Thursday, July 30, 2009

Lost in translation

While walking back home one evening, my friend and I were over taken by an ambulance passing at high speed, its sirens blazing.

"nee-naw, nee-naw," I commented sleepily.

"Sorry?" my friend looked blank.

"nee-naw," I pointed at the ambulance's retreated lights.

"Oh!" she exclaimed. "We say pee-paw!"

There was a pause while we both considered this. The actual sound the emergency vehicle made was the same as in the UK, it was only our verbal interpretation that differed.

"What do dogs say?" my friend asked me suddenly.

I blinked. "Woof?"

She grinned. "In Japan, they say wan-wan."

Shortly after this, we passed a house where a black and white cat was eying us suspiciously from the front room window.


We supplied simultaneously, pointing. The cat left. European or Asian, its views on us were clear.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Stamp down

In a character-based writing system where no one has signatures, how do people sign official documents? I'd originally assumed that Kanji characters were as susceptible to an individual's handwriting as roman scripts and people scribbled their name at banks the same as in the UK. In actuality, everyone carries a personalised stamp with their name engraved on it.

A stamp? Surely that's utterly insecure?! What is to stop me getting a stamp of someone else's name and stealing all their doe?

... or was that too shocking a suggestion for any Japanese person to consider?

Apparently no, such deviousness is not below the moral threshold of every citizen. Rather the stamps are made of wood, not rubber, and so each one is unique. This posed the next obvious problem:

What if you loose it?

You have to register a new one with the bank, proving your identity with the documents you used to open the account in the first place.

My stamp arrived today with my surname engraved in Katakana (the Japanese phonetic script for foreign words): タスカー . It comes in a tube that looks like a lipstick with its own mini red ink pad at one end.

Currently, everything is getting stamped. You all belong to me. Me me me.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The ultimate peril

It's the strangest thing but I am truly terrified of theme park rides.

No, actually, that's not the strangest thing. The strangest thing is I'm on one now.

Well, theme park rides are scary: you might agree sympathetically. In fact, not enjoying being tied down and flung into a situation where by any rights you should perish might even be considered healthy. Then you might wonder how I am writing a blog. Even allowing for the fact that I've probably uploaded a written note later, a ferocious roller coaster does not normally produce extended prose.

The reason I am able to construct sentences is because I'm actually seated in a pink gondola on a "Hello Kitty" Ferris wheel. The speed? Hmm, anyone been on the London Eye?

This wheel is in Odaiba, an artificial island in Tokyo Bay. Its purpose is simply to provide great views of some of Tokyo's craziest architecture and it moves so slowly it never has to stop; people just hop on and off as the gondolas swing by the lowest point. The views, of course, were why I'd embarked this metallic creation of hell, before remembering that I'm terrified of such things just as the cute little pink door clicked shut.

I have no explanation for my fear. Many other things do not bother me at all. Standing up to address eminent scientists about my research? No problem. Moving to a country 6000 miles away which I've never visited? Nothing to it! A "Hello Kitty" observation wheel? Holy crap.

So here I sit, pumped with adrenaline, writing furiously to keep a sense of perspective while a sweet little voice talks to me in Japanese from a speaker above my head. Seriously, if Godzilla were to climb this Ferris wheel now, I would so have him.


Now it has switched to English. It's telling me that we've reached the highest point on the ride.

Gee, thanks.

I'm really glad I didn't get a see-through capsule. Okay, I have to take a photo:

:: Clicks and looks at camera screen ::

Hmm, pretty.

No, this is ridiculous, I have to look....

... know what? Not so bad.

Elizabeth 1 : Hello Kitty Ferris Wheel 0

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Walk to Japan

Sometimes I feel google map's directions can be a little too concise. On the upside, at least it will only take me 7 minutes.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Astronomical toilet paper

The International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009) is an excuse for astrophysicists the world over to share their expertise with the general public and increase interest and understanding of science. Highlights have included seminars, public observing experiences, a 24 hour live online tour through the world's telescopes and the Japanese contribution ....

... the astronomical toilet paper.

Whether their painfully intensive education system has made the Japanese view each second of the day as a potential learning experience or whether this stems from their obsessively high tech lavatory design, the observatories in Japan have produced a toilet roll covered with astronomical facts.  Want to know what a molecular cloud is (ironically useful for my own work)? No problem, it's panel one. What about how a planetary nebular forms? Unless you had curry last night, you may be waiting a bit for this morsel of knowledge because it's not until sheet six. (Oh I am so not making this up, they have a website and everything.)

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to enjoy the satisfaction of wiping my arse with my research. (So much softer than ApJ).

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Fire & fans

In a country where etiquette is of primary importance, I was perturbed to find myself standing in my underwear in front of people I'd only recently met. No wait, the etiquette part is not relevant. This would have been equally disturbing back in Florida.

I should probably add that the individuals in question were female and that we were dressing in Japanese yukata before going to one of Tokyo's many summer firework displays. These casual kimonos are made of cotton (rather than multiple layers of silk) but despite the promise of less formal clothing, only the most experienced wearer could tie the obi (sash) without assistance.

Since it is common to wear a v-necked top under the yukata, I wasn't completely down to my underwear. That said, I was hoping for something rather more substantial than the hand towel that was passed to me. Said towel wrapped around my middle and a face cloth pushed in the small of my back for good measure. This turned out to be padding for the obi and sat underneath the main cotton garment. The yukata itself came next. Draped over my shoulders, it is a long bathrobe-type garment but its length is gathered up and secured by a thin cotton belt before being pulled and tweaked to hang correctly. The wide obi is then wound over the gatherings of the yukata and tied off at the back with an intricate bow. Add one pair of wooden shoes and tada! I would so make a Geisha.

Firework displays are a common place for both men and women to wear yukatas. Men's yukatas have darker, simpler designs and the obi is thinner. To my unashamed delight, they also do not wear a shirt and frequently leave the top half open. There was a vast number of people at the display, lining either side of the riverbank. I would estimate roughly a third were in Japanese dress. Food stalls selling toffee apples to Dominos pizzas lined the thoroughfare and the fireworks themselves went on for well over an hour.  

On the walk back home, I acquired a fan stuffed into the back of my obi; a traditional place to carry one. My only current problem is that I've been tied so tightly into my yukata that I've no idea how to escape.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Here I am, brain the size of a planet...

... and they ask me to run a shock tube test.

Contrary to its name, no actual astronomical observing is done at the National Observatory in Tokyo. As the city spread, the domes scattering the campus were converted into museums or declared part of Japan's history and left to be (somewhat ironically) observed. Real observing, such as at the Japanese Subaru telescope, is conducted in places like Hawaii while the city observatory buildings operate as offices for astrophysicists and house the tools for a superior different kind of astrophysics; the theoretical group's Cray supercomputer. (The security surrounding access to this machine made me wonder whether information about its existence was controlled. If so, me blogging about it... not so smart. But Google revealed that Cray advertised its installment at the Observatory in their newsletter, so they're totally going down before me.)

Half the battle in running large numerical simulations is getting your code installed on a new computer system. It does not matter how many times I do this, it never seems to be simple. Of course, this time had the added complication of all the system details being in Japanese.

Once I'd bashed everything into submission (including the Kanji dictionary), I set about trying a test simulation to check the code did not fail when run. This produced the response:

Job exceeds queue resource limits

Huh? This was a small programme that followed the motion of a fluid along a pipe (known as a shock tube test) and I'd only requested a single processor for it. It should not have taken more than a minute to complete. In fact, I could have solved it myself... though in a bit more than a minute. Upon investigation, I discovered that the error message above is misleading. What the Cray was really saying was:

Your job is too small for me to consider it worth my time to compute.

In fact, it transpired that the Cray wouldn't have anything to do with me or my simulations until I requested a minimum of 20 cores each with 4 processors on them. Which I did .... for this one shock tube test. It was the numerical equivalent of squishing a crippled ant with a heavily armored tank.

Well, fine. Two can play at this game. You want a real problem, Cray? One universe demand coming up...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Blood payment

Blood, toil, tears & sweat; the essential recipe for success from both Roosevelt and Churchill. However, I rather wish my weekly pursuit of a Grand Slam title on the Observatory's tennis courts didn't involve quite so much of the blood part.

The local mosquito population apparently think the visiting European is tasty delicious. Far more so than anyone else who appears on the courts. So while my friends straighten out stiff muscles this morning, I am considering gnawing off my arms to relieve the itching.

I was informed by a bite-free colleague that mosquitoes prefer people with O-type blood. Common as anything in Europe but a rarity in Japan where most people are A-type. I initially treated this theory with some skepticism. Japan looks to blood type like Europeans and Americans look to astrology; a person's blood group predicts their personality, love matches and whether they should be staying away from dogs with black spots for the next five days. Type Os like myself are destined to be outgoing and very social but tend to start more things that they finish. Type As (which I assume most of my friends are here) are calm perfectionists and highly artistic. Japanese anime characters almost always have a blood group assigned to them in keeping with their personalities.

In my mistrust of believing that blood group is the answer to all ailments, I turned to that one source of reliable information; the internet. Google informed me that there is scientific evidence for a mosquito preference to O-type blood which might indeed explain the excitement in the insect population of Japan upon seeing me. If nothing else, the stories are at least collaborative.

Damn it, now I'm at the end of this post I want to scratch again. Must. Keep. Hands. On. Keyboard.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


The rainy season (Tsuyu / つゆ / 梅雨 or however you'd like to write it; it's wet, that's the point.) in Japan was officially declared to be over yesterday. Weather, it seems, is not above Japanese bureaucracy. Somehow that makes me feel slightly better about my bank account.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What's in a name?

Opening a foreign bank account is a task that appears to be universally difficult regardless of the host country or the origin of the applicant in question. However, since the alternative is to collect money from my adviser like a 12 year old, I kick started this task in my first week in Japan.

First, get "Alien Residency Card". This piece of plastic, like the American Social Security Number, provides you with an official tag so you can be hunted down and ... well, in America, shot but in Japan probably sat on by a Sumo wrestler for any misdeeds.

Okay, took a couple of weeks but: Check!

Next, fill in bank account application form.

This was entirely in Japanese but hey, that's why I ply my coworkers with sweets. Check!

Finally ... get form returned with complaints you don't know your own name.

No, wait, that wasn't part of the plan! I got my name wrong? Do I take on an alter-ego on alternate Wednesdays I never knew about? How exciting! I check the form. No, there is my normal signature plain as day. A bit scribbly perhaps, but perfectly legible. (Intentionally so, incidentally. If a man steals my bank card at least I'll have the satisfaction of knowing he'll be signing himself "Elizabeth"). So what the...?

I take the form to our departmental secretary. My signature, she explains, does not match the name on my Alien Registration Card. I look blank. She runs her fingers along both lines:

Elizabeth ...

Elizabeth Jane ...

You've got to be kidding me?! Apparently, Japanese people do not have middle names. In fact, I discovered upon this being revealed, this can be a problem for scientific publications since the number of Japanese names is relatively small leading to many authors with indistinguishable paper citations. To avoid this, many Japanese scientist actually add a fictitious middle initial into their publication name though not, it appears, into their bank accounts.

So a new form with brand new signature that I've never used before. *Scratches head* Ho hum! Meanwhile, I'm off to ask my adviser for pocket money.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Italian epilogue

Guess what? Exile at a conference in Tuscany, not so bad. Beautiful countryside and they fed us incredible Italian food since foraging for ourselves around the remote Abbey would have resulted in the decimation of the local black & white pig population they are trying to reintroduce (and possibly the starvation of the theorists).

Naturally, the pasta, pork, cheeses and hams scintillating scientific conversations combined with the Abbey's own wine selection stimulating talks made the conference a success. To my pleasure, there were a large number of galaxy focussed talks as well as ones on star formation which I'm still in denial about researching. Fucking stars.

There were also some of the best conference freebies. I came away with a backpack (particularly useful since I thought I would have to buy one before climbing Fuji), a tee-shirt (issued in an effort to keep track of us during the school conference outing), an inflatable beach ball (what eminent Astronomer doesn't need one?) and a wind-up torch which I'm using now ...

... which brings me to my current location. 11125 m above the western Siberian lowlands. I actually have a great plane seat. It's on an exit row by the toilets so the next seat is about 2m in front. The only slight draw back is that both my TV and reading light are broken and it's getting dark. In my wide awake state, my sanity has been saved by this small conference flashlight. I shall probably progress to writing a best seller and the story of its beginning will rival J. K. Rowling's coffee shop tales.

The flashlight was originally handed out to allow us to walk back to our accommodation after dark. However, the only time I tried this I was apprehended by a group of wild boar and beat a hasty retreat. This is not the first time that I've wished I'd brought my hockey stick to a conference.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Naked ambition

Welcome to the Renaissance city of Florence; home to the great Medici family, whose members ruled (for about 400 years), patronized the arts (all the big names), stuffed in a few popes (highly corrupt) and were murdered (big mistake) in the city. They shared this home with artists Dante, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli, are buried here along with Galileo and also enjoyed the architectural wonders of the Duomo (Florence's dominating building), Palazzo Pitti (because everyone needs a palace) and Santa Croce (tomb admiration spot).

However, possibly the most famous object in Florence is the 17ft sculpture of an entirely nude Biblical King. Michelangelo's David is housed in the Galleria dell'Accademia and it is this perfection of naked male beauty that I made a fairly direct beeline to see (in the name of art, I assure you). Having seen many pictures of David on postcards / news reports / America's most wanted I was surprised exactly how impressive the statue is in ... well, not exactly the flesh, but the marble perhaps. Dominating the room, the scale and preservation of the figure is incredible. Perhaps David is a little set in his ways but his silence is commendable and he's certainly someone I'd consider a second date with. It is noticable that the seating around the statue is almost entirely rear facing. The people resting their weary feet there were coincidentally predominately female.

Apart from David, the museum houses a hall of sculptured heads (creepy) and many Biblical icon art. I examined gold leaved graphic reproductions of Christ's crucifix wounds, refused to meet the blank stares from the hall of heads and then departed to scoot to the top of the Duomo; Hello Florence, I see you all!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

JPEG Science

Spineto Abbey; the building once populated with some of the world's most religious individuals was this hot Tuesday afternoon, populated by some of the world's most eminent astrophysicists.

I sat in the far corner of the room, listening as one of the leaders in my field stepped up to the podium to discuss the properties of young galaxies.

"As you can see," the speaker began, gesturing to the slide behind her. "this galaxy is a strong Lyman-alpha absorber, where the spectral line has been redshifted about 300 km/s. Despite the high signal to noise, we see a large fraction of highly ionised gas in the galactic outflows suggesting the presence of low metallicity Wolf-Rayet stars. The trends in the composite spectra imply..."

Well, anyway, I was a theorist. A galaxy was involved. It was a long way away and was spewing hot gas everywhere. Got it. However, at this point an interruption came in the form of a question. Most likely, this was a probing, hard hitting point that would throw into doubt the very nature of the Universe itself.

"What does it look like?" the petulant cry went out to be greeted with murmured agreement and nods.

"I'm sorry!" the speaker turned to her audience with an expression of a mother telling a favoured child it cannot have ice cream that day. "We don't have Hubble Space Telescope data yet. I can show you an HI image though?" she offered as a compromise.

There were grumbles has people resigned themselves to looking at graphs.

JPEG science; tried here first, given to the BBC news after we've all ogled.

Monday, July 6, 2009


[Twilight spoilers in this post, although I don't think it's possible to reveal anymore than the movie trailer.]

"The 'Twilight' line is over there," the cheerful Border's bookshop assistant directed me.

"Uh, actually, I wasn't ... wow," I glanced at my watch. I guessed the new 'Twilight' sequel was due to be released at midnight. It was currently just before 9pm and the queue wrapped around the store. Maybe I should have been there for that book.

At the time, I was considering reading material for the flights to and from Japan this summer. Personally, I have some faith in the mass opinion of novels, largely due to my passionate love of the Harry Potters, an obsession shared with the 15 million who also grabbed the 'Deathly Hallows' last year. Yet my friends had more dubious review than the people in Borders that evening.

"It's just a teenage love story," one remarked.

I considered my state of mind after 12 hours in a airborne tin box. That night, I ordered a copy on Amazon.

By the time I stepped off the plane, I'd killed 2/3rds of 'Twilight' so I could only describe myself as absorbed. The writing style I cannot honestly give more than a C+. The adjectives are repetitive and the sentence structure simplistic rather than elegant. That said, I walked away with a clear view of the small north Washington State town setting, where the thickly populated trees continually dripped rain drops. The plot is somewhat predicable, not least because it is entirely encapsulated on the back cover. The characterisation though, is good. Edward is portrayed as a moody, secretive and staggeringly handsome boy-god with the added excitement that he might destroy you at any moment. What girl wouldn't go weak at the knees? His personality weakens somewhat as his secrets are reveals (to Bella, the reader has probably looked on the back cover) as does the plot line which focuses obsessively on Edward's decision about whether to take Bella to dinner or have her for dinner. The ending climax also feels forced. It would have been more exciting if Edward decided the way to his heart really was through his stomach and devoured the girl (after all, that has been the build up all book). Frankly, it'd also be a more accurate ending (metaphorically speaking, at least) to most adolescent relationships.

My room-mate at the conference I'm currently attending is a flush with the glow from her new relationship. I've lent her the book. Forewarned is forearmed, after all.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Griping about paradise

Tomorrow I reluctantly leave Japan to attend a conference in Italy. This enforced participation means that I will be staying in an abbey set in the Tuscan countryside, set halfway between Rome and Florence and ... No, I'm not gaining the sympathy of my audience, am I?

Let me amend slightly by saying that Italy is a beautiful country and a delight to visit. It's just that, being European, it's not currently quite as exciting to me as Japan. Since outrageously I am expected to work during the week here, my first narrow-eyed gripe comes from having to give up a couple of weekends I'd like to spend stalking Prince of Tennis cos-players exploring Tokyo. The day I fly back is also my birthday, which will be 7 hours shorter because of the time difference. Very sad!

No, I'm still feeling a radiant "lucky bugger" coming from you all. Let me continue...

The talks during this conference run from 9 am until 8:30 pm at night. Aha! I hear you say, but that's because there's a HUGE lunch break for you to zip out and run around the whole of Italy, right? Indeed, you observant critters, there is a siesta period that includes lunch from 1 pm - 4:30 pm. But ...

... the abbey is in the middle of nowhere ... I'm sorry, I mean "far from the noise and haste of everyday life" (as the webpage assures me). The only way to reach civilization is via the conferences shuttle bus.

Well, feh! You might cry. You're a scientist, since when have you ever needed real people to socialise with?

The conference information continues: "Internet access will be at €3/hour. There is no option of a flat rate for the week."

This is now starting to sound like something from "The Shining". None of you will leave until you've solved star formation. None of you ...

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

On the spot

Elizabeth! Angry!

You make a chicken burger?! You don't even know how to open a bread roll, let alone produce something worthy for that customer! You're the most useless employee and ....

Elizabeth! Sad!

... and it used to be a CHICKEN! A cute, feathery bundle of clucky joy and now look at it! LOOK AT IT! It's crushed and covered with breadcrumbs! Oh the pain!

Improv. comedy is, I have to say, decidedly harder than it looks. Someone feeds you a line and you literally have to say the first thing that comes into your head. Well, heaven help us all! I suppose I should just be grateful it was clean and moderately good English.

To be a good improviser, your response in a game to an outside prompt (like above) or to another actor needs to (1) "accept" (the said line by using it), (2) "advance" (the story line) and (3) "charm" (your audience. Ideally, at least three people should drop dead from asphyxiation due to laughter). In this, my first attempt during a workshop, I aimed for words in a recognisable language. Failure to do so fulfilled number 3, but lost points on numbers 1 & 2.

I should add the desired language was English, not Japanese. The glassy eyed stare while internal translation occurs lacks .... punch. Especially if it is indefinite.

Now say that again, but in the style of George W. Bush

I want to make it clear that we speak only English. No foreign language is allowed at this Tokyo event. The time delay to allow translation into English is so long that the words are no longer a WOMD. If the words never appear in English, then they do not mean anything to anyone. I emphasize: only native English speakers. No Europeans allowed.