunity to learn science. I took a short postdoc in Japan believing I'd return to Sweden and to software development afterwards. But I realized I wanted to stay here. As my contacts are all in research, and as my visa allowed me only research jobs, I ended up doing a series of research projects over the past dozen years.

Last year I got turned down for a new research job, and I found myself relieved, not upset. I realized that what excites me is the people I work with and the technology we develop, rather than the research itself. I love science, but I don't have the temperament I'd need to love doing science. It's time to move on.

I'm waiting to hear back about one rare and very exciting job opening. If that one falls through I'll start looking more widely in the Osaka area beginning next month. What will I do? I don't know. That's both a little scary and very exhilarating. Spring is coming.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Daimaru Shinsaibashi

The Daimaru Shinsaibashi department store building in Namba, Osaka, is almost a century old. It's always felt a little old-world, a bit art-deco with stained glass and lots of stonework details. And now it's being torn down.

Daimaru Shinsaibashi during the last Christmas light decoration this winter. Ritsuko is in the picture if you look really closely.

It has been a landmark store in the area for longer than most people can remember. It was major news when the demolition was announced, and the final months the employees fought a losing battle against hordes of customers taking pictures of everything and anything related to the building. They recognized the great interest, so they had a one-time event late January where Daimaru card holders could enter the now-empty store and take pictures of the first floor area.

It was a popular place to meet. The entrance was usually full of people waiting for somebody.

The mezzanine cafe. Low ceilings by today's standards.

It's sad that the store disappears, of course, but I can understand why. The building is almost certainly not up to modern earthquake standards. And while the building is very beautiful, it's also very worn and really a bit too cramped to work well as a department store. A lot of that beautiful stonework is cracked, the stone floors are worn and uneven, and the all-important depachika — the grocery and delicatessen one floor down — is really quite small and with low ceilings by today's standards.

One of the stairwells.

Pillar of light
A stairwell stone railing post. Beautiful design, but if you look closely, it's all quite worn, cracked and broken. You would have to outright replace a lot of the interior if you would try to renovate the building rather than rebuild.

The new building will keep the current design of the façade, and it's said they'll also incorporate elements of the old interior. Hopefully they will be able to keep the charm of the old design in the new one.

The main hall on the first floor. I was afraid it would feel sad or abandoned, but it wasn't like that at all. Lots of people were constantly coming by, talking, pointing and taking pictures. Celebrating the building rather than mourning it.

A pillar support on the ceiling. All that inlaid stonework and stained glass really is amazing, and now that the room was empty you could finally appreciate all that detail.

These escalators have run for the last time.

The stained-glass frieze above the entrance towards Midosuji.

A stained-glass thistle.

The store has been here for as long as I've lived in Osaka — and all her life for Ritsuko, of course. Now it's gone. That's a major change. But that's OK. There will be a new store there in a couple of years; bigger, and perhaps even more beautiful. Change is often a good thing.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Ubuntu Tablet!

Ubuntu is finally launching a tablet for Ubuntu Touch and regular Linux use. I've waited for something like this for a long time, but especially now that I have a high-performance desktop at home. A light-weight tablet would be a perfect companion device. Do all heavy work - image editing, gaming and so on - on the desktop, and the tablet everything else away from home.

The Ubuntu Tablet as tablet.
Picture from

Why this and not an Android tablet? Ubuntu Touch is Ubuntu's mobile system, already available on a few phones in Europe. It's a pretty good, lightweight system.

But connect a keyboard and perhaps a mouse, and the tablet becomes a full, unlimited Ubuntu desktop, with all the software and all the tools you would expect. It's a pretty compelling argument: I would never need to drag a laptop around any more. The lightweight tablet would be able to do it all.

My Android tablet works fine for web surfing and stuff, but it's not a laptop replacement. But with this one I could do full presentations; run interactive tutorials with students directly from the tablet; work on programming projects; do all my writing, editing and publishing; perhaps even some lightweight image editing. I'd basically not need a laptop any longer.
Unlike Android (or IOS), you don't have to rely on poky mobile replacements, but use all the actual, real apps directly: Write, calculate and present with Libre Office; surf the web with Firefox and Chrome; do graphics with Gimp and Inkscape; science all the data with Octave, R, Scipy and friends; get coding with Python, C/C++, Fortran, Ruby, or your favourite language; and use Vim or Emacs if you're Old Skool, or IntelliJ and Eclipse if you pine for a full IDE — or even the Arduino software for some on-the-road microcontroller development.

The tablet with bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and an external monitor.
Now you've got a full, regular Ubuntu desktop at your fingertips.
Picture from

The device is a 10" tablet from BQ, a Spanish maker, with a high-resolution screen, a decent ARM CPU, 2GB ram, and 16GB internal storage, with a slot for a 64GB micro-sd card. Overall it's good hardware, in a tablet that gets favourable reviews as an Android tablet.

At first I wore my "laptop hat", so I was a bit sceptical: "Um? A bit low powered, isn't it?". 2GB RAM would be the low end for a laptop, and 16GB storage is not a lot of room. Even a full 64GB micro-sd card isn't comparable to a real laptop.

But as I thought about it, I realized just how great a device this is. It is a thin, light-weight — lighter even than my beloved Sony Tablet Z! — tablet at a very good price. As a device, it's really quite capable; faster than my current tablet and several times more powerful than the newest Raspberry Pi 2 that people use for all kinds of things, including as an inexpensive desktop, server and even development machine.

The Android version is €250 (€200-220 online), and the Ubuntu version will be about the same. That's less than half of a Sony or Samsung high-end tablet, or what a not-painfully-bad laptop would cost you.

Most important, the price is within the "play money" limit for a lot of people. You can get one and try it out without having to make a big budget commitment. If it fits your work-flow, great! If not, then no harm done. At the very worst, you'll have a spare tablet around the house.

One more thought: Microsoft has sort-of-similar convergence devices in their Surface tablets that are much more capable. But they really are a different kind of device; larger keyboard-less Intel-based laptops, with much higher weight, bulk and price. They are really competing with regular laptops, not tablets. Yes, you can apparently install Ubuntu on them if you want. But at that size and price, I would probably just get a regular laptop instead.

Microsoft did have an ARM-based tablet once. It flopped hard. It's problem — apart from being rather heavy and expensive — was the lack of any software (and they even expressly disallowed users from loading software on it on their own). It wasn't compatible with classic Windows apps, so developers had to port their software, then publish it in a special "store." And nobody did.

Lack of software is not the same problem for the Ubuntu tablet. After all, most Linux and Ubuntu software is open source, and is only a rebuild away from being available for ARM systems as well. You can — and people do — run a full Linux desktop on the (much less powerful) Raspberry Pi, and you can effortlessly do it on this tablet.

This hardware is plenty capable of running all but the most demanding things. I wouldn't edit film scans on this - but then, I wouldn't do it on a laptop either any longer; that's why I got that big desktop after all. Analysing large amounts of simulation data is probably also out due to the limited storage, but I have computers for that at work.

I'd really only miss some closed-source games that won't run on an ARM cpu. I've been slowly playing through my library of GOG adventures during business trips, and I wouldn't be able to do that on this one.

Do I want one of these? Yes. Yes, I want one very much. At first the specs worried me, but after thinking a bit I realize this is a perfect first Ubuntu tablet, in price and performance. In the ordinary course of things I would probably press the "buy" button within hours of it going on sale.

Unfortunately, I don't think I will be able to. One problem is the availability. It's an European tablet, and will be sold in Europe and US only. If I have to import one myself, the price will likely rise by a third, and go well beyond my "play money" level.

But most importantly, I am leaving active research and will likely be unemployed by the end of March (a subject for another post). Spending even a smallish chunk of money on a new toy weeks before you lose your income would not be terribly prudent, to say the least. Once I do find new work I may well celebrate by getting one of these, but unless the Computer Fairy comes for a surprise visit I will have stand by and watch the launch by the sidelines.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

That New Computer Smell

I replace my laptop every few years. It's been almost four years since I got my T430, and while it's OK overall, the Ethernet port is very flaky and the screen colours are so off by now that I no longer can edit pictures on it. It was time to start thinking about getting a new one. Except this time I didn't.

A long time ago when I was a student — a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I still had hair — I used to build my own desktops. Computers became obsolete within months, and laptops were slow, clumsy luxury items. A self-built desktop made sense.

But as the pace of improvement slowed you could use a computer for a few years before it became too old. And laptops improved hugely, even as the price dropped. By the time I came to Japan, I was a laptop user. Small and light was key. It was my only computer, and I'd bring it to work and back, to cafés, on day-trips and on vacations.

Then the smart-phone and tablet revolution happened, and I no longer had to bring a computer everywhere. A tablet is way better in a café than a computer ever was. I could get a larger, heavier, more capable laptop, the T430 I use now. With a larger, faster machine programming, writing and image editing all became easier. And I rediscovered gaming again, after more than ten years away from the hobby.

Today I have my own file server, and I have a separate laptop at work. I no longer actually bring the laptop anywhere. The T430 hardly moves from its spot on the dining table. And if I'm not going to bring it anywhere, a laptop doesn't make much sense. They're still a compromise after all, with high price, limited power and small screens.

Everything Old is New Again

I give myself a good-sized budget for my own computers. I rely on them every day for years after all, so I don't want to skimp on them. Last autumn I took a look at just what kind of desktop I could buy or build for myself for the cost of a new high-end laptop. I found out two things.

First, building your own desktop is still a lot cheaper than buying ready-made if you want a higher-end computer, especially if your needs don't match the machines on sale. Second, today you get a whole lot of desktop computer for the price of a good laptop.

My budget was 200k yen, and I wanted to spend 1/4 or so on the monitor. Never skimp on the monitor; that's the one thing you're constantly staring at after all. After some online searching and a couple of visits to Den-den town(1) I came home with a large pile of cardboard boxes, then spent a happy(2) weekend assembling the stuff.

I wanted a multi-core system for simulations and image processing, but a Xeon system was right out. I have a Xeon workstation at work and it's great, but I could have burned my entire budget just on the CPU. No dual-socket motherboards or beefy on-die caches for me.

Instead I got an Intel K7-5820K processor and motherboard. That's Intels not-quite newest, not-quite topmost enthusiast processor. Six cores (12 "cores" with hyperthreading), and a nice 15MB L3 cache. Overclocking it to 3.8Ghz gives me a nice speed boost, and still keeps it cool and quiet.

I added 32GB of RAM. Sufficient, but I'd have picked twice that with a larger budget. There's no such thing as too much memory after all, and a system really flies when you can put temporary files and caches in RAM. I also got a 250GB SSD as system drive. Again, with a roomier budget I would have doubled that size. A 2TB secondary HD serves as bulk storage.

An Nvidia GTX 750 graphics card is nowhere near the high end, but it's quite cheap and fairly capable. It's also very quiet. A micro-ATX motherboard, a CPU cooler (Intels stock cooler) and a quiet-running 500W power supply rounds off the machine. I reused an old case from a discarded desktop, and I already have a keyboard (the so very wonderful Happy Hacking Professional JP(3)) and mouse.

The computer came to about 150K yen. I spent the rest on an Eizo fs2434 flat panel display. Eizo monitors are well-known for good color reproduction and accurate rendering. I didn't have enough for their professional colour balanced image editing monitors, but their consumer monitors still have a very good reputation. I've been very happy with it so far.

My new computer (artists depiction). It's a plain box, invisible under the desk. The monitor is a featureless panel behind a black keyboard. Nothing much to photograph.

Using The Thing

I installed Ubuntu on it and I've used it since late autumn. While my laptop still is nice, this is a whole different experience. The large, clear, accurate screen is much easier on the eyes, and the speed, both for applications and graphics isn't even comparable. Source builds finish in moments. Drawing in Inkscape is so much easier on a large screen, and Gimp is fast fast fast.

Good as the Lenovo laptop keyboards are, I love being able to use my HHK keyboard. Kerbal Space Program is butter-smooth at all times. I now actually prefer my workroom even in the cold of winter as my desktop there is so much better than the laptop in the warm, cosy living room.

As an added bonus the computer is right at my workbench. When I was playing with electronics I had to use my tablet to search the net and look up things. Now I got a large monitor I can fill with information, circuit diagrams, drawings and search results, without taking up space on the table.

A desktop is very upgradeable and I intend to upgrade this machine over time. The CPU will still be fast enough in 6-8 years, and the monitor should be fine for a decade or longer. Games are usually limited by the graphics, so I'll perhaps replace the GPU in a couple of years (preferably AMD if they can get their Linux drivers in order). A larger SSD in 3-4 years is a good idea, and possibly more memory as well. With a better CPU cooler and case I could clock the CPU higher, but I don't really think it's worth it.

The laptop isn't going anywhere. It's useful to have a computer in the living room, and I like having a second system for experimentation. If or when it dies it's certain to be replaced with something very small, light and cheap. An Ubuntu tablet would not go amiss...

(1) I normally prefer buying in shops over doing it online. I happily pay a 10-20% premium for the convenience of asking for advice; getting the stuff right then and there; and being able to return or exchange it without hassle should I need to.

(2) Well, mostly. Protip: If the motherboard has a big power connector marked "CPU"; and the power supply has a separate power cord marked "CPU"; and the instructions tell you to plug in the CPU power; and the big diagram at the back shows a separate connection from the power supply to the CPU; do plug the power cord into the connector. Without CPU power the machine will not boot. Ask me how I know. Ask me how many hours it took to realize this.

(3) Notice how that site has static links to close-up pictures for people that disable Javascript. They know their customers.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Happy New Year

2016, the Year of the Monkey

Happy 2016 from Janne and Ritsuko