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. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

The housing clock

"I'm planning to buy a house.

It was a plan that suggested careful forethought, future planning and financial investment. In short, it wasn't one I had come up with anytime recently. The speaker in question was another faculty member who mentioned her plans to four of us who had gotten together to eat lunch and discuss alternative recourses to drowning students in duck ponds. 

"I told my boss I wanted to buy a house when I was older," she explained. "But he told me in Hokkaido, you buy houses young and move into an apartment when you're older."

I stopped midway through cutting up an egg plant. "Why?" I asked. I had always looked at property purchases as good long-term investments; a place to feed money once you were settled and reap the rewards of an payment-free home after you retire. I could see some people wishing to downsize from the family home, but wouldn't most choose a smaller house over an apartment?

"Because you have to be strong to shovel the snow."

I glanced out of the window. Even in April, the campus lay under a thick frozen white sheet. "But… it's not the law to have to shovel the sidewalks here," I pointed out.

At least, if it were the law, it was one absolutely everyone in Sapporo was blatantly ignoring. In Canada, you were responsible for the strip of pavement that ran outside your house. It had to be kept snow-free and gritted in the winter months. Here, the snow just mounted up to a compacted pile several feet thick. To be completely fair, I hadn't found Sapporo's policy of letting the snow accumulate to be a worse situation. Walkways shovelled in the morning could become icy death traps within the hour, whereas walking on fresh snow was relatively stable, even if you did have a large step down to the entrance of buildings. 

"No," my friend agreed. "But you do have to be able to leave the house."


It was then I remembered the empty apartment building near my home. It was two floors and the upper level was reached by a outside staircase. This construction had been left through the winter to become a giant spherical popsicle as the snow had mounted on each of its steps and railings. I say the apartment building is empty; maybe it's more accurate to state that no living soul is in there now. 

So it was the difficulty in escaping from your own home in winter that put an age barrier on house ownership in Hokkaido. It turned out too, that house prices having been dropping in Japan since the end of the bubble economy, making property a poor investment. On the other hand, it perhaps beat paying rent that you can never recoup.

"I need to stop thinking and just do it," my friend admitted. 

It sounded a bit like debating whether to have a baby; terrible investment that is limited by a biological clock. On the other hand, you get to finger paint the walls. 

As for the alternative to drowning students; our lunch get-together completely removed that pressing need. The view outside the canteen window told us all that the pond was nearly thawed. 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Sophie's choice


'Sophie's choice' is a story in which a Polish immigrant, Sophie, is taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp and forced to choose which of her two children will be sent to a labour camp and which will be instantly gassed. 

I was having the same dilemma.

Except with fish. 

Back in June, a friend who was leaving Japan asked me to take care of her pet fish. She promised me that they required minimal maintenance and would be happy for ever and ever and ever. 

When they started to make regular bids for freedom by trying to leap clear of the tank, I began to suspect that at least one of those 'for ever's was an exaggeration. 

The problem was perfectly clear. While back in June the fish had been comfortable in their little aquarium (top photo), now they were stuffed in between the glass walls like sardines in a can (bottom photo).

It was possibly this analogy that made the outside world a risk worth taking. That, or it was the photograph of the galaxy I had put next to their tank and the futility of their lives had finally sank in. 

… or that the pump was no longer up to the task of dealing with these two whales-in-the-making. 

Despite a fairly recent replacement of the unit and regular changes of the internal filter, the water emerging from the pump remained a cloudy mix. What was more, it wasn't able to run enough oxygen through the tank, giving a grain of logic to fish's `Little Mermaid' expeditions above the water's surface. When not in kamikaze flight, my scaly friends would swim vertically with their heads close to the pump's head. Occasionally they would drop down to look at me through the glass with huge open mouths. 

It was like a mini version of 'Jaws' right there in my living room. Definitely not feng shui relaxing. 

I took the hint and went to the local hardware store, bought a bigger pump and eyed up fish tanks.

The pump purchase turned out to be an entirely empty gesture since the box came with only the filter and not the actual pump or connecting hose. This is fairly typical of my purchasing experiences in the country where I can't read the box and left me --also typically-- wondering why you would ever sell these items separately to begin with. My perplexity only increased when the corresponding pump and hose were not in the "Customers who bought this item also bought…" section on Amazon. Was manually blowing down fish filters the favourite pastimes for Japan's Hikikomori[*]? 

Fortunately, my guesses for the right connecting devices turned out to be correct and a few days later I was able to fit a new pump. This process also initiated several suicide attempts by the tank residents but ultimately resulted in them chillaxing on the tank bottom.

Of course, given their size, the difference between the tank bottom and top was minimal which brought me to my second and third problem: how big a tank would I need and where could I put it in my rather compact apartment? 

The real issue was that I suspected my fish were not goldfish at all but koi. Trawling google produced no convincing evidence that miniature koi existed which led to one inevitable conclusion:

My fish were in a race to out grow my cat. THEN we'd see who'd be forced to live in a tank. 

Fearing I'd be forced to leave in an underwater apartment with cat eating fish, I contacted my pet sitter and outlined the problem. Were there koi ponds in Sapporo that might take a couple of additions? It turned out yes ... but with one small catch. 

Literally. They were koi fishing ponds. 

So my golden buddies had a choice: (1) life in a small tank (2) life in pond of awesome but with the risk of being eaten, Hansel & Gretel style. 

It was around this time a friend mentioned to me 'Sophie's Choice'. I've been traumatised ever since I read the synopsis on wikipedia. 

I confess, I was leaning towards the fish farm. Koi are very large and very long lived, which rather pointed to failure of any scheme I put together. I was mid-way through mentally constructing an anti-fishing hook training program for the tank troops when my pet sitter came up with another solution. She liked the fish --she explained-- and had room for a bigger tank if I was happy with her taking them. If they outgrew this second container, the gingerbread Koi farm of doom might have to be reconsidered. 

Delighted that I could entirely pass this mental burden of anguish onto someone else, I readily agreed. I donated money towards the necessarily replacement fish tank and hoped it wouldn't be later used for psychotherapy. 

The cat --meanwhile-- has been stalking the place where the tank used to sit. However, when she leaps up from behind a cushion, all she finds is one large stuffed cow. 


[*] Hikikomori: a person who doesn't leave the house. Ever.  

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Panic buying

I wheeled over my suitcase to the Air Canada check-in counter and tried to nonchalantly lift it onto the scales as if it were a small baggy number that could be tossed onboard the aircraft by a five year old simultaneously playing a computer game. There was a trick to this; placed carefully it was possible to rest the end of the suitcase over the edge of the scale, preventing its true elephantine proportions to flash up on the digital display.

Why was my bag heavy enough to make these deceptions necessary?

Because it was full of toothpaste. 

… and moisturiser, deodorant, tooth floss, ibuprofen, vitamins and two packets of tampons.

Did I ever mention I panic buy when abroad? 

A typical shopping trip just before I'm due to fly back to Japan goes as follows:

Initial thought: "I ought to take vitamins. While I'm in Canada, I'll pick up a bottle because I can read the label."

See, so far all very reasonable. Then we go to the supermarket shelves. Do I need a bottle this size:

Or maybe this size:

But suppose I run out and I can't find them in Japan? Better take a bigger bottle:

But that's only 240 capsules! Not even enough for a year! I'll run out, be unable to find more, buy the wrong product because I can't read the label and DIE BECAUSE MY LEGS HAVE FALLEN OFF. CAN'T YOU SEE IT SAYS HEART SUPPORT ON THE LABEL?:

 and better get some of these too:

Sometimes I think I'm not totally cut out for living abroad.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A priest's harem

The day I travelled down to Rochester dawned fresh and bright and full of the scents of spring. The sun shone, birds chirped and bunnies skipped through the fields, oblivious to the fact they would shortly be caught, covered in chocolate and stuffed into an egg for Easter. Yet, despite all these pleasantries, I was nervous.


Because we were about to cross the Canadian-USA border and there was a non-finite chance I might be detained and miss my flight back to Japan. In three weeks time. 

Since I had --upon consideration-- decided against renting a car on my slightly illegal Canadian driving license[*] and using it to cross an international border, I was hitching a ride with a friend. She and I used to play on the same hockey team in Canada and we were visiting another ex-team mate who was a Baptist minister and had recently relocated to a church over the border. Really, you couldn't do better than our trip for shiny, wholesome fun. 

Knowing the USA border as I did, I suspected we would be detained for decades.

My friend was Canadian and in possession of a 'Nexus card'; an ID program that allows pre-approved, low-risk travellers to skip the queues at the Canadian-USA border. However, on this trip her vehicle was harbouring a British citizen who was working in Japan, visiting Canada and carrying a new passport which contained suspiciously little evidence of her sordid part. Low-risk we were not. We would have to go through the long way. 

"Where are you from?"



And so the questions began. 

"What is the purpose for your trip?"

"We're visiting a friend," my friend explained. "He lives in Rochester."

"And what does he do?"

"He's a minister," my friend obediently expanded. "He's Canadian but working in the USA."

"And what sort of friend is he?"

OK, let's take a pause in our story to consider WHAT SORT OF QUESTION IS THAT? This guy has a car in front of him which contains two women of different nationalities, one from neither of the countries that this border straddles. The questions I was expecting concerned how I knew my chauffeur, how long I was going to be in North America and what I was doing here to begin with. His main concern seemed to be how did some religious dude get a job abroad and import an international harem of women for his guilty pleasures.

You believe I'm unfairly jumping the gun on the internal workings of this poor border guard? Let me continue….

"He's my boyfriend," my friend admitted after a slightly surprised pause.

The border guard leaned down and took another look at me. "What about her?"

WHAT ABOUT ME? The 'girlfriend' role is now taken. Did he expect me to admit I was the concubine? Sister wife? Imported bride? The girl they picked up on kijiji when advertising for a genuine 'Tarts and Vicars' weekend? I feel these should not have been the first 'go to' options here!

"She's …. a random friend," my friend volunteered.

…. well, I suppose 'random' beat 'imported concubine for an orgy'.

After that we were let through to collect the required visitor visa. I suspect the border guard went to fill in his application to theology college. 

[*] Technically, the license was in date, but showed my old Hamilton address, which meant lying about being a Canadian resident. It was also not possible to update said address without having a current national health card (OHIP). Go figure. 


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Penny matters

Canada has ditched the penny. 

This made significant economic sense but made many customers in 'Dollarama' very angry. 

The issue was that Canadian's smallest currancy denomination now costs more to produce than it's actually worth. That, and it really shouldn't be named after the subdivision of the British pound when the Canadian dollar is divided into cents. And it's not even accepted by vending machines.

In short, it was a bronze coloured abomination. 

So in May 2012, the penny birth rate dropped to zero and last month the Royal Canadian Mint stopped distributing them, although they remain legal tender for anyone who was struggling to find ways to spend them.

You might think that --in the face of there being no 1 cent coin-- all prices should be given in multiples of 5c. And you'd be right... except for the tax.

Like the USA, Canadian prices are shown minus the sales tax, which in Ontario is a very unworkable 13%. Quite why prices are shown without the tax included remained a perpetual mystery to me during my time in North America. I rather thought that the point of a price tag was to tell customers how much they had to pay.

But no. That idea was clearly ridiculous.

As a result of this last minute addition, prices are rung up in the till as normal, usually coming to a price that isn't 5c compatible. The cashier therefore rounds to the nearest 5c, with the argument being that it all works out in the end. With the maximum loss being 2c, most of the population are singularly unfazed...

… with the exception of the patrons at 'Dollarama'.

Admittedly, with a name that reflected the average price of goods in the store, it is perhaps less surprising that 2 cents is a rather bigger deal here than elsewhere in town. Still, I was taken aback when it took over 20 minutes to buy a tube of toothpaste because the two people in front of me were protesting over missing pennies. A maths lesson concerning rounding ensued. I give each patron 3/10

And declare that 50%. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Yellow boots of awesome

When I moved to Japan, I sold my car. This was a SAD EVENT. 

My car was a cheerful yellow sunbeam of a VW Beetle that was capable of lifting the mood on even the darkest of days. This was especially good since --at 10 years old-- it started to become the source of some of those dark days as it went through a series of faults that made the CAA regret ever offering me automobile support. 

Regardless of my newly acquired familiarity with tow trucks, I was sad to lose it. Or at least, sad not to replace it with a younger, sexier model.

Since Sapporo is a large city with good public transport, the practical need to own a car is low. That, and my practical ability to progress through the steps needed to buy a car in Japanese is also low. 

Then there is the snow, which makes locating your vehicle a genuine challenge once you turn your back for longer than about 6 hours. Combined with only a half-hearted attempt by the city to clear the roads, this results in some people giving up on their cars entirely in the winter months, letting them become snow covered car cakes in their driveway. Others set their children to shovelling out the vehicle, probably with the promise that they can play computer games when they finish. 

Around May. 

Since it would be deeply disappointing to spend six months digging out a car only to discover it wasn't yours and it was difficult to hot wire, I decided to walk to the city streets. Yet, there was something missing. Something bright and cheerful and … sunflowery.

Last weekend I found the solution in a Dr Martens store; something to still take me around the city in a shade of sun beaming yellow amusement. 

And yes, this is also the message I am giving my students. And the world. And you right now.

Monday, March 18, 2013

A letter to my version control software

OK, Mercurial, I feel the time as come for THE TALK. 

The talk about where I see my career going (grand slam of Nobel Prizes) and you see it going (down the tubes).  

Since I understand the best way to find common ground is by focussing on positive features of the other party, I will start by saying I do understand why you are widely used. Through your abilities, many people can work on the same computer code. They can make their own changes, share them with a community of code developers around the globe and in turn, implement other people's adjustments seamlessly into their version. In fact, for a large project --such as the two my research depends on-- I would go as far to say you are the essential component that prevents every one of us working on discrete, subtly different code sources.

Code version "elizabeth-170313-v5-old" never had that great a ring to it.

When I use you for the simplest of situations, we have no problems. 

Do you have anything nice to say about me, Mercurial?
Maybe that I'm persistent? Pointlessly so.
Maybe that I scream well when I fail? And that makes you laugh. 

Because this isn't the whole story, is it? When things get a little more complicated, you and I seem to break apart. We are like the estranged siblings who can manage to nod politely at one another during family gatherings so long as no one mentions the incident with the pancakes in 1982. Let's take a look at a recent example together, shall we?

I was adding a small new routine to the code. A fresh bit of programming that sat in its own file and never did anything to upset anyone. It was an innocent, Mercurial, you didn't have to treat it so badly. Initially you pretended to accept it, adding it to your register like Snow White's stepmother counted the princess within her family. Then I tried to merge with the main online code version and your cruel intent showed.

You refused to perform the action; your excuses involved branches, conflicts and heads. May I just say now that telling a lady she gave you 'multiple heads' is just not acceptable manners? Not to mention quite outside topic. You couldn't resolve, you couldn't update and the only option left to me was to 'force' my changes through which you proposed in a manner than suggested I'd regret it quicker than Voldemort after the birth of Harry Potter. 

I couldn't help but feel you weren't really trying. 

And I have to ask why. I wanted to love you. I felt we could work well together in the same way Lisa Simpson wanted to adore her substitute teacher. Yet, Lisa was despised by her teacher because she was thought too pretty. Is that your problem, Mercurial? Are you jealous because your execution command 'hg' reminds everyone your name is akin to a poisonous grey liquid metal? Or perhaps you just enjoyed the fact I gestured so rudely at my computer during these troubles that I was forced to leave the coffee shop in short order afterwards?

I liked that coffee shop and I may never be able to return.

I know other people do not have the same troubles with you and I feel bullied, tormented and terrorised by a piece of inanimate software.


It's not good. You make me feel like the Penny of my research family. And I don't even like cheesecake. 



DISCLAIMER: The problems the author has alluded to in this post reflect more on the difficulties with version controlling a large project than the Mercurial software. This is possibly supported by the Mercurial site which claims you can "Work easier. Work faster" but doesn't specify with respect to what. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Violence pays

Today, a vending machine paid me 50 cents to take a cherry flavoured vitamin water, but first I had to pay an assassin to fight it with a knife. 

This wasn't how I had planned to get a drink. Despite the many criticisms about salaries in academia, I had intended to take the conventional route of actually paying for my beverage. In this story, the part of the drink will be played by a bottle of flavoured water, which cost $2. 

Fun fact #1: $2 coins in Canada are called 'toonies'. $1 coins are 'loonies' which leads to some mildly offensive conversations. 

I took a toonie from my wallet and attempted to insert it into the machine's coin slot. I failed. Since this isn't usually the type of task that tests a person's skill level, I bent my knees and tried to look through the slot to see what was happening. Wedged in the narrow gap, I could just make out the metal edges of a quarter and a loonie. 

Fun fact #2: A 25 cent coin is called a 'quarter' in both the USA and Canada. In the USA, the reverse side of certain quarters depicts the US state in which it was made. According to wikipedia, the number of people attempting to collect a quarter from each of the 50 states is so high that it is the most successful numismatic program in history, giving the US government an extra $3 billion from people taking the coins out of circulation. 

Returning to the topic of our trapped currency, I gave an inward cry of exasperation. What kind of stupid person tries to shove two coins into the machine at once, causing it to jam? CLEARLY an undergraduate. Bet they were from biology. 

My first attempt to remedy this problem was just to force my own toonie into the machine, thereby dislodging the other coins. This proved fruitless since nothing moved.

Attempt #2 was to use my room keys to try and wiggle the coins free. This was slightly more productive and --after a few moments jiggling-- there was a clunk and the machine registered that I'd paid it 25 cents. What was odd, however, was that the 25 cent piece I could see wedged against the loonie had not moved. 

Exactly how much money was there trapped in this tiny gap?!

What sort of person keeps feeding a machine money without reporting a fault like this?!

At that moment a graduate student from my department appeared, saw my dilemma and announced the solution was paper. Apparently, this was not a new issue. He disappeared to return holding up a folded sheet with which he attempted the same trick I had with my keys. 

Nothing happened. Today's problem was serious. 

Fortunately, it transpired any good theoretical astrophysics student would come armed to his office with an all-in-one knife tool kit. Feeling that group meetings had changed since my day, I watched in amazement as steadily larger knifes were used in ways that would censor this post if described. Finally the machine capitulated (though you'll prove nothing in court because torture makes an unreliable witness). With a second series of clunks, two quarters, a toonie and a loonie fell into the machine's change dispenser. I paid my knife assassin off with a loonie (grad students come cheap) and inserted the toonie back into the cleared coin slot. 

 Where it gets stuck.

A quick stabbing later and I had my beverage plus 50 cents profit. As I walked away down the corridor, I thought about calling the machine maintenance number and reporting the problem.

Still thinking. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Pigs are no fun!

Lake Avenue Baptist Church in Rochester, NY, prides itself on welcoming worshippers from all walks of life. This extends most particularly to its acceptance (and indeed performance) of gay marriage and its widely international congregation, a significant fraction of whom are not fluent English speakers. The diversity of the church members was celebrated at the beginning of the service where we exchanged a 'Good morning' with the paster in Mandarin (Zao Shang Hao), French (Bonjour), Burmese (Ming Gulava), Chin (Na Dam Ma), Spanish (Buenos Dias), Karen (Gaw Ler Gay), Kerenni (Teh Rya Beh Thee) and Nepalese (Namaste).

… And incase anyone like me was forced to reach for google after looking at that list, Karen and Kerenni are spoken by a group of people living in the south of Berma. Berma shares a border with China, Thailand, India, Laos and Bangladesh. It is not infeasible I had to also check that second fact. 

However, I couldn't help thinking --as I scanned the pews-- that this highly diverse greeting was wasted on the people around me who were predominantly white American. Was this a case of laying the table and hoping that the well known Kerenni speakers of northern New York state pour in? I'd noticed there were a lot of churches in Rochester, but this niche seemed a bit of a long shot. 

But by the time we were half an hour in, the demographic had changed; families with black hair, brown hair, blonde hair and red hair, of all different ages and tones of skin had filled out the pews. Ideas of punctuality (and perhaps the driving of the church bus) appeared to vary as vastly as language choice. In fact I was to later learn that this congregation was smaller than usual; daylight saving does nobody any favours but at least most of the absent had the excuse of language. Afterall, the idea there might be a Government backed mandate to STEAL AN HOUR OF YOUR LIFE in March is hard to anticipate.

… is that not how it works? Felt like it this morning.

With the pastor announcing three times that the adult education class on race and ethnicity would begin promptly at 11:30 that morning, one had to conclude start times were problematically open to interpretation. A fact that extended to the publication of the notice sheet which had the same class listed as 11:45 pm. 

Quite aside from that, may I say right now that Burmese children, with their Asian black hair and eyes and tanned skin, are frankly adorable? This sentiment was probably reinforced (if not created) by the fact they arrived late and then left shortly afterwards to go to Sunday School elsewhere in the church. Before they departed, the associate pastor led the 'Children's Worship' whose topic was the same as the main sermon; The Prodigal Son.

As the children confirmed, this parable is well known. A feckless whelp of a boy demands his inheritance from his father and disappears off to a life of partying (activity provided by the child audience; probably from one who was anticipating turning 4 years old real soon). Having spent all his cash in an irresponsible and stupid fashion, the son is forced to suck up his own mistakes and work on a pig farm for scraps of food he barely deserves.

and PIGS ARE NO FUN! (Helpful calibration point provided during the children's sermon incase anyone thought that did sound rather good)

Finally acknowledging that he was a idiotic twerp, the boy returns home to beg for work on his father's farm as a servant. Upon seeing the worthless spawn who had left him for dead for a life of debauchery, the father runs out to greet him, demands his servants hold a huge party (clearly knowing his son's perchance for such activities), dress him in robes and rings and kill the fatted calf. The older son who has experienced no such party life style is exceedingly pissed off and gets fobbed off by the promise of being able to inherit his father's hard working lifestyle when he dies. 

The pastor asked us all who we identified with more: the piggy scum of a prodigal son, the father or the older sibling. (Slight paraphrasing in progress.)

In case anyone was in any doubt based on my re-telling of this famous religious story, I SYMPATHISE WITH THE OLDER SIBLING.

Slapping it into the context of the day, Jesus told this story as a mirror to the attitude of the religious leaders who were angry that Jesus was hanging with the sinners of the town for dinner. 

Prior to this morning, I had never had much sympathy with those said religious bods. They seemed a stuffy bunch, more interested in bashing scrolls that actually applying any of the good that they preached. However, having thought the matter through carefully in right-hand side of the penultimate pew, I realised THEY HAVE EVERY REASON TO BE ANNOYED!

Let's take a step back and assess the situation: these people have dedicated their EVERY WAKING MINUTE to God. They have given up career plans of ballet dancing, Formula One racing and pimping for one of fasting, studying-without-macbooks and uncomfortable hair growth.

Then MIRACLE UPON MIRACLE! It all pays off! The promised Son of God appears not only in their lifetime, but right there in their town! 

Then he goes and hangs out with the scum who have just been making like Uncle Scrooge of Ducktails in his money bath. 


TEAM OLDER SON. I'm getting a tee-shirt made up. 

Having thoroughly digested the sermon, I paused on my way out of the church to use the bathroom. Pinned on the wall of the cubicle was a notice that not only demonstrated the problems with a congregation with a language barrier but utilised a technique familiar with my own teaching in Japan: Use pictures. Keep the words few and simple. No. In. That goes for nappies and possibly religious messages. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Keep calm and eat a teacup pig

 The problem with having a prolonged break from blogging is … how do you restart? Should you wait for an occasion SO MOMENTOUS that even an illiterate teacup pig would find a way to communicate it to the world:


 (Just so we're clear that comment was entirely fictitious. Any resemblance to real events, occurring in any country, is purely coincidental.)

 Or should you just pick up from an entirely random point :



(That comment was rather less fictitious and aren't you all glad I didn't decide to blog that?)

After a few false starts, I have picked a moment when I'm sitting in a gay and lesbian friendly coffee shop in Rochester, USA. Its name, 'Equal Grounds', is testament to their ideology, although they stress this just applies to people, not to coffees, since they have an extensive menu of drinks that includes their own blend. The artsy interior, huge flat screen fireplace and funky mugs for the almond steamer I ordered are enough to reinvigorate even the (blogging) dead. 

Back in Japan, the teaching year has finished (the undergraduate year runs April to mid-February) and marks the end of my first year as a faculty member! Frankly, that alone puts any talk of Justin Bieber's sextuplets in the shade. It should have resulted in the MOST GLITZY BLOG POST OF ALL TIME, but I confused my laptop with a teddybear and went to sleep. 

Teddybear laptops. That's where we were at, people. 

Then there came a new dawn and I  remembered my real job was a researcher. Whereupon, I promptly took off back to Canada to write up projects with my old institute that I'd been treating as the unmentionable Frankenstein monster of an unloved bastard teacup pig for the last 12 months. 

Then I crossed the border and found a coffee shop.