Sunday, February 18, 2018

M's Hat (A Quantitative Analysis)

I recently reached level 6 in the highly coveted Google Guide rankings. I believe this achievement was based on reviewing a bunch of local establishments and uploading photos carefully framed to show the place fairly well while including no recognizable faces, thereby satisfying the algorithm that causes the Google robot to rank it highly on their map location news feed. This photo, of one of our favorite small local bakeries in Nakazakicho, for example, has been viewed more than 100,000 times!

Another thing to notice about the photo, and I believe this is a little detail that has escaped the Google robot's attention entirely, is that it also shows M's straw hat.  Here is another one, this time of a well known bakery in the main Kyoto train station which, though it is certainly frequented by thousands more customers than the little place in our neighborhood, has 'only' been viewed on Google Maps 4,000 times:

I must be doing something right, based on the fact that I recently received an official email from google explicitly praising my photos' popularity. Or is it possible that this email encomium was not so earth shattering and Google mail filters are naturally biased against diverting their own emails into my junk mail box? Well, either way, four hundred thousand is a pretty big number. I think my most popular scientific paper has less than 400 citations, indeed most of my papers probably get less than 40, and often even less than 4. This disparity gives pause for thought.

M's hat has certainly been getting a substantial number of views. Here are two pictures of the hat, taken in the vicinity of some donut shops that I reviewed, one in Osaka, Japan and the other in Brooklyn, New York. Since we visited Brooklyn in January, M is sporting a wool model. One of these has been viewed 170,000 times, the other only a few hundred. Can you guess which one is supposedly three orders of magnitude more popular than the other?

I certainly cannot determine which one is more popular just by looking at the photos (it is the Brooklyn shop). Google, on the other hand, wants me to believe that number of views is a reasonable indicator of my photos' popularity. That is what they said in their congratulatory email. But the fact that one these pairs of rather similar photos of bakeries and donut shops can be thousands of times more popular than the other indicates otherwise.  The automated algorithm made one photo a default illustration in google maps, but not the other.

When I mentioned my plan to populate google maps with photographs of my M's hat, my son A suggested I start a finsta like the "famous" one of someone's girlfriend leading him to various places ( I thought about it, even managed to open a finsta account (which has 0 followers), but decided to revert to this blogging platform instead since it allows text as well as photos (see: At the bottom of this blog post I show the full gallery, so far, of M's hat on Google maps.

To conclude, I am tempted to believe that Google has made an error in referring to my photographs as 'popular'. This is not due to the ephemeral nature of popularity, but rather a simple example of incorrect use of an easily measurable quantitative indicator. 'Number of views' is obviously easy to measure and report, but has little or no correlation with popularity. There is a moral in this. There is a real danger, in the fields I dabble in such as environmental protection and sustainable development, of too much emphasis on quantitative indicators. Blindly setting national GDP growth targets with no attention to aspects of national wealth not captured therein is an obvious example. Another is the indicators dreamt up by national statistics commissions to monitor progress against the Sustainable Development Goals and Targets (  Their most appealing quality is that they have been agreed by all countries and that they are measurable. But if we put too much emphasis on improving these particular indicators we will certainly not find the smoothest path (or indeed any path) to actually achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Sometimes old fashioned storytelling can be a lot more compelling, and can more easily deliver game changing results, than a quantitative indicator. For those who are counting, the most popular Glob Blog post story to date is,  with just over 700 views.

Gallery of M's hat - All photos have been downloaded from Google maps.

A popular establishment in Nakazakicho, though this one isn't a bakery.

A delightfully playful (and popular!) deviation from the hat meme - M's backpack.

Osaka Immigration Bureau. M has no hat on, and also highly unpopular on Google maps. Coincidence?

Self Portrait (I wonder how much business a bakery called 'refrain' avoids)

Another bakery - this one in Kobe. M is sporting a sporty cap.

Updated with relevant email messages received from Google on March 1 2018:

Updated again on April 14, 2018. Note that now google is using this quantitative indicator to get me to believe I am a 'top photographer' and I have 'accomplished what very few people have done'. LOL

Friday, June 2, 2017

Trump's Premature Withdrawal - My Take

Two years ago I published a paragraph entitled 'Post Paris - My Take' on my linked in page. Here, in italics, is the original text:

Optimists estimate the Paris Accord will reduce from business as usual ~6C warming to 'well below 2 with measures taken towards achieving 1.5' (the target in the accord, paraphrased from memory). Lowball estimates (eg Bjorn Lomborg's) are that it will have an effect of 0.05C. The truth will no doubt lie somewhere between these two, and no doubt does not depend on the accord alone, but if/how it is followed up in practice. Note that even the denialist estimates 0.05C, so yes, it will have an effect. The chance of keeping the world below 2C warming is, however, in my opinion, almost nil, we will fail to hit that target the same way we will fail to achieve any of the 'sustainable development goals' - these are really mostly unachievable aspirational targets that seek to catalyze progress in the right direction. The mood is very positive, and such positivity can be a good catalyst. Indeed, the biggest win was one of politics. The UN works. Countries are unified. This political capital could be squandered (as GW Bush famously did in his second term) or could, everyone hopes, deliver substantial progress towards the goals of 2C on mitigation, and building resilience on the adaptation side.

So, now, I am updating with my take on Trump's unilateral withdrawalAs far as atmospheric greenhouse gas levels are concerned the direct impact is unlikely to be distinguishable from zero. Paris after all was a voluntary mechanism - it mandated no action by countries. So the bits of the US that were going to reduce their emissions under Paris (various states, cities, industries) can (and indeed have already stated they will) still do so.  In terms of the global degree C measuring stick the parties to the conference are so fond of, I would estimate the direct impact of this decision to be 0°C with a fairly small range of uncertainty around that number. In terms of finance for climate change mitigation and adaptation in the developing world, there is also no clear effect arising from this decision. The decision to stop US funding the green climate fund was already taken long before this one, and despite lack of similar outcry at the time was far more damaging in my opinion.

The more likely consequences of Trump's political decision are also political. These are of course far harder to predict than climate change. Some say that China will take up the global 'leadership' vacuum. I find this highly unlikely. China's corrupt, totalitarian and environmentally disastrous regime is an extremely unlikely government to inspire leadership in anyone other than the most naive end of the spectrum.  A more plausible scenario may be that Trump's successor - POTUS 46 - will score enormous international goodwill, perhaps even a nobel peace prize, when she asserts new, bold American leadership and announces the US is rejoining the accord.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sustainable Shoes?

The other day Min and I had a great visit to the Minpaku (National Museum of Ethnology) in the 1970 Expo commemorative park on the outskirts of Osaka. The museum is enormous. Since we only had a couple of hours we bee-lined for the Ainu and Traditional Japan sections. These two pairs of shoes, made in Mie prefecture in the 1930's, were on display and seemed like a great kick off (pun intended) to a blog post on 'sustainability'.

Sustainability is all the rage. Plenty of cool sounding but actually incomprehensible buzz words are proliferating in UN speak. Green procurement. Circular economy. And of course the big daddy of buzz itself 'sustainability'. Unfortunately for the diligent and well meaning technocrats spouting them, these phrases don't connect with most people(*). Not as well as "make America great again" anyway. When you start to dig into the details of what 'sustainability' really is, there is, as always, a bit of the devil in there.

Looking at my indoor slippers a few days ago, and feeling in a slightly Proustian mood, this blog idea came to mind.  They aren't all that different from the pair on the museum wall actually:

These slippers were hand made by an ancient artisan in Tokyo. I saw him squatting in the rear workshop hard at work at just such a pair while I purchased these directly from his wife, who manages the front end of the business. They cost me $20. They felt a bit tight at first, but she correctly warned me to expect them to stretch out over the first few weeks of wear. I love these slippers. The feel of tatami on the bottom of my sweaty feet is perfectly cool and comfortable. The nice dragonfly motif cloth on the straps is aesthetically nonpareil. What she didn't warn me about though, is that they shortly after they finish stretching to comfort, they rapidly begin to disintegrate. Note the heel abrasion and the folded ridge at the toe line.  At this rate - and the disintegration is speeding up actually - I suspect they will need to be discarded in a year or two. Assuming the long end of this estimated range suggests a price of 20 dollars, averaged over two years (ignoring inflation) of ten dollars per year.

Here are my wife Min's slippers:

She claims they too are supremely comfortable. She has already had them for 30 years (this is not an exaggeration, now you know my wife is over 30 years old). No trace of any heel abrasions whatsoever. The miniscule little dots on the right slipper are tooth marks from when our golden retriever puppy whisked it out of sight for a few hours and did her utmost to destroy it. These slippers cost $5. They will last for at least 100 years, probably longer. This indicates an average cost of five cents per year, at least two hundred times cheaper than mine.

So, which slipper was the 'sustainable' purchase. It is tempting to argue that the price of mine is worth it because they will not add plastic to the ocean. However on close inspection, they in fact do have what looks like a plasticy foam layer under the tatami. So the 'traditional design' is not quite what is on the wall in the Minpaku, but has been modified for comfort. The trouble then, is that my supposedly sustainable tatami shoes have almost as much plastic in them, as Min's 100% petroleum product shoes!  The only truly sustainable shoes are on the wall in the museum!  A hard nosed cost benefit analysis suggests you are better off buying the 100% foam/plastic shoe and simply discarding it properly at the the end of its century long lifespan. That is the sustainable, environmental option AND the cheapest one.

Plastic flip flops are portrayed by the green crowd as the epitome of planet destroying garbage - filling the pacific gyre with plastic that ingenious dutch teenager is going to clean up with floating booms (NOT, but that is another blog post). Nope, plastic flip flops are probably the most sustainable footwear you can buy - just make sure to incinerate them and generate electricity with the energy when, if ever, they reach the end of their lifespan.  Of course, if you really want to achieve the smallest possible environmental footprint, you should make some like those on the wall in the Minpaku. 

(*) Another important unfortunate fact is that the UN itself does not actually employ sustainable practices such as green procurement or circular economics, we just talk about how important they are. 

Thursday, December 29, 2016

United Nations Parable

A little light hearted parable welcoming the new year and our new Secretary General

UN Secretary General I: We need to sprint. We need to run 100 meters really fast. This would be a great outcome for mankind. Let us be practical, hire the best, and deliver this outcome!

Ban Ki Moon
Following a two year long procedure the UN hires Usain Bolt, the fastest man alive five years ago. He is retired now of course and a bit over the hill, but still lightning fast. Not bad.

Admin: Usain, welcome to the UN team. We see you prefer using Nike brand running spikes. Unfortunately no due diligence has been done on Nike, and wearing such shoes in an official capacity violates single source procurement requirements. In order to ensure no audit problems down the line, you will have to run in these noname brand army boots made by UN volunteers in Ouagadougou.

Usain: This will slow me down quite a bit, but ok, I am willing to change and learn new things for the good of our organisation and the world.

Usain Bolt
Admin: Usain, you are spending too much time practising actual running. It is mandatory that all staff spend time learning. We have developed some video based learning tools, which are run on a sketchy internet platform dating from 1980 and filled with logical inconsistencies and technical glitches, that will serve to teach you the basics of bipedal motion. We ask that you please take these and print out your certificate to verify to administration that you have successfully completed 'basic walking' 'speeding up' and 'running for beginners' training modules. Unfortunately we cannot allow you to continue actual running until these courses have been duly completed.

Five years later,over the hill, out of shape, wearing noname brand army boots and dragging a cinder block chained to his left ankle (which is another administrative story). Usain manages to run the 100 meters in 46.07 seconds. Although slightly off his 9.6 second world record pace, this feat is noted in the UN results based knowledge management information portal as successful completion of a performance indicator in the sesqui-annual strategic plan and reported to member states, who thank the secretariat for the effort and ask for strengthened and enhanced work on moving quickly.

UN Secretary General II: Let us be practical, we need to face the fact that the running thing didn't really deliver an outcome. We need to think creatively and work with the private sector. Let us swim 100 meters really fast. We can deliver!

Antonio Guterres
Admin: Well this Bolt fellow can't swim, and given his deplorable track record (pun intended) with our learning tools he's probably not capable of change. He only has a few years left before mandatory retirement anyway, let's transfer him to the field office for thumb twiddling. But be sure to keep the really nice ankle and cinder block arrangement we developed to assist him. Of course, while Usain is still on the books, there is no envelope for new staff hires, but maybe Michael Phelps would be available for consulting work. This ankle contraption will probably fit him nicely.

Michael Phelps

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Wrapped and Ready

Can a blog of a cliche expat diatribe be interesting?

I remember as a kid being astonished and impressed with edible rice paper candy wrappers. What ingenuity! Edible wrapping paper.  Even if it tastes like nothing, it is still edible wrapping paper. How incredibly cool.

Japan is the land of wrapping.

Here is a photo of an individually plastic wrapped banana for sale at our local 7-11.  Since the peel provides a perfectly good natural wrapping, what on earth is the bag for?   I suppose it provides a surface for the decorative and informative label, but does one really need information about bananas? In any case, the phenomenon is not specific to bananas. The same store also individually plastic wraps its limes.

Another possible explanation is related to the fact that plastic waste in Japan is usually incinerated to generate electricity. Such waste disposal systems benefit from a well separated dry plastic waste stream. Absolutely everyone who buys these individually wrapped bananas, throws away the peel and the bag into carefully separated bins. I suspect the Osaka city government has guaranteed the incinerator operators a daily minimum volume in order for them to justify the upfront investment (over 100 million dollars) of constructing an incineration based 'waste to energy' plant. The point here is that perhaps there is a financial incentive to overuse plastic.

I think the record, at least for common grocery items I have purchased, was a small wheel of Japanese made camembert cheese. The cashier had kindly placed it in a little dainty plastic bag to keep it protected from nearby groceries in my larger grocery bag. I duly opened and placed this bag in the burnable plastic garbage bin, and then turned to the box, which I opened and placed in the cardboard bin. Inside the box (this is starting to sound like a Russian Doll toy I know), I found a little plastic tub with a plastic lid. Finally, out popped the cheese, or so I thought as I naively attempted to slice a piece only to discover, as my knife failed to penetrate, that it was shrinkwrapped in plastic. Removing this last layer of plastic I did finally get to the cheese, which ironically is of course covered in a perfectly good natural rind that served for centuries to protect such cheeses from the elements before the invention of plastic.  I lost count somewhere in the middle of this paragraph, but I think I just recounted six impermeable layers of wrapping around my brie.

There is one last grocery item that a blog about wrapping simply cannot omit. Onigiri. This is some kind of delicious filling such as tuna and mayo or salmon roe (pictured) wrapped in wet sticky rice, which is then wrapped in dry seaweed. Probably back in the edo period they made this for you in a little rustic stall, forming the rice around the delicious inner goop, then wrapping it in seaweed so you could carry it away without getting sticky rice all over your hands. Now though, these need to be stored on shelves in convenience stores, and the rice cannot be allowed to contact the seaweed or the later would lose its crunch, thus requiring the ultimate high tech plastic wrap. So there is an inner plastic sheath separating the two, and one opens with the '1-2-3' labelled pulltabs in order to be able to slide the plastic out from between the rice and seaweed, as well as remove the outer plastic wrap, all at once.

All these technical issues aside, there does appear to be a deeper cultural issue whereby wrapping things leads to an enhancement of their perceived value. But these culturally appropriate wrappings are usually reusable. Like the Furoshiki (風呂敷) I received a little (boxed) memento in when I met with the governor of Tokyo, or the 100 dollar wood bento boxes that dutiful housewives pack their children's school lunches in.

Well the final answer to this Japanese wrapping mystery will have to wait. I have run out of time. I can hear my wife calling me to the other room to help her with the onerous, yet somehow deeply sentimental and rewarding, task of wrapping Christmas presents for the kids to open tomorrow.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Medical Adventures in Japan

My first Japanese medical experience occurred after only a week in the country. My shoulder hurt and I could not lift my arm. I googled up for a few seconds (should be equivalent to four years of medical school right?) and self diagnosed having a super awesome, top athlete injury called a "ripped rotator cuff."

Obvious diagnosis for studmuffin unable to raise his arm
So I went in to the doctor, who spoke no English, and was informed, somehow, with the assistance of a useful cartoon pamphlet: "You only wish you were on the starting rotation of the Hanshin Tigers Baseball team. In fact you are an old bureaucrat. You don't have a ripped rotator cuff, you have 50 year old shoulder disease. Suck it up." At least that is what I think he said. Having disclosed my condition to my geriatrician sister-in-law she exclaimed "what? you have frozen shoulder?" and taunted me mercilessly, raising her arms above her head with a gleeful giggle, saying 'look! I can do this". This taunt is etched deeply in my memory, and will stay with me longer than this frozen shoulder (I think).

Now, let me get back to the purpose of this post: medical event number two. I got an ear infection. I get these a lot due to my 'narrow ear canal' - though I only started getting them in my thirties (why so late in life?). Anyway, all the standard symptoms. Plugged ear. Pain when pulling on lobe. Itchy. I have self diagnosed this many times and keep a half bottle of ciloxin drops that expired 3 years ago handy specifically to wipe these bothersome infections out without bothering to go the doctor for a new prescription. I have a slight fear I may be breeding some ciloxan resistant bugs in my ear... I tried my usual treatment and felt no immediate improvement. Uh oh. Either I have finally succeeded in culturing super bugs in my ear, or this medicine with an expiry date in 2012 and an instruction to "discard one month after opening" has indeed expired. OK, time for another visit to a Japanese doctor. I'll tell him the symptoms, perhaps let slip the obvious diagnosis, and he'll prescribe some new pills and drops. I hope the fool does not diagnose me with 50 year old ear disease.

So I went to the doctor. After a bit of tweaking and hemming and hawing he pulls out what I thought might be some kind of device to look into my ear, but turns out to have been the INSTRUMENT OF DEATH.

Let me digress. I was on a ship in the Antarctic for three months in 1986 and my cabin-mate developed a wart. He thought, well, we have a free doctor on board, why don't I just make use of this service and get this wart removed. Could be a nice co-benefit from spending two months on a ship, in the dark, in the Antarctic winter. The doctor had very little to do cooped up on our boat (recall: In the dark. In the Antarctic winter), and was thus, perhaps uncharacteristically (though I am not sure), excited about this wart. He applied caustic acid and pulled out a sort of medieval torture device that looks like a grapefruit spoon and started scraping my cabin-mate's wart (though left nameless, this cabin-mate is a famous scientist from Lamont Doherty / Columbia University). The doctor prescribed coming back every day for new acid applications and scrapings. He said "Ve must clean it up. it must be clean" in a heavy German accent. After a few days my cabin mate started to get pained and annoyed. He did his best to go anywhere on the small ship the doctor wasn't to avoid his scraping sessions. Germans like to purge impurities. Zis is a vell known fact.

Grapefruit Spoon (note serrated edge)

Anyway, to get back to my own story, at first I was blissfully unaware that the thing being placed in my ear was the Japanese aural equivalent of a German wart removing grapefruit spoon. I assumed he was just confirming my very precisely self-diagnosed inner ear infection, which I had taken the liberty of already informed him, in case he was one of these intellectually challenged doctors who don't read up regularly on wikipedia, is "Naiji Kansen" in Japanese.

Suddenly a rather loud sucking sound started emanating from the device and he placed a large pea of goop in the wad of Kleenex the nurse (huh? where did she materialise from?) was holding. At first this was not too bad, but after a few wad removals, i noticed these wads were not earwax at all. They were in fact giant gobs of blood. And the pain was intense. I'm usually pretty taciturn, but I started moaning. I mean, my since my Japanese is pretty rudimentary (as was his English), in order to avoid the possibility that maybe he did not know this procedure was burning a hole in my head, I should gently let him know about my pain so he could take corrective action. I moaned some more.

This photo from the web is clearly faked - there is no way this woman could possibly be smiling and gazing blandly off into space during this procedure:

Woman pretending to undergo ear-vacuuming treatment

This photo, also downloaded from the internet, shows the do it yourself product, and seems much more plausible:

Woman using a do-it-yourself ear vacuum
Escaping from this guy sitting in a chair in his office was going to be an even more difficult task than my friend had avoiding the wart-nazi on the Antarctic research ship. No wonder they were allies in World War II. The Japanese must be just as rabidly purist as the Germans! This guy was applying a bloody (literally) rototiller to my eardrum. Aaaaargh. I moaned some more just in case he had not applied google translate to my previous communication efforts. The nurse wiped another gallon of wax/blood on her tissue.

"Can you hear now?" he asked. I pondered a snarky remark about how if I was answering this question, irrespective of what I may be saying, I must be hearing him, since how else could I answer his question? but decided it would be a bit tough to formulate the irony of this statement in Japanese. Particularly given that this admittedly well meaning fellow had clearly not understood my universally clear, limbic moaning noises to indicate I would prefer he stop what he was doing. So I opted instead for a simple "hai" (yes).

"Don't touch it for a while. I have caused some bleeding. There is no infection. Just lots of wax. You are healed."

Well, other than my tinnitus (which unfortunately persists), I must admit that the kamikazi-nazi treatment appears to have worked. And, believe it or not, I walked away from this entire event with a bill of only 38 dollars. You can't leave your car for an hour in the remote parking lot of a US hospital for this price, let alone pay the astronomical bill that is sent 6 months later with some deeply incomprehensible notes about why it is not covered by your insurance. I wonder, in the US, do they employ vacuum sucking grapefruit spoon like treatments for ear infections?

Friday, October 21, 2016

Arrogantly shabby or Dilapidatedly picturesque?

Ugh. My flight to Hong Kong is delayed until 2:30 am and I am stuck in an overly air conditioned, shabby, yet somehow also still managing snooty, airport lounge in Colombo, Sri Lanka.  The perfect atmosphere (arrogantly shabby?) to fire up a bit of enthusiasm for writing a blog post.

I spent a few days here this week attending the Asia Pacific Adaptation Forum. Apparently the Brits called this island the pearl of the Indian Ocean, and I guess there are parts of the country that may still evoke such encomium. But frankly Colombo is, like almost all cities in the developing world, a dump. Striving for GDP growth at all costs third world cities reek of the ugly by-products of "progress." At least this is true outside their rich denizen's compound walls.

This said, there are certainly some dilapidated picturesque sites here and there. The Wellawatta railway station, right on the beach, just across the road from my hotel, is a good example. The nearby post office of the same pleasantly doubly double consonant and alliterated name is too.

Bored Railroad Clerk and Customer
Dilapidated yet Picturesque Wellawatta Station

Sri Lanka Letter Box
Welcome to the Wellawatta Post office
I really liked the railway station. The tracks and wall paint appear to date to the British heyday, as does the bored yet gainfully employed railway clerk. But don't be deceived by the general look of decay, there has been progress and change. The station has free wifi. And, even more importantly, they separate their trash into three colors of bin (though there appears to be trash everywhere, as a sort of ambient accoutrement, so it is a bit unclear to me if anyone is actually using these bins).

Modernization: Free WIFI and sorted trash
So upgrades and improvements are clearly possible, but what does not appear to happen in wellawatta - I don't really know for Sri Lanka actually, but it is certainly true in some other countries I have lived in such as Kenya and the USA - is a sense of pride in exactness or beauty in public works, and maintenance of them.

Japan is precisely the opposite. As far as I can make out they lavish funding on quotidian public works, and clean and maintain them intensely.  See for example my recent blog post on public lavatories in the Osaka subway stations.  Or how about these incredibly beautiful manhole covers, decorated with egret and stork motifs. This is not an art exhibition, these are sewers!

Japanese Manhole Cover
Another Japanese Manhole Cover
As a contrepose here is a manhole located in the road just next to the wattawalla train station in Sri Lanka:

Sri Lankan Manhole Cover
Will it fix itself some day? Or is the stick with red cloth tied to it considered job completed?

Maybe the key to sustainable development is not the cliche solutions development gurus are always rabbiting on about (money, mainstreaming, technology transfer, knowledge platforms). Maybe it is instilling a culture of appreciation of beauty, precision and maintenance.

I'm doomed to miss my connection in Hong Kong and spend another 8 hours in another airport lounge there waiting for my connection to Osaka. Hong Kong Airport is, like so many others in Asia these days, glitzy and comfortable so that will be comforting. Yet, somehow, simply too boring to spur me to write a blog post.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Japanese origins of Pokemon

I'd estimate there is about ten thousand dollars worth of camera gear in place around this little carp and lily pond on my daily jogging route. Half a dozen middle aged men stand there for hours waiting to take "action" photos. Photos of what I am not sure. Dragonflies being eaten by carp? Or hovering over certain lily pads? At their senior pay grade this surely accounts for several more thousand dollars worth of 'effort'. The resulting output must be the most expensive photos of carp and lilies in existence.

Japanese men playing with expensive equipment while wearing baseball hats
My own attempt at an "artistic" photo of carp and lilies
This blog post is about how Japanese culture naturally led to the invention of Pokemon cards, and more recently Pokemon-Go. Japanese people love going out and capturing things. Sometimes it's photos, as above. Sometimes plants or small critters. And they love little pets. Pretty much sets the stage for the evolution of Pokemon-go, no?

The same jogging route that passes the carp pond also boasts an allée of ginko trees. About one out of 10 of them is female, and October is the fruiting month here. Ginko fruits smell unbelievably bad, but they hide a delicious nut inside. Below a father-son team collecting these. Imagine enduring a stench wave attack from a plant-type pokemon. Once, back when we were living in Toronto, Min and I decided to try to cook some of these nuts and we went to collect them from a stately old tree in front of the University Bookstore on St. George Street, about a block from our apartment. We only managed to collect a few before a crotchety old Chinese man hobbled over to shoo us away, informing us in angry Cantonese that this was his ginko nut collecting territory. 

Ginko Nuts
Could those be Ginko nuts on Gloom's head?
Little pets are also big in Japan. I'm not 100% sure but it looks to me a bit like this fashionably attired woman has chosen her outfit in order to match the very distinctive and attractive colors and patterning on her Meowth, which she is parading proudly in a public park on a leash.  No walk in the park in Japan is ever complete without an eclectic menagerie of pocket sized pets being pampered.

Finally, for capturing all those flying-types, family day in the park clearly requires multiple butterfly nets. After all, imagine the conundrum if one member is the family is busily tracking down a Butterfree, and a Venomoth suddenly appears nearby. Clearly it's best to have two nets on hand just in case.
Backup Butterfly Net?
One of the great things about Japan is that these traditional treasure hunt like activities are still going strong, and have not been displaced entirely by Pokemon-go, though the balance of evidence suggests the electronic version is more popular for the time being. The other day Min and I were standing, completely alone, on a drizzly dockside when Pikachu appeared. I was just trying to nab him, when, I kid you not, literally 1000 people stampeded me, all with their phones out trying to capture the icon.

Pikachu Seeking Hordes

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Commuting in Osaka

Tropical Storm Malakas is pounding Osaka. I'm high and dry now - indeed literally quite high in our 38th floor apartment - but I was low and wet just a few hours ago on my way home from the office after a thorough soaking on the short walk from the office to subway.  Following some internet sleuthing based on radar tracks such as the photo below, I took the decision to close our offices early, at 13h, to allow everyone time to commute home safely before the storm hit. But I felt like I was walking through an automated carwash at 13h and the sun was shining again by 17h30. So much for my typhoon landfall prediction skills.

This blog post is about commuting, mostly on this subway, and mostly in a drier state. I've been at it for a couple of weeks now, mostly because I have not yet invested in a bicycle, which I have great confidence will bring this quotidian experience to a close. Indeed I have never commuted with fossil fuel based transportation in my life, having always walked or biked to work during past stays in Nairobi, Paris, Bern, Toronto and Boston.

Let me start with the positives. Every train departs the station at precisely the minute listed in the schedule. Every station has a map of which specific train car you might prefer based on what you wish to do immediately after exiting (i.e. transfer to a certain line, get on an escalator rather than stairs, go to the washroom, etc). Every single departure time and track number is available on google maps in real time. If all this logistical perfection is not amazing enough, consider that every station has a toilet which is not only cleaner and more handicapped accessible, but even decorated with more tasteful artwork, than the average American restaurant. This, I kid you not, is a photograph of a public restroom in a busy urban subway station:

The downside? At least for the first week I was starting my commute on the 'JR rail loop line' from Osaka main station.  Me and about one million other people. The crush of humanity in the real world is bad enough, but with many of them staring directly at their cellphones, half way in some virtual world while barging through the station, it becomes like a real life collision avoidance video game. Of course playing Pokemon go, one can both stare at one's cell phone and see the people in front of oneself thanks to its virtual reality interface. Game goal: Avoid collisions with people in the real world and ensure collisions with pikachu in the virtual simultaneously.

Speaking of virtual reality computer interfaces with the real world, I read an article in the International NY Times this week about the USA opening up the roads for self driving cars. President Obama was quoted as proudly announcing that daily commutes will no longer need to be stressful, as people will have the freedom to sit back and relax and let someone else (google) take care of the driving. Typical of many high tech 'solutions' to quotidian problems, this one neglects the existing, superior technology that the rest of the world has already been using and perfecting for decades for precisely this purpose: the train.

Well, I started this blog a few days ago cooped up in the apartment due to storm Malakas, and am just finishing it up now on the weekend. But the weather has turned nice, so yesterday I plunked down a few hundred bucks on a new Japanese style (ie low seat) commuter bike and tested the time required to pedal 8km to work (without stopping to catch pokemon, but still collecting mileage on my egg incubator and buddy candy count). It appears to be about 10 minutes faster than the subway, and I did not even splurge on one of the ubiquitous battery powered pedal assist bikes. Biking is a great way to get to know local neighborhoods and appreciate the changing seasons (both being things we could not experience back in Nairobi, and one can't do on a subway either). Yet another good example of old technology as the best solution to modern challenges.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Climbing the supermarket chain ladder in Osaka

My first evening in Osaka. Straight from the airport. I found my AirBnB, dropped my bags, and dashed out to grab a snack and some milk for my morning coffee. Just around the corner, I found everything I could wish to eat or drink at the 'Family Mart'. 

Family mart juxtaposed with a traditional shrine dragging activity
There is a convenience store on pretty much every block it seems. Either Family Mart, 7-11, or Watson's. They are all super brightly lit with white fluorescent bulbs and have a steady stream of customers. Many use some machines in the corner to pay their bills or some such banking activity, but most are buying food. I picked up an eight dollar bottle of Bordeaux from the 'Family Mart Collection'. A staggeringly unappealing labeling ploy from the point of view of the western oenophile market, but it wasn't bad. I spent 3 days shopping only at Family Mart. Rice snacks, frozen edamame beans, ready made dinners, a few cans of different brands of Japanese ビール (Beer) and, of course, my bottle of Family Mart Collection Bordeaux.

The "Family Mart Collection"
The weekend arrived. More time to explore the neighbourhood. And I did have a sneaking suspicion that perhaps, despite full satisfaction on my first evening in Japan, Family Mart might not cater to every possible culinary desire. I did not have to go very far. A few hundred meters away, in the direction away from the train station, and deeper into what appears to be a sort of lower middle class neighbourhood, I found スーパー玉出 (SuperJade Exit).

Tamade mural with bright yellow and red colour scheme
Checking out of Super Jade Exit
玉出 ワイン おいしい Tamade Delicious Wine
It would be pretty hard not to find this place actually. Everything is bright canary yellow and red with lots of blinking lights - a sort of pachinko parlour aesthetic prevails. It turns out food is cheap in Japan! I filled my Basket with premade tamade goodies and, although my wine label radar warning bells were screaming at me not to do it (justifiably it turns out), a four dollar bottle of wine labelled entirely in Japanese (ワイン おいしい = wine delicious). Life at 玉出 was perfect. But after a week I noticed that the map my airBnB host had kindly provided of the neighbourhood indicated the place I was shopping as "cheap supermarket", while in the other direction, up the income gradient on the other side of the railroad tracks, was something labelled as "nice supermarket". Could life be better somewhere else? That place was ライフ(ra yi fu - can you guess what English word this is transcribed from?).

Checking in to Life
Lessons on how to attractively display fruit
Gentle mist falling on lettuces (nearly a Haiku?)
Air conditioned to arctic conditions. Lettuces with cold mist falling down over them. Wine with original labels and even suggested food pairings. I watched a team of workers being instructed on how to lay out the fruit properly and all bowing to the instructor and saying 'hai, hai'. Two pears, a bit overly plastic wrapped for my taste, though I don't know how they tasted because I could not stomach the price - for 10 dollars?

Two pears for ten dollars
Wine with original labels and suggested food pairings!
Well, that is as far up the supermarket chain ladder as I have managed to climb in my first two weeks. I have no doubt there are higher rungs. The Japanese equivalent purveyors of fine gourmet food such as Le Bon Marche in Paris or Dean and DeLuca in Manhattan with their little 100g tubs of prepared salad, organic home made granola and artisanal breads.  I look forward to finding it.