Friday, January 30, 2009


Tamachi Street

Street in the Tamachi area. Don't normally like heavy-handed processing but this one came out good, I think.

We're back from Tokyo. Wednesday and Thursday was all work, helping out with the project symposium at the Miraikan museum of innovation on Odaiba, a man-made island in Tokyo bay. The weather was miserable so sightseeing was not really an option, but then, I didn't have a huge amount of time to myself so that didn't matter. Ritsuko came up to Tokyo on Thursday evening, improving my mood and weather alike. I took Friday off (have plenty of unused vacation days), so we spent Friday and Saturday in Tokyo by ourselves.


Miraikan science museum was the symposium venue. Unfortunately we had no time to actually look through the museum itself, but from what I could see it should be worth visiting. Near the entrance there's a huge animated globe showing near-realtime views of Earth weather patterns and other data.

Tokyo is huge, of course - Greater Tokyo is more than twice the size of Osaka and the largest in the world - but you only ever see one piece at a time so the overall impression is not that different from Osaka. The atmosphere is different, of course, and since it's so spread out you spend more time in transit but overall it's not a very different experience.

Where Tokyo (and most capital cities) really differ is not in absolute size but the network effects of being the largest city in the country. A larger city attracts more special facilities like theaters, say, than smaller cities, and that in turn attracts more people with an interest in it, which creates even more facilities. As a result, a city like Tokyo (or Stockholm, or Paris, or London...) tends to have more special features like theaters and art-house cinemas, exhibitions, specialist shops, colleges and universities and so on than their size alone would suggest.

Tokyo Bay canal

Canal leading out to Tokyo bay in Tamachi. The elevated track is the Rinkai light rail line, I believe.

I spent the first night in Shinbashi, a somewhat seedy but very likable area south of Tokyo station and Ginza. Lots of eateries and bars around the station, then quiet back streets with small companies and living areas further south.


The entertainment area of Shinbashi, early morning, with commuters fanning out from the station. Some will be back here in the evening to eat and drink before returning home.

On Friday we visited Jimbōcho, with its cluster of used and new book stores and publishers. Meirinkan book store is amazing - they specialize in used science and math books, mostly Japanese but quite a lot of math and physics books in English too. I'm proud to say I managed to restrain myself and only bought five books altogether. I didn't even get Knuth's The Art of Computer Programming I-III in Japanese translation, much as the volumes beckoned me - this is something I now regret, to be honest. We had lunch at Restaurant Stockholm, a Swedish restaurant. They serve a pretty good if somewhat small smörgåsbord; we haven't cooked a lot of Swedish-style food lately so it was a welcome change of pace.

One thing I wonder about Tokyo is where all the bicycles are? Bicyclists are few and far between, and there's only a smattering of parked bicycles on the streets. Completely different from Osaka where many people use bikes, and they are sometimes parked three or four deep around major stations and shopping areas. Perhaps it's because Tokyo has a lot more hills; perhaps it's because people tend to travel farther within the city so they prefer the trains, or perhaps the street traffic isn't conductive to bicycles. Ritsuko has the theory that Tokyoites are more polite and concerned with appearances, so they don't like parking on the streets and walkways - and when you need to find real parking, bicycling becomes a hassle.

Hikawa Maru, Yokohama

The Hikawa Maru of Yokohama. Oceanliner once trafficking the pacific between Japan and USA, now moored in Yokohama harbor.

Seagull Lineup

Saturday we went to Yokohama. The city is part of greater Tokyo and only twenty minutes away by commuter train. It really feels like a parallel to Kobe; a smaller quieter satellite city near a major metropolis with a history of foreign influx, a nice waterfront and a popular Chinatown (Yokohama Chinatown is much larger, but I like the Kobe waterfront area better). We had ramen and stir-fry pork for lunch, walked around the harbor and bought some kitchen utensils.

One thing that struck us were the dogs. Yokohama has dogs - lots of dogs. Half the people seemed to be walking a pooch of some kind. Our informal impression was that there were more dogs on the streets than there were children. If you saw a couple with a stroller, chances were the stroller contained a dachshund or toy poodle, not a baby. I have no idea why this is so.
We returned to Tokyo and stopped by "Eataly", a combined delicatessen, restaurant and café specializing in (of course) Italian food, where we had dinner and bought pasta, beans, cheese and other ingredients before returning to Osaka. Yes, we are obsessed with food.

Finally, a travel tip: send your luggage home with a delivery service company. The last day or two you have a lot of things you no longer need - dirty laundry, italian food, second-hand science books and so on - and when you check out of the hotel on the last day you have nowhere to store it anymore. You can ask the hotel to hold it for you until you leave of course, but then you need to come back to the hotel again. Or, you could stash it in a locker at the train station, but that costs money and you'll have to get it there in the morning. And in either case you'll need to drag it on the train all the way home.

As it turns out, sending a bag directly from the hotel within the country is not expensive at all - about 1200 yen for our crammed-full bag, courtesy of Kuroneko freight company - and we got it delivered right at home the next day. Leaving us free for sightseeing without worrying about our luggage and travel home unencumbered by big, heavy bags when bone tired from the trip.

The whole set of pictures available here.

Shinkansen Salaryman

Travel home in comfort and style, unecumbered by bulky suitcases, courtesy of your friendly neighbourhood transport company. Here, a salaryman taking the early Shinkansen to Tokyo. See the lack of bags? See the relaxed yet dynamic posture as a result?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Back, but Busy

Yes, I'm still alive and back from Tokyo, but really rather busy right now so I've let the blog posting slip. Expect normal programming to resume in another week or so.

Meanwhile, you could do much worse than check out this short photo essay from BBC about a Bangladeshi ID picture photographer still using the same huge, juryrigged camera he's had for almost sixty years.

As a technical note, what he does is take a picture not on film, but on to photographic paper. He develops that paper directly in the camera - part of the reason the camera is so large is that he's got small bowls or trays with developer and fixer in there, and just sticks his hand in and develops it blind. The negative print is then contact-copied onto another paper, developed again and you have the positive, finished image. By redoing the contact copy he can make multiple prints of the same image. As it's all contact-copying, with no enlargement involved at any step, he's probably getting pretty good-quality images too.

Me, I'm thinking I should try to build a similar setup sometime.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

To Tokyo

I'm going up to Tokyo for a few days beginning tomorrow; the project has its final symposium at the Future Japanese Science Hall (日本科学未来館 - lousy translation, sorry). There'll be no live demos of the CBi robot as the hydraulic systems and all the rest is really too cumbersome and fragile to set up in Tokyo, but the robot will be there, we'll demo the Gifu hand and HOAP robot, and there'll be presentations, a movie about the project and so on. Ritsuko will join later on too, so we'll be seeing a little bit of Tokyo together before we return. Unless I get (un)lucky I'll be mostly off the net during the trip, so don't expect any updates or comments during this time.

"up to Tokyo", by the way: it's been suggested to me that this expression - even stronger as 上京, joukyou, in Japanese - would somehow be disparaging to people living in Osaka or other non-Tokyo metropli. To me, at least, it isn't. There's a lot of research on how we map concepts onto each other (research I know too little about). "up" of course maps to the raising of some concrete or abstract level - we "level up" in games, and you can "Beauty Up!" at beauty salons here - and Tokyo is after all by far the largest city in Japan, with the highest concentration of political power, academic activity and commerce. In all those senses, "up" seems perfectly appropriate imagery to me.

In addition, with the typical orientation of maps, "up" maps strongly to "north" as well, and for Osaka and Nagoya the mapping with "up" to Tokyo becomes even more natural. It means, of course, that I'm quite comfortable talking of going up to Aomori or Abashiri as well, even though they are much smaller communities than Osaka. My guess is, if anybody is uncomfortable with the "up" mapping it's people in places like Sapporo and Sendai - sizable cities in their own right and clearly north of Tokyo so the designation rubs against this geographical mapping.

[edit: we don't do a live demo of CBi but we do show the Gifu hand and HOAP in action]

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Walk Around The Neighborhood

Last weekend was the first real free weekend in a while for me. We spent much of it walking around town, and I took the old Voigtländer camera with me.

This weekend saw the Ebisu festival, dedicated to one of the gods of good fortune, and celebrated especially by small businesses. Here in Osaka it's a pretty big thing, with a parade of celebrants going through the business and shopping districts in costume.

Ebisu Parade

The Ebisu parade passing Shinsaibashi. The dressed-up young women are selected among candidates by the temple. Apparently it's a pretty popular thing and they get lots more applications than they need.

Later on I took a stroll right around our local neighborhood. A benefit of large cities is that even the streets just around your home are interesting in their own right.

Waterfront Property

The Yokobori canal (which becomes Doutonbori downstream) is not the most traditionally beautiful scenery in the world, perhaps, but it is fascinating in its own way; moody, mysterious and somehow cut off from the bustling city all around it.

ZIP Time Producer

Hey, I had no idea we have a "ZIP Time Producer" just around the corner! Of course, I'm a bit hazy on what they actually do, though. Produce "Zip Time" I guess?

There's quite a lot of vaguely media-oriented companies around here; ad companies, design, typesetting, promotional products and so on. You can usually recognize them by their incomprehensible shop fronts.


A decidedly old-style business: a second-hand shop, with a mix of old clothes, toys, replica guns, a Star Trek roleplaying game(!), semi-broken electronics and so on. The owner seems to like dressing in his own merchandise. Fun guy.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Aso Polling Badly

When Tarō Aso was chosen as new prime minister and party leader after Fukuda (becoming the third prime minister in a row not actually elected by the people), my theory at the time was that the LDP would try to capitalize on his grassroots popularity and down to earth image to quickly boost the standing of LDP and call an early election. With his approval rating at a pretty good 48% it seemed possible, perhaps even feasible at the time.

Well, so much for that idea. In today's Asahi Shimbun (not online it seems) a new poll shows that the support rate for Aso is at 19%, and disapproval rating at 67%. These are lousy figures even by the standards of the LDP. Both Fukuda and his predecessor Abe resigned with poll numbers better than this. To put in perspective, Aso has managed approval numbers in only five months that not even Bush managed after eight years of incompetence and cronyism. Even worse, among LDP supporters 43% thinks he should quit, while 48% thinks he should stay on.

These numbers are interesting beyond the immediate popularity of Aso. Politicians and political parties alike have a fundamental base of support. It's the fan club, the cheerleading squad, people born into "the party", the people who will vote for them and support them no matter what the actual politics, and no matter what personal or other failings come to light. It's the people that would vote for their party if it nominated a dead sheep to party leadership; that would still vote for their candidate if he switched from the Conservative party to the Marxist-Leninists after getting caught in a hotel room with a pound of coke, two prostitutes and a pony. These people set an effective floor on any poll numbers and vote results.

For the LDP these numbers seem to say that their floor is not all that high anymore. It is no more than 19% of the electorate, and most likely lower. Remember, Aso has not (yet) done anything grossly incompetent or offensive. Sure, the economy is tanking; the social safety net is a hollow shell unable to help those at the bottom; he's forced to push an impopular and ineffective cash-handout scheme to placate his political allies; and he and his cabinet has managed to insult important constituents with clockwork-like regularity. But there's been no really serious scandal - no Watergate or Profumo affair - that would strip the party bare of all but its devoted core. So yes, these numbers can probably go lower still.

Looking forward, a general election must be held no later than September this year. Aso has to try to get his support way up into positive territory again within that time, and do so in the face of a once-in-a-generation economic recession and an opposition in control of the upper house, using a party that is now at open war with itself. Or, he could resign, give the reins to yet another unelected Prime Minister sure to tank even faster than Aso.

Things look quite good for the opposition in other words. Except that the main opposition party consists of much the same hereditary political families as the LDP - a substantial portion are ex-LDP defectors, has an impopular leader of its own and it pushes a similar center-right agenda, and so enjoy support numbers that only look good by comparison. In fact, the most popular party in most polls is not a current party, but "None of the Above".

Which sounds funny until you realize that at some point a real party may emerge to fill the shoes of "None of the Above". And as we have seen in many countries throughout recent history, there's no guarantee that it will be a moderate, secular or democratic party. There's too many examples where widespread political discontent gave power to some very scary - authoritarian, violent, racist - political movements. As much as I agree that LDP needs to just lie down, roll over and pass away already, I'm deeply uncomfortable with the lack of a moderate democratically "safe" alternative to fill the resulting power vacuum.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Devotion of Suspect X - Chapter 2

Time is at a premium for me, still, so reading has taken a back seat to other things for a while. Nevertheless, I haven't been able to completely stay away from our hostess-turned-bakery-assistant and her wayward husband we met in chapter 1. Onward!

Chapter 2

Our journey through "The Devotion of Suspect X" continues, despite work- and holiday-related interruptions. When we last left the book at the end of Chapter 1, Yasuko and her daughter Misato had a decidedly unsavoury visit from Yasuko's abusive former husband and ne'er-do-well Toshige, and we left just as Misato clubbed him over the head with a heavy copper vase in the hallway.

Was he hurt? Dead, perhaps? No. Enraged he stepped up and proceeded to beat up Misato. Fearing that he'd actually kill their daughter, Yasuko grabs a power cord from the kotatsu table and yanks it around his neck. Misato holds on to the desperately struggling Toshige while while her mother Yasuko strangles him with the cord. I must say that in an era where family activities are disappearing and generations no longer interact, it's uplifting to see three people really come together as a family and enjoy a physical activity with each other rather than be cooped up alone with the tv or some video game.

Anyway, the wayward husband, father and overall douchebag has only barely kicked the bucket when the doorbell rings. Yasuko sends Misato to the other room, covers the undearly departed with the kotatsu blanket and opens the door. It's none other than Ishigami, our lovestruck math teacher from chapter one. He lives right next door, it turns out, and wonders what the noise was. Yasuko mumbles some excuse about chasing a cockroach and sends him away.

Yasuko has just decided she'll have to call the police, despite her worries about Misato (she did help kill her father after all) when the phone rings. It's Ishigami - again - now wondering if she would appreciate help with the dead body she's got, seeing how a single woman would have a hard time moving it.

Our math teacher, having nothing on Sherlock Holmes, has figured out what happened only from vague clues glimpsed through the door crack: her tousled hair, cigarette smoke from a discarded soda can, that sort of thing. Never mind that the same clues could have a simpler, more likely explanation; this is a detective story and suspension of disbelief is part of the package.

After a bit of back and forth she decides the police can wait, so Misato cleans the crime scene while Yasuko and Ishigami drags the very deceased Toshige's body over to his apartment. As the saying goes: "Friends will help you move; real friends will help you move bodies". And truly, Ishigami is a veritable sir Lancelot here, apart from the whole cover-up-a-murder thing, which I don't theing the real Lancelot would have approved of. He does a bit of thinking, and decides a false trail is appropriate. As we leave the scene he asks her to help him get the clothes off the body.


Oh, and if it's not clear from my tone above, I truly enjoy murder mysteries in general, and this book in particular. They have a lot of genre conventions, and the plots are not meant to make a huge amount of sense. Poking gentle fun at them is part of the enjoyment.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Bling on Wheels

The New Year's "holiday" this year was largely anything but. Some heavy time pressures had me working most of the time, and a very serious family emergency had us sit and worry rather than relax and enjoy the season when I didn't. I've had little time or inclination to write here. Things are very stressful still, but the itch to post is getting bad, so I'm squeezing in a quick seasonal picture post.



Sogo department store in Shinsaibashi has this customized Mercedes Benz convertible on display. It's completely covered in crystals - Swarowski crystals, thousands and thousands of them. If Liberace was alive he'd be pulling out his checkbook just about now.

Better still, they had a drawing over the New Year for the chance of riding down Midōsuji street - the most fashionable street in Osaka - in the car. No, we didn't apply. Kind of wish we had, though.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

2008 Pictures

Like last year I'm posting one image for every month of last year. There's no overarching theme here; some I've selected because the event is significant, others just because I like them. Also check out MTC's monthly pictures, the inspiration for this post.



Homemade kuromame, a traditional new-years dish. Not that many pictures to choose from in January; I was somewhat preoccupied with other things at the time.


Snow, and snow, and...

If January had few pictures, February was an embarrassment of riches. We five glorious winter days in Hokkaido in northernmost Japan with beautiful scenery and wonderful weather. Most of my favourite images from last year were taken during this trip. Blog post part 1, part 2 and part 3.


"Welcome, Mr. Bond, we've been expecting you"

"Evil Scientists For a Better Tomorrow". Our student Baris posing with two of our robots and a bit of creative lighting.



Cherry blossom season, and we take out a colleague's renovated old Corvette for a few pictures under the trees. The major trick was to find a moment without throngs of people around.


Doujima River

The Doujima river along Nakanoshima island.


Gamla Stan

In June another trip, to Helsinki in Finland and Stockholm in Sweden to visit friends; and to my parents to celebrate Midsummer. A couple of bikes parked in an alley in the Old Town of Stockholm.



Tsuyu is the heavy rain period just before the real summer heat hits. Here a squall taken outside the Osaka Daimaru department store with my new Yashica.



August is Obon and fireworks. Here's the Yodogawa fireworks seen over the rooftops south of the river.



September was busy. We took an overnight trip to Aomori to visit a friend of Ritsuko. The weather didn't really cooperate, giving the trip a rather calm, subdued atmosphere. Here a hotel guest is catching a breath of air.



Kobe Harborland area. Kobe is a place we come back to over and over again, whenever we feel like a change of scenery, or want some Indian food, or visit Ikea on Port Island. The city feels completely different from Osaka; despite being fairly large it comes off as a small, cozy town.



November, and another trip, this time a daytrip to Kanazawa. This is restaurant Ōtsuka, an instant favorite of mine. People come there to eat a bite, have coffee or beer and lounge in the worn, dingy dining room with a manga volume or a newspaper. This is one case where the wide format of the Viogtländer really works for me; a square-format image would not have conveyed the atmosphere in the same way.

Short trips like this one to Kanazawa or to Aomori are great: you don't need to take time off work; they don't cost very much; since the time is short you can pack the days full to the brim and yet not be exhausted; and with just a day or two you never risk growing bored with your destination. It all means you can take a chance with a less famous or off-beat destination and not worry that you'll waste precious vacation days on a dud.


Cleaning Windows

December, and time to clean house in preparation for the new year. Or clean laboratory; here window cleaners are attacking the window walls at the ATR lobby.