pergamond: From xkcd.com ([xkcd] Carebear stare)

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."

Picture box

May. 6th, 2013 06:43 pm
pergamond: ([PoT] Eiji // victory!)

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?  

pergamond: ([Utena] Nanami // pout)

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 amazon.co.jp 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? 

pergamond: ([Shrek] Puss-in-boots // how can you res)

"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.  

pergamond: ([PoT] Kaidoh // not listening)

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. 

Why?

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. 

pergamond: ([Tamora Pierce] Circle // Tris)

"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."

Ah.

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 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. 

pergamond: From xkcd.com ([xkcd] Carebear stare)

 

'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 would be sent to a labour camp and which would 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.  

pergamond: ([PoT] Kaidoh // not listening)

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.

pergamond: ([She-rah] Triumphant)

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.

pergamond: ([PoT] Kaidoh // not listening)

Japan. The only place where a normal end to a conference is to get naked together in one big bath. 

I was at a three day "Leadership Workshop for Female Faculty" which --despite its rather wooly title-- has consisted of well thought-out sessions covering each of the main roles in a faculty position; conference presentation, academic writing, course design and mentoring. It was held at a Hilton hotel situated at the foot of the Mount Yotei; an active stratovolcano sometimes referred to as 'the Fuji of the north' due to the physical resemblance with its famous southern cousin and the similarly exciting possibility of violent death by lava. 

So far, however, I had not appreciated either the scenery of the luxuries of the hotel. As soon as we left Sapporo, fog had swept over us in an exciting bid for Autumn. When I pulled back the curtains in my hotel room this morning, I had to raise a hand to check I wasn't missing an extra net blind that had turned my view to white. I had not: oblivion was outside my window. Normally, there is a mountain. I've heard it's ace. 

Still, the workshop itself was not for mountain gazers. We were timetabled through until 11 pm (not a typo), where the last session was listed as 'optional' but with a footnote that made it clear it was as missable as potty training. 

Fortunately, everyone treated the long hours with an element of humour that causes you to band together to form a brave front. Plus, they compensated us with food. I'm going to have to be rolled out the door tomorrow.

Wrung through and full of information, I headed down to the hotel's onsen to relax in the hot spring waters. There's the benefit of the active volcano; possible horrifying death, but great baths until then. 

This was the point where I caught up with the rest of my colleagues and I had the very genuine problem of recognising them without their clothes on. 

To go to and from the onsen, the hotel had provided traditional Japanese yukatas; a simple version of the kimono typically worn during the summer or while visiting the onsen. Overheating in the 42 C water, one of my non-Japanese (this fact will become important shortly) friends and I bade everyone goodnight and went to dry off, folding our yukatas around us and tying them closed at the waist. 

As we turned to leave, one of our Japanese friends caught us with an expression of deep amusement:

"You've tied it wrong," she indicated the yukata, where we'd folded the right edge over the left. "That is only for dead people!"

Either it was a mistake, or it was an unconscious reflection of how we felt at the end of that day.

 

--
Photo was the best I managed from my window during a semi-break in the fog.

pergamond: ([Utena] Nanami // pout)

When I called my parents on Saturday night, I had had a headache for three days.

Or was it four? The details had become vague and I was cranky.

A heat wave has engulfed Sapporo for the last two weeks, sending the temperatures into the humid 30s which might have been tolerable if anyone had believed in air conditioning. 

The problem --I complained to my parents-- was that this headache wasn't bad enough to stop me in my tracks, but it was sufficiently painful to make looking at a computer screen or book genuinely difficult.

While I was deeply glad not to be rolling around in agony, it had become plain that if you took away my laptop and reading material, I had no other interests.

So far that weekend, I had cleaned the main room, bedroom, toilet and shower, brushed the cat six times and played dead on the sofa. In short, I was bored.

"Well, I think we've run out of our news," my Dad said after we'd been chatting for a while. "And I don't think much of yours."

"I have to whine to you," I responded, matter-of-factly. "I don't have the depth of vocabulary in Japanese to go on about it to anyone else."

"How about going to see a film tomorrow?" Dad suggested. "Cinemas are usually air conditioned and you'd be far away from a large screen, so it shouldn't hurt your eyes."

And that was how I ended up going to see 'The Avengers' on Sunday afternoon.

The arrival of Western blockbusters in Japan varies from that of 'Harry Potter' (released the same day as the rest of the world) to 'The Hunger Games' (still waiting). Both dubbed and subtitled versions are usually shown, so the trick is to: 

(a) recognise the movie title in Japanese

(b) get tickets for the showing with the original sound track.

Western words --which extends to foreign movie titles-- are typically written in katakana; the phonetic script for words not originally Japanese. The majority of these words are originally English but reading them is like walking into a parallel universe in which Samuel Johnson was a crack addict. Fortunately, it's an acquirable skill made easier when presented with a limited list of options... although occasionally, mean tricks can be played such as when 'The Iron Lady' was released in Japan under the title 'Margaret Thatcher'. Fortunately, the 'Avengers' was written as literally as possible:

アベンジャーズ
(or 'abenjaazu' in roman letters: trust me, that's pretty good)

leaving me only to worry about subtitling versus dubbed editions.

At a 50/50 bet, the odds here were reasonable. Plus, 'Avengers' was a movie with an optional plot: there were special effects, a bunch of familiar looking good guys (none of whom you'd select for your side if the alternative wasn't Armageddon), a bad guy with a magic stick and a cube clearly stolen from the 'Transformers' movie. What more do you need?

In fact, I picked the correct showing due to a tip from a friend who told me to look for the Chinese character for 'knowledge' when hunting for subtitled movies. The same character is also in 'university' so it's an easy one to spot. 

I also therefore got the rather awesome one-liners from the bad guy, which can't have translated well into Japanese since I seemed to be the only one laughing. Alternatively, I was the only person present who was handling the heat quite that badly.

Mercifully, the cinema was air-conditioned. In fact, the multiplex resembled a cinema anywhere else in the world except that the popcorn and soda options on the concession stand menu were listed in katakana. In typical Japanese style, there was the odd, isolated sign displayed in bare English:

"Theatre 4"

Um. Thanks. 

Due to a love of order, you get to chose your seat at the ticket counter and the plastic cups of soda are more sensibly proportioned than their American counterparts. The number of trailers is also much shorter and you are not allowed into the theatre itself until five minutes before the time shown on the ticket. Still, since you already have a determined seat, there isn't the need to get there early.

I picked up a coke and examined the movie posters for the other showings that day. There was a mix of the usual Hollywood blockbusters alongside Japanese movies starring brooding hot Samurai warriors.

Damn.

I need to work on my language skills.

Fill her up

Sep. 2nd, 2012 08:01 pm
pergamond: ([She-rah] Triumphant)

When it comes to containers, my mother is a pack rat. During my childhood, she would stand in the kitchen and examine the freshly washed packaging that had recently contained a take-away or pickles or some other condiment and ask if it could be used for anything else.

This was an entirely rhetorical question, since my father invariably replied 'No', asking what she thought she was going to do with the first twenty jars that we already had stashed down in the cellar.

One day she filled them all with homemade jam, which rather answered that question.

(A updated retort might have been invented, but everyone was too busy eating to produce one).

Being the king of rubbish sorting, it is perhaps not surprising that Japan has solved the problem of excess waste packaging. Here, everyone is all about refill pouches. These plastic bags with screw top caps are available for shampoo, detergent, soap and pretty much anything else you think you might want to buy twice, along with quite a few things you only bought as an experiment but now feel obliged to use for ever more. 

Once emptied into their mother bottle, the pouch can be scrunched up and thrown out with minimal waste. (I wouldn't totally put it past my mother to reuse such an item, but I do feel that it's more of a challenge). Like so much of Japan, this is the height of benri; convenient.  

I also like the fact the original bottle I did buy for my shampoo has a squirty push nozzle that means I don't have to shake it upside down when it starts getting low. If the best things come to those who wait, I am more than prepared to opt for the second choice.

In my apartment, the only slight side effect of this system is the below-average chance of a container truly holding what its label would suggest. Currently, I would say it is a reasonable guess that a shampoo bottle will contain shampoo, but I wouldn't bet anything you truly cared about beyond that point. After all, variety is the spice of life. 

Or some of us have the sticking power of gnats, depending on your viewpoint. 

pergamond: ([Random] Look kawaii)

My phone was set to silent. None of the keys made a sound. Texts, voice calls and emails screamed like banshee in space. I pressed the camera button and…

CLICK SNIIIICK

… and everyone in the public restroom became rudely aware that I had just taken a photo of a toilet. 

Ahh --I hear you say-- but you can just turn the shutter sound effect off in the preferences menu. This is surely an obvious and reasonable assumption since my iPhone does not actually have a shutter. Of course, you would be right...

ANYWHERE EXCEPT JAPAN.

All camera sold in Japan must, by law, make a shutter sound. Options to silence it are therefore removed from all hardware. This is because in Japan there are apparently SO MANY PERVERTS that it is COMPULSORY for a camera to emit a loud noise to announce to everyone in a 5 metre radius that YES, I AM TAKE A PHOTO. PROBABLY UP YOUR SKIRT. 

When I first discovered this, my second idea was to start wearing cycling shorts under my skirts with immediate effect.

The first was to stuff a long flesh coloured sock and hang it from my waist.

This is an immensely annoying law, since there are many legitimate reasons why you would want a silent camera. Photographing wildlife, for instance. Or toilets. Also, while taking photographs of exciting and crazy Japanese products in stores around town. Of course, anyone privy to my photo albums will know that I do this last regardless of the inability to conceal my actions.

Does anyone stop me?

No. 

Why?

Because doing so might involve speaking English. It is one of the advantages of having the sales staff flee behind the nearest rack of goods when they see you coming.

Shoplifting would be another. Just so you know I've noticed. 

So this is why I've rarely post photos of the crazy high-tech Japanese toilets. The ones I've taken have not come out well and I'm only prepared to try once every six months. 

pergamond: ([Random] Look kawaii)
"You may have heard that you are included as a candidate for the MEXT grant. It will be a great honor and of huge merit in research fund if you are selected. I have to discuss with you, however, about some possible demerit you would face ... "

I sat back in my office chair and pondered this email. The grant in question I had applied for at the end of July; the details had been scant but it involved a HUGE SUM OF RESEARCH MONEY for five years.

… or possibly the details hadn't been all that scant but I hadn't read further than the HUGE SUM OF RESEARCH MONEY.

Either way, it was apparent to all involved that I wasn't aware of the small print.


Money for academics comes in two types: First, there is my salary which I may squirrel away to spend on a stack of Pokemon plushies if I desire. Second, there is my research grant. This grant money broadly covers items such as paper publishing expenses, conference trips, laboratory or computer equipment and sometimes students. While my salary is part of my job (and I'd have to be sacked not to collect it), research grant money needs to be applied for through different national or international bodies. MEXT is the Ministry of Education in Japan.


'Small print' in this context usually applies to what the grant money can be spent on. For instance, my last grant allowed me to buy my computer but not an office chair.

Evidently, comfort was not considered essential for work.

This particular grant, however, turned out to be different.


"MEXT would take over your salary as well as supply a grant..." It was explained to me at a subsequent meeting with our faculty office. "… the University will be very pleased and this would be a prestigious award for you...
"

So everybody wins?


"… but you'd lose your pension contributions, your annual leave would be halved and you'd get no maternity benefits."


Except my mental health.


I opened my mouth to make a response and then closed it. Well, what does one really say to that?


The message was clear: people who receive this grant are supposed to RESEARCH NON-STOP UNTIL THEY DIE!


"However, the Japanese Government has made it compulsory for pregnant women to take 5 weeks maternity leave." The plot thickened as the details were expanded on. "But, on this grant, it is not possible to pay you."


"Well … uh …" I had a sudden image of nursing a small infant surrounded by cans of pickled eggs akin to wartime rations.


In truth, I had no plans to have a baby but the whole process did feel like a Borg-esque assimilation. You are now 3 of 5: research drone. There was however, some light at the end of the tunnel.


For a start, the chances of me actually getting the grant were slim. My name had been put forward by the University but my competition was researchers in every area of science all through the country. Let the medics eat the pickled eggs.


Secondly, while the rules surrounding grant administration were strict, a few backdoors might appear. Such as 'work days' at that …. World renowned… astrophysical... institute in the small Leicestershire village my parents happen to reside in.


Of course, I could turn the grant down but it would be rather hard to refuse a HUGE SUM OF RESEARCH MONEY when there is no guarantee of getting funds through an alternative source.


FUNDING… SANITY… FUNDING… SANITY…


DAMN IT.


Feeling dazed, I returned to my office and promptly took a 90 minute lunch break in protest.


The final part in this stage of the saga came in an email yesterday evening:


"The dates of individual interview in Tokyo at set for September 21 and 22. They ask you to save the both days for the purpose intended in case you are selected."


Where am I planning to be on September 21 and 22? North Hokkaido on a holiday with my parents. I sniffed the air. I smell cubic space ships.

pergamond: ([Utena] Utena // RAWR)

Ever wonder what would happen if the Sapporo crows really did get into the garbage?

 

Imagine if 3 year olds became city workers.

And then one tried to steal your motorbike.

 

 

Welcome to the real meaning of 'Skynet'. 

pergamond: ([Random] Look kawaii)

A Japanese maid cafe is the closest you can come to having sex with an anime character.

Before you get too excited about this blog post, I should clarify that it's not really all that close. 

While it sounds like the most obvious front for a brothel imaginable, maid cafes feed off the anime role-playing subculture of Japan and are (reasonably) innocent. They are more accurately bars, where the premise is to pretend you are a Lord (or Lady…. but unsurprisingly, more often a Lord) having a drink on your estates, served by one of your beautiful young maids. They address you as 'master' and --despite your obvious wealth-- you seem unable to provide your staff with entirely adequate clothing. 

These cafes attract the lonely, the curious ...

… and astrophysicists taking their visiting seminar speaker out of a drink.

Don't you all want to come and give a presentation at Hokkaido now? Thought so.

Before I get called up in front of the head of faculty, I would like to say it was all the speaker's idea. He even knew where the cafes were located in Sapporo. I hadn't a clue. 

This particular cafe was small, with about 16 seats lined up along the bar. Anime posters hung on the walls and figurines above the bottles formed a ferocious line-up consisting of ninjas, giant robots, space aliens and high school girls. Two bookshelves of manga stood at cat corners and serving the drinks were three young maids. 

These girls were dressed in something approaching a traditional maid's uniform, but with an anime twist. They wore black skirts and waistcoats, with white shirts and aprons. The frilly extents of the skirts were just about decent, ending a good few inches above where the long black socks started. 

Upon sitting down, we were presented with the rules of conduct. You were not allowed to touch the maids or ask for their address or phone number. Photographs were strictly forbidden. There was an initial cover charge for the first hour and then an added amount for each extra half hour you stayed. You were also expected to buy a drink. In total, I spent 1400 yen (~ £11 or $17) for an hour and a half, which was cheap for a maid cafe and frankly totally worth it.

When I initially sat down, however, I was perplexed. Sure, the girls were attractive and looked like they stepped off the pages of a manga, but doesn't the novelty of that wear off after the first five minutes? Possibly the answer was 'no' for a particular brand of lonely salary man, but maid cafes were popular throughout Japan. What was the attraction?

What I didn't appreciate was the level of interaction you had with the maids. They chat continually to the customers, drifting up and down the bar as if it were the stage of an interactive theatre. We only bought one drink each during the 90 minutes we were there and the rest of the time chatted with the girls and each other. 

As well as bringing you a beverage, you can also ask your maid for a picture. One of the maids had a collection of photographs of herself in different anime-related costumes that you could buy for a few extra hundred yen and all of the maids would draw you a picture on a coaster. When I told my maid I like the anime show, Prince of Tennis, she drew me a picture of the progenitor. 

Of course, the main skill in being a hostess is saying what the customer wants to hear. In my case, this was clearly "Can I draw you a picture from the anime you are obsessed with?" but for others it was more about the pretence of the relationship with the maids. 

This is probably because they have never watched Prince of Tennis. 

Seated next to us at the bar were a couple of young men. As they left, one told a maid that he had no friends. She replied that she did not either and would be delighted to be his friend. He went away happy, but it was really a business transaction; he would keep paying to come to the cafe and she would make sure to be pleased to see him when he returned. 

My companions --having translated this conversation for me-- were highly dismissive.

"The ones that come with people are weak," one of them informed me bluntly. "They want to come alone but they dare not, so they bring someone."

Well then. I was just enjoying the atmosphere but apparently my friends were all about judging all the other customers.

Still, I had the temptation to return for quite a different reason; feeling obliged talk to each customer and not speaking a word of English makes the poor girls excellent subjects to practise my terrible Japanese. 

pergamond: ([Bleach] Ichigo // -.-)

"Look." I stood at the boundary between two areas in the Faculty of Science. In front of me was the building's foyer with rooms leading off for the office staff and mail room. Behind me was the ground floor of one of the adjoining twin towers; an 11 floored building containing physics and chemistry laboratories. My own office was on floor 9.

The foyer area was sparkling clean; gleaming floor tiles in a peachy marbled design reflected the attractive ceiling lamps and white washed walls. A central stained glass window depicting symbols of Hokkaido University splashed coloured patches of light across a collection of tables and chairs.

In the tower, a bulb in the dimly lit corridor crackled and went out.

"Why don't they clean past here?" I asked. "We get grimy grey flooring with foot deep grit embedded in each corner and there is clearly the ability to keep it nice!"

 "It's because there are experimentalists here." I was told. "It's not worth it."

Dirty experimental scientists.

I knew it.

Theory needs a new building.  


pergamond: ([PoT] Niou // failure)

"わすれてもいいですか。"

I gestured at the cluster of delicate tables over to one side of the cake shop. The woman behind the counter blinked at me, looking slightly surprised, before giving her consent. Clearly --I decided confidently-- she was amazed at hearing a complete sentence in Japanese from the mouth of a foreigner. 

That was one interpretation.

A second conclusion could be formed by noting that switching the first two characters in the verb above would result in: 

すわってもいいですか。 
May I sit down?

compared to what was actually said, which was:

わすれてもいいですか。 
May I forget?

However, I do not believe in admitting to such mistakes. Therefore, I claim "May I forget?" was EXACTLY what I meant and it was merely a polite way of ordered enough sake to knock me under the table. 

Perhaps this was why it was a surprising request in a cake shop. Still, I was not fussy:

Enough sugar to induce a coma would have been equally acceptable.

After all, it had been a tough week. If it was not a deliberate statement then it was most certainly a Freudian slip. 

BRING ON OBLIVION. 

pergamond: ([She-rah] Triumphant)

I stood in my new office and looked around. Everything was big. The room was big, the white board was big, the bookcases (and their number) were big, my desk was big and my desktop computer was big. 

Then there was me in the middle wearing jeans and a baggy 'grape Fanta' sweater. Ho hum.

Until last week I had been sharing an office. While slightly unusual for a faculty member, I had not minded the situation. My office mate was friendly, spoke great English and --perhaps more to the point-- was never there. He was involved in the design and construction of astronomical instruments and spent most of his time at various observing sites preparing his mechanical off-spring for their deployment. 

Unless observational astronomers are vastly different from their theoretical counterparts, I could see why getting a new instrument to the stage it could be safely left was a prolonged process. 

The previous owner of this office had retired. In academia speak, this meant he had accumulated the addition of 'emeritus' to his professor title and moved to a different building. As I examined what had been left in the drawers and cabinets, I wondered if retirement happened through choice or was something that was foisted upon you once your office contained a critical number of floppy disks. By the time it is my turn, that unit of measurement will probably be USB thumb drives. 

In addition to the large box of floppies, I discovered a collection of astrophysics books in Japanese and a variety of small magnets of the type used to pin cards and notes to metal surfaces. I picked one up and attached a card to my white board. There. Much more homely. 

Most of these magnets were a standard round shape in a solid colour such as blue or red. However, two were shaped as pink hearts and four were miniature lady birds. I raised an eyebrow. 

When a couple of students rolled into my office, I pointed out these surprisingly aesthetic additions. The ladybirds were promptly stacked on top of each other and attached, pointing outwards, to my board. It looked like an erect org--- Well, never mind. 

"In Japanese, we say 'tentoumushi'. 'Mushi' means 'bug'." I was told. "What are they in English?"

"Ladybirds," I supplied. "In UK English, 'Ladybird' and in US English 'Ladybug'."

"Bird?" came the surprised retort. "But they are not birds, they are bugs!"

I opened my mouth and then closed it. Then I scratched my head and examined the magnets. "Look, " I said at last. "It doesn't happen often, but sometimes the Americans get it right."

"And why lady? They are not ladies!"

I scowled. "Because ladies are pretty and delicate unlike boys."

Sometimes, even professors need to resort to school-yard insults. 

pergamond: ([Random] kitten // rar)

I looked down at my feet in time to see my cat's teeth almost pop out of her jaw through her impassioned screech. I knew the sources of her distress:

We were currently experiencing a magnitude 6.0 earthquake.

And she was being pursued by a robotic vacuum cleaner. 

"Have you seen that thing? Is it a robotic cat? Why does it bump into walls? LOOK! ITS BUMPING HAS MADE THE WHOLE BUILDING ROCK! HOW COULD YOU HAVE LET IT IN HERE?"

Up until that evening, I had been using a cordless stick vacuum cleaner I had bought second hand. That particular device had many good points; it was light and easy to maneuver, it didn't take up much space in my apartment and it had a built-in dust buster than was great for cleaning up cat litter. What is truly failed on was carpet.

The study area of my apartment is almost entirely covered by a thick rug I bought from Ikea in Canada. This is the location where Tallis uses her scratch pad and rolls around in a box filled with cat nip. It is also where I normally eat dinner while watching an episode of 'Naruto'. The stick vacuum can take this area from 'major biohazard' to 'probably won't kill you if you leave quickly'. I can't honestly say I've ever found this totally satisfactory, although there are some weeks where the thought I might not make it through the month acts as a ray of hope. 

Buying a new vacuum cleaner was therefore on my list. However, the choice wasn't obvious since the machine had to be able to clear a carpet but not be so bulky that storing would be a problem. After deep consideration of many models, I went for the most logical compromise:

Screw the practicalities and get something amusing. 

An amazon review then made the choice of a Roomba iRobot cleaner obvious: "Smart technology, no work for me, drives the dog nuts - what's not to like?!

It sounded perfect

I confess, I was skeptical as to its real cleaning powers. What I actually required (apart from a good laugh at my cat's expense) was a machine with better suction than my stick vacuum. It seemed to me that the amount of oomph you could get from a Roomba's spinny centripetal motion was never going to rival a large upright cylinder with room for all kinds of exciting upward air currents. 

Yet, amazingly enough, it does the job. 

OK, its cleaning random walk is sometimes a little too random. Rather like me, it needs to be boxed into an area for maximum efficiency to ensure it doesn't wander off into the kitchen and leave patches unfinished. Sometimes it loses the location of its docking station. Sometimes this is because I accidentally locked it in the bedroom. Once it found its way under a chair but then couldn't escape. It kept devotedly cleaning the same purple square of carpet until I came and rescued it. 

It is a little too loud for comfortable background noise. Ideally, I'd turn it on and then leave the apartment but I'm reluctant to do this until I'm certain it won't have a show down with the cat.  

Its instruction manual is in English which I feel disproportionately grateful for after the difficulty with buying a microwave. I have made full use of this good fortune by storing the manuals safely on my bookcase and then just hitting the vacuum's large central button labelled 'start'. Ideally, I'd move onto the more advanced options, but it's hard to summon up the necessary effort when you can get so much for so little.

Now my carpet is clean and the cat is exhausted. It's really one big win all round. 

 

In other news, please excuse my lack of updates… teaching is eating me in one mega goat gulp. 

 

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