Saturday, May 25, 2013


In a wild, uncouth experiment, I'm moving my blog over to a shiny new writing website I created on squarespace:

Look at that! It has its own url and EVERYTHING. Clearly, I must be a highly professional writer and worthy of the multi-million pound deal you're about to throw my way!

… what do you mean "Don't you have a job?"

It's a minor point and we're ignoring it. 

Currently, I'm reasonably pleased with squarespace. The templates are pretty and because you pay for the service, their customer support is excellent. I also like having my blog integrated on a webpage with photos and other writing-related information. 

If I were to nit pic, I'd say I miss blogger's summary list (on lower right-hand side of this page), since it's very easy to track down posts if I know roughly when I wrote them. On the other hand, squarespace has a great search bar, so that may suffice. 

Anyway, I'm desperately hoping that everyone who read my blog HERE, will come and read my blog THERE.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

My building catches fire

Today my apartment building caught on fire. 

The direct consequence of this found me abandoning the very regular plan of going to my Japanese class and instead performing some furious vacuuming under the bed. 

This wasn't in fact some OCD bucket list for the eventuality I die a crispy death in a burning building, but because my cat had taken one look at the cat carrier I'd hauled out the closet and dived out of reach. I gave her the ultimatum: take the chance with the cat carrier and the risk of a vet trip or …


5 minutes later we were heading down the emergency exit outside stairwell. 

Around me, the fire alarms were now blaring. I say 'now' because the exception was the one inside my apartment which had remained completely silent. Either it was broken, had gained sentiance and gone on strike or I was so close to the source of the problem I'd been written off to save electricity. Given Japan's energy conscious attitude in present times, this was just about plausible. 

Despite my alarm's blaze views, my own extended consideration as to whether this event really required action and the cat vacuuming activity, I still arrived outside ahead of my fellow residents. The burnt smell of cooking which had followed me from my apartment now permeated the entire building and looking up, I saw a column of smoke rising from the apartment directly above mine. 


I looked down at the objecting carrier by my feet. "Moggy-cat, we made the right call in vacating the premises."

Such activities --and possibly the 8 arriving fire engines-- caused me to gain the company of 3 small spaniels, 2 handbag pugs and a baby, plus a collection of accompanying guardians.  We huddled around the entrance foyer until we were told to make way for the heavily oxygenated firemen and their "Super Pumper" fire truck.

No, I did not make that name up. It was written on its side. In English.

Then all the firemen appeared on my apartment's balcony. 

I kept counting the floors just to be sure, but any doubts I had that my apartment was being infiltrated vanished as I saw my washing pole being waved as it was disconnected from the outside rack. This led to a series of worries: Was my apartment on fire? Had the sprinkler system gone off and nuked my electronics? Had anything broken as the men piled through the room? Exactly how annoying was it to have four bowls, four side plates but only 3 dinner plates? 

Inexplicably, I also felt a deep sense of embarrassment that I'd left the dishes undone and stacked around the sink. 

Quite why my apartment was being used wasn't entirely clear. A ladder was pulled up the outside of the building and precariously swung up to the source of the smoke on the floor above. The firemen then climbed over my balcony wall, up the ladder and onto the one above. 

This made sense until you realised that there was an emergency escape hatch --complete with ladder-- in the floor of each balcony. Why not go up two floors and drop down to the desired level through this system? There was also the fact that if they had got into my apartment, they could have also used the front door. 

Maybe it was all just no fun at all unless there was a risk of plunging 9 floors to your death.

I filled in the time taking photographs of the fire engines and promising myself that if it transpired anyone was actually hurt, I'd delete all the pictures and deny ever doing anything so tasteless. 

The smoke went out and the firemen retreated from sight, leaving one guy in a cage on the firetruck's extended ladder looking in the burnt apartment's bedroom window. Again if they had access to the apartment then why…? It was going to be one of life's unanswerables.

As I waited, I chatted to one of my neighbours; a Korean lady about my age with fluent English. We had just reached the topic of epidurals during labour in Japan (uncommon and yes, we had been talking a while, why do you ask?) when we were told we were allowed back inside. Cautiously, I took the lift up to my floor and slowly approached my apartment. Muddy footprints led from the outside staircase and stopped outside my front door. Taking a deep breath, I unlocked the door and found…

... everything untouched. EVERYTHING. There were no muddy footprints, the washing still hung on the clothes horse and the dishes were whole and unmoved. Not even a teaspoon had fallen to the floor. It was as if the firemen had pelted up the stairs, reached my apartment ...

… stopped and unlocked the door, taken off their outer footwear and carefully moved towards my balcony, locking all doors and windows behind them… 

before beginning their MAD CLIMB to the level above. 

The only sign of their presence was on the balcony itself where the thin partitions between my neighbours' space and mine had been knocked through. My washing poles had also made their way over to my neighbour's side, but they were undamaged and had clearly just been placed out of the way. 

More than slightly stunned, I stepped back off the balcony and went to the sink. Before I left again I was doing the dishes. Just in case. 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Galaxy Theory's Got Talent

On Friday afternoons, I take the role of Simon Cowell.

The British television personality came to fame through his notoriously harsh criticism of talent show contestants. His ability to slam anyone and everyone's attempts on stage got him both a talking wax work model at Madam Tussaud's (where visitors could enjoy being insulted themselves) and a spot on every future talent show on both sides of the Atlantic pond. 

Fun fact: Before appearing on 'American idol', Simon Cowell had his teeth veneered to give him the showbiz white smile. This move was ridiculed in the UK, where cosmetic dentistry is frequently viewed as excessive vanity. As a side note, the view that Brits actually have bad teeth is not correct (at least, not my generation and below) but having work done for pure aesthetics is still relatively uncommon. 

The afternoon on the last day of the week is the time for our research group meeting. In this hour, a hapless student is made to do a presentation in English on a research paper they have recently read. Bearing in mind that such publications are frequently jargon-heavy, excessively long turgid reads that often refer back to a string of previously published works by the same authors, this is not an easy task. 

This week one of my own students was on the podium and he was doing an admirable job. While still struggling with speaking English fluidly, he had put together a comprehensive review of the paper, pulled out the relevant highlights from past related works and added helpful diagrams to demonstrate some of the newer concepts.

None of this stopped me tearing him apart limb from limb. 

Really, he loved it. If he shows up again on Monday.

The main issue was that --in common with most of his peers-- my student tended to copy out relevant sentences of the paper word by word, rather than using his own terms. The reason is quite understandable: if you're concerned about the quality of your own English, why not use someone else's that's already made the point? However, such a tactic has three problems:

The first is that paper writing isn't designed for presentations. Sentences tend to be long and heavy with technical terms than may (if you're lucky) have been defined in an earlier section. A presentation, on the other hand, needs to have short pithy comments that people can quickly glance at while you're speaking.

The second problem is that --since the sentences are long and technical-- I knew my student would never have written them. This leaves me wondering if he has truly understood the underlying concept.

Finally, since I am the only native English speaker in a group that consists of many 4th year undergraduates and Masters students, using such constructs doesn't help the audience understand the presentation. 

This led to each slide presented being dissected and re-explained. Sadly for me, the answers left little to insult. I wasn't able to use any of the lines I had planned. Not even "You're like a singing candle. You just stand there and melt." or "I won't remember you in 15 minutes." or "Did you really believe you could become an American Idol? Well, then you're deaf.". I couldn't even slide in Shut up and start singing.".

… Although admittedly if I had we would still be in the seminar room now while I attempted to explain why I had compared my student to a candle, demonstrated serious memory problems, promptly forgotten we were in Japan and then suggested he set his thesis work to music.

At the end, I just had one final question: "On your 4th slide, what is the difference between the data given by the black line and that by the blue?"

My student explained and then looked at me expectantly. "I actually don't know," I admitted. "It was a genuine question."

Monday, May 6, 2013

Picture box

Yesterday evening, on a dark and stormy night around 10 pm, I spontaneously bought a television and carried it halfway across Sapporo.

I'd been visiting a friend who was celebrating the Christian Orthodox Easter which --apart from occurring at a totally random point in the year-- involved violent acts against boiled eggs cooked in stockings. The net result of this trip was one onion and one television set. The onion however, will be left for a later tale. 

I had been vaguely contemplating getting a TV for a number of weeks. Previously, I had dismissed the idea since I've never been much of a TV watcher and I didn't think the language switching to Japanese was going to improve matters. This changed when I ran into a friend from my Japanese classes:

"How is your Japanese communication going?"

"It sucks," I admitted sheepishly. "My reading and writing improve, but I still find it hard to pick out the words quickly in a conversation."

"Do you have a TV? I found having it on in the background has made a big difference."

Well then. It was practically an educational need.

And so it was that I left my friend's house and dropped in at the second hand shop opposite her apartment complex. The set I bought was actually new and part of an end-of-line batch the store had in stock. It was a little flat screen, 21 inches across and made relatively easy carrying as I hiked back across the river to my part of the city. 

A great thing about Japan is that it is a very safe country. If I'd bought and carried a shrink-wrapped TV in a plastic bag back home in Hamilton, I'd still not have a TV. Or a wallet. 

Once back home, I unpacked it and … hit my first problem. 

Well, actually the second. The first was the cat tried to eat the cellophane wrapper on the instruction manual. The second was that the aerial provided with the TV has two screw ends, while my socket in the wall had a push end. The third problem was that screwed into the empty aerial wall socket was a strange plastic plug that looked like it had a greater purpose than stopping damage to the wall socket[*].

After confirming that brute force solved none of these problems, I fixed the first by balling up the loose cellophane and throwing it in the bin, the second by going down to the local electronics store and purchasing a small screw to push aerial cable converter and the third by losing the mysterious plug behind a pile of books. 

That done, I spread the instruction book on the floor and began to set up my TV. Japanese television sets come with a credit card-sized card that contains a chip. This is called the "B-CAS" card and all digital receivers require one to work. The large page of instructions was clear how to insert the card into your TV set, providing clear pictures of "Right" and "Wrong". Following this, I went on to plug the TV into the power and tell it to find its own channels. Which it did...

… and then told me it the B-CAS card wasn't inserted correctly. 

I checked the card and checked the instructions. I removed the card and put it back in. Turned the TV off and back on. Nothing. Was my card damaged? The internet thought this was possible and it stated the only way to get a new one was to contact the B-CAS customer service, which was only offered in Japanese.

I began to wonder if my new TV wouldn't make a great hat stand. 

In desperation, I took out the B-CAS card and inserted it backwards, a direction quite plainly labelled in the instruction manual as wrong. Instantly, the screen snapped into life with a programme involving stalking foreigners around Tokyo Narita airport. 

Was this a statement about terrestrial TV? It should only be watched by people incapable of following instructions and the rest of you should clear off with your literacy skills and read a book? To support this theory, the TV picture switched to one of monkeys taking a bath.

But we were now up and running! I made dinner as the TV weather forecast appeared, painting the main island of Honshu in red and yellow while leaving Hokkaido in blue. To emphasise this choice of colour scheme, the picture changed between a baby in a swimsuit blowing bubbles in a park in Tokyo to a man wrestling with an umbrella and snow falling around him in northern Hokkaido. 

So far, this TV is reminding of facts I'm trying to forget. 


[*]  Picture of the mysterious aerial socket plug top right and bottom right of the one still in the second aerial socket -- any ideas?  

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Vacuums suck

Hi. My name is Elizabeth. And I'm addicted to vacuum cleaners. 

Despite being described as a '2 bedroom', my apartment is really a one bedroom with a main area that can be divided into two by a set of sliding doors. However, if another person were to move in and use half of that space, one of us would end up being tipped over the 9th floor balcony. 

This is why I played hockey.

So that person wouldn't be me.

Anyway, when free from homicidal notions, my apartment is perfectly sized for one girl and one cat but not large. It has faux wooden flooring throughout which is covered in one area by a large rug I brought across from Canada. 

Occasionally, I clean it. Which brings us to the point of this post.

Possibly because of the low voltage in Japan (100 V compared with the North America's 120 V and the UK's 230 V), finding a vacuum cleaner prepared to put in more work than an adolescent school boy on a paper round is a serious struggle. Initially, I purchased a second hand Electrolux stick vacuum. This had the advantage of being small with a built-in dust buster and worked reasonably well when whipping round the apartment's hard floors. However, it failed spectacular on the rug. Frankly, I did a better job with a pair of tweezers and the patience of a road runner with ADHD. 

So I then bought the robotic Roomba.

OK, perhaps this wasn't the most practical of choices but it had a high cat-chasing entertainment value and I could set it to clean and leave the building. It's like the feeling of efficiency I have when I do another task while my computer code is compiling. 

With an empty dust tray and clean brushes, the Roomba actually does a reasonable job on the rug, although occasionally needs two rounds of cat terrifying fun to get the job done. Like the stick vacuum, it also works well on the hard floor. 

This set-up was… hygienically acceptable… for an academic with pets… for about 18 months. 

The problems left really centred around the stick vacuum not pulling its insubstantial weight. For one thing, it spat out cat litter. The little elongated pellets could be sucked into the vacuum, but just fell out as soon as the power was turned off. Secondly, it had no hose extension so there were areas around my desk, fridge and washing machine that I couldn't reach. The Roomba --having a dalek's proficiency for steps-- also could only do the main open areas in the apartment. 

Note, it took me 18 months to notice this. 

In the end, we had an assessment of the contributions to the household and the stick vacuum didn't come up to speed. The cat barely did and one of the teddy bears is on probation. It was time to find a cleaning replacement. 

In a rather elaborate purchase, I selected the Dyson Pet Slim Stick vacuum in the hope that I wouldn't have to be the only apartment in the world with four vacuum cleaners. Traumatically, the product arrived broken causing both myself and pain as we arranged a return. (All credit to Amazon, they handled it quickly and largely in English but I'm sure we both lost hours sleep contemplating the communication that would have to take place). 

Once exchanged, my date with vacuum #3 began. As with any budding relationship, it is dangerous to judge too early, not least because currently I vacuum every new spot of dust I see. It does slide beside my desk, around my washing machine and down the side of the refrigerator and doesn't drop cat litter around the house. It even seems to work on the rug, but we need to wait for the cat to give a really good coat-malting roll to test that out properly.  

Could 3 be the lucky number or will this become a Henry VIII of household appliances? 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

I organise an astrophysics conference at a carnival

"The physics department at Hokkaido University is organising an international conference and we'd like to see your meeting facilities."

The hotel employee looked at the three people in front of him; two foreigners and one Japanese, all wearing the equivalent of jeans and hoodies and two of whom were clutching cameras. There was no way around the fact we looked more like tourists hoping to go on the merry-go-round than representatives from a prestigious national university. 

Yes, there was a merry-go-round. I'm getting to that. 

To give him credit, the receptionist's face did not suggest that this was the most improbable story he had heard in his life and instead called through to the hotel's conference facilities to locate us a tour guide. 

While we waited, I had to admit that although we might look out of place organising a conference, the lobby of this hotel didn't exactly fit the bill either. Behind a decorative iron gate, a brightly coloured merry-go-round with the usual collection of ridable fantasies --white horses, dragons and a grinning pig-- rotated slowly. To its right, a collection of slot machines blinked an epileptic cascade of lights and directly in front of us, signs pointed up two escalators promising shops, restaurants and bars. 

I wondered how any participant was going to take this conference seriously. 

Our guide appeared in a crisp business suit and armed with envelopes containing details of the hotel's facilities. The usual bows were exchanged along with business cards, although the latter was a one-way transaction since I never think to get any made up. No doubt this confirmed all the warnings our host had been given when he was summon by telephone. 

"Do you speak Japanese?" he asked me, in Japanese.

"A little," I replied which was correctly interpreted as: 'None whatsoever. I've just got really good at guessing what questions people ask me'. The conversation was then directed towards my friend, who had the advantage of being:

(a) Japanese

(b) Not wearing wearing bright yellow Doctor Marten boots with a winky smily drawn on their toes. 

He was also not directly connected the conference, having been roped in to provide the wheels that made this road trip possible. However, the only person who was involved was me, and no one was believing that just then. 

I should add that had I planned to be touring these hotels, I would have been slightly more prepared. Astrophysics doesn't really use business cards, but I could have toned down the colour scheme to pretend I understood that copulation with a rainbow was unlikely. My plan had been to visit hotels under consideration for the meeting location and scout out the area. However, the regions surrounding the hotels were small and there wasn't much to see unless you went inside the building whereupon you get questioned and…

… this is where we started our story. 

Despite the pig riding merry-go-round, the attached conference suit was smart and evidently well used for purposes such as ours. When my friend directed our hotel guide's questions towards me, I was formally introduced.

"Sensei?!" (Professor?!) This time it was no longer possible to keep the blank astonishment out of his greeting. 

Hey, all geniuses have a unique look, don't you know? Mine says my research made me look into the Total Perspective Vortex, whereupon I lost my mind.  

After the final goodbyes, we were left to exit the hotel on our own. I was initially surprised we weren't escorted off the premises but apparently it was felt that if we had been terrorists, we would have thought of a more believable story.  

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Get Fit. Escape zombies. Become a hero

I was running full pelt, but my brains were about to be eaten.

Jamming my finger down on the treadmill's speed settings, I slowed to a walk just as my iPhone app announced "You're making good time!". It was lying and had my phone been able to pick up a GPS signal, the 'dinner' gong would probably have sounded.

The app in question is the concise, yet descriptively named 'Zombies, Run!'; a training program in which you follow a narrated storyline that takes place in a zombie apocalyptic town. The incentive for speed is… well, like I said, the name is descriptive and the sound effects are rather good. The byline reads:

"Get Fit. Escape zombies. Become a hero."

It had all the hallmarks of a great weekend except for the fact that the most unrealistic element of the game was that my speed could outstrip a zombie. Even the ones with no knee caps. 

The problem --realistically there were several but this post will ignore the others-- was that my shoes fitted badly. I'd bought them a couple of years ago but for some peculiar reason, the sole never seemed to fit under my foot properly. I don't even know how you screw that up in a shoe. While I'd been mainly focussed on exercise bikes and cross trainers, this hadn't been a problem but they just weren't up to the new undead movement in my training regime. 

With that in mind, I headed to a sports shop.

It wasn't long after this that buying gloves and outrunning zombies on my hands seemed like a much better option.

In Japan, my UK size 6 feet size put me right on the boundary of the available options in women's shoe sizes. This goes even for international brands such as Reebok; a particularly goading discovery since on my (and Reebok's) home turf, I am little miss average. WHERE IS THE PATRIOTISM? … cough… Anyway, the point is that shoes in my size are sometimes in the women's range and sometimes in the men's. 

… and the size conversion between international shoe sizes differs depending on which of those two it is. 

However, this problem does not seem insurmountable: find a pair of shoes, look at the size range to determine the expected wearer's gender, check the online size conversion charts and the labels stitched into pairs of store shoes to confirm. Buy the shoes on the internet to ensure the full range of sizes are available. 

The upshot of these methodical calculations was a pair of shoes half a size too small. 


Because international conversions do not depend just on gender, they depend on brand. 

A UK 6 in the Nike women's range equates to a 25.5 cm shoe. In the Nike men's range, a 25 cm shoe. Adidas, meanwhile, have a size 6 as 24.5 cm in their women's range while Reebok will claim the same is 25 cm. 

Since the shoes I had bought online did not go up to the yeti-esque size of 25.5 cm, I accepted a refund and realised the only way to be sure of fit was to roll with the smaller range in choices and go to a store. I picked the largest sports store in Sapporo, not least because they had a help-yourself policy to trying on shoes which avoided me having to talk to a shop assistant; a fact everyone enjoyed. 

The result of this was a pair of good fitting trainers in size 25 cm that claimed to be a UK 6.5. I gave up trying to figure it out. 

"Why is this zombie so fast? Oh no… it's her… the previous runner before you. She's…. Don't look back!

… my problems have only just begun.