Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Pretty flies for a white guy

Or, "You can't mistake my biology"
Or, "Science is golden"

I got some good news today. Sixteen months after submitting the first draft, my research paper (the snappily titled "A model of visual-olfactory intregration for odour localisation in free-flying fruit flies") was finally accepted for publication in the Journal of Experimental Biology. In that time it has been rejected, found by myself to contain serious errors, reworked, resubmitted, re-rejected, put on the back burner as I left the country, all but forgotten about by me, recently moved back to the front burner my my supervisor and co-author, and finally accepted. Third time's the charm.

This is my first (and possibly my last, but who knows) serious publication (I scored a dodgy conference paper back in '05). It's a nice feeling to know that I have, in a very very small way, contributed something to human knowledge. It's pretty cool to think that I can walk into any decent university library in the world and find something I wrote. And it does make me feel slightly less bad about all that taxpayers' money.

I couldn't bask in academic glory for long though, as I was required to teach kindergarten again this morning. The three preschool years generally aren't numbered, but instead named after fruits, arranged in increasing order of size. Today I had ichigo (strawberry) - the smallest of all fruits. So, my classes were composed of 3-4 year olds. I had racked my brain to think of the simplest thing I could do, and I settled on counting. But I think I still went too advanced for them - I suspect that some of the class would have struggled to count to ten in Japanese. The kids could just about memorise the sequence "one, two, three...", but actually grasping the concept of, say, "seven" in isolation seemed beyond them. Which is kind of interesting from a developmental psychology standpoint, but that was scant comfort to me at the time.

In the afternoon I returned to the more comfortable territory of junior high school, which requires a bit of a mental gear change so that one doesn't massively patronise the adolescent students. In the staffroom an English teacher said to me, apropos of nothing, "My daughter has a broken heart". Interesting conversational gambit, I thought. I probed further and discovered that her daughter had recently broken up with her boyfriend. Now, the Japanese don't seem to show much reserve in talking about relationships - you'll recall how I was asked about my marital status in front of 300+ kids. I offered the English idiom (she kind of collects these, so I try to come up with one for every occasion) "there's plenty more fish in the sea", to which she replied "you're a fish". I attempted to gloss over this, but she was having none of it, abandoning all subtlety and saying "I would like to give my daughter to you".

I was now officially uncomfortable, so I said "but I can't speak Japanese". This is my standard get-out whenever anyone starts trying to set me up, not that it happens that often. It's not just an excuse though; I genuinely don't think I would want to get involved with someone who couldn't speak English, at least until my Japanese is considerably better. "But you would become good at Japanese..." she responded (in Japanese). I have met gaijin who have also offered the viewpoint that the best way to learn the language is to get yourself a Japanese girlfriend. Call me old-fashioned, but I can't imagine having a relationship with someone with whom you couldn't say anything more complex than "If it rains, I will not climb the mountain". People do it though. I literally can't understand how it could work.

That not inconsiderable issue aside, I feel pretty sure that I don't want to get together with the daughter of a colleague. Knowing that my every maladroit romantic move was getting reported back to my co-teacher, and quite possibly to the Board of Education, would surely result in me experiencing almost lethal levels of anxiety.

Sensing that the linguistic defence wasn't working, I asked how old the daughter was. "Twenty-one", came the reply. "Oh, too young for me, I'm 27." "Really? What age girls do you like?" "The same age as me", I said. Whether 21 is actually too young is an interesting question. I'd say it's right on the cusp. She finally backed down, and I got on with my marking.

Five minutes later, she gestured over to the (quite attractive) Japanese teacher sitting not five feet away from me, as said simply "She's 28". Awkward.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Nacho, nacho man

I was supposed to be going to an absinthe party tonight, but it was canceled. So rather than attempting to drink until I hallucinate green sprites, here comes a blog.

Since coming to Japan, I have been dazzled by all the alien things that are commonplace here, as I have been telling you in this blog. But now, almost seven months in, I'm beginning to notice the opposite: the things that were mundane back home but are either exotic or flat-out unobtainable in rural Japan. In this staff room this week I was chatting about my weekend plans, and no-one had any concept of what aniseed was. That in itself isn't so surprising, but someone started asking whether it was like hakka, a weird herb those crazy folks up in Hokkaido use in cooking, and even as a flavouring for sweets. My dictionary revealed that this mysterious plant is none other than mint. Sure enough, now I think about it, I can't recall eating anything minty since I've been here. Graham would love it.

People often ask me whether I miss British/Scottish food. Not really, I tell them. Let's face it, British food is boring. Sure, I do enjoy a good haggis, but that's the kind of thing I could go months without eating back at home, so I don't really miss it. However, to its credit, Britain does have cosmopolitan tastes when it comes to importing foreign cuisine. So I tell people that I miss foreign food from home, which is usually met with confused looks.

Italian food is somewhat popular here, though if you buy pizza anywhere other than a fairly good Italian restaurant, it will be the deeply unsatisfactory Japanese interpretation of pizza, which typically features such rubbish toppings as boiled egg, broccoli, mayonnaise, and copious amounts of sweetcorn. But other nationalities present bigger problems. To my knowledge, my nearest curry house is 45min drive away in Yamagata City. The gaijin community rave about it, but I went there and to be honest its merely alright; I could name five better Indians in Edinburgh's South Side. Worse still, I'm not aware of any Mexican restaurants in all of Yamagata prefecture.

Anyway, last night I went to my first murder mystery party. Executive summary: murder mystery parties are not my bag. The fictional homicide happened to be set in Mexico. Perhaps because of this, it was Mexican food I found myself craving today. So, I took a trip to Yonezawa to go to Yamaya, a shop that I'd heard stocked foreign goods.

You know those intimidating Asian supermarkets you get in the UK, where you can't read the labels on anything? Well, this was the inverse of that. In an intimidating Asian country, this shop was an oasis of familiar Western stuff. It was like Ali Baba's cave for a homesick gaijin. It was quite an odd place though. About half the shop was devoted to alcohol, making me think that it might have started out as an off-license specialising in foreign drinks, and its obligatory crisps and sweets stand just weirdly hypertrophied over time. It also has a very miscellaneous feel, as the only inclusion critera for foods seemed to be that they were neither Japanese nor perishable. Thus, British tea was nestled between illegible Korean goods and big jars of sauerkraut.

Anyway, I got a bit carried away. I can safely say it's the most excited I've ever been about grocery shopping. Here is what I bought:

Bowmore 12 year old single malt (700ml) Only £23, which seems amazing considering it's come halfway round the world.
Duvel Asahi is all very well, but it is 8.5% abv? No it isn't.
Taco sauce
Red kidney beans Bean that aren't soy beans. Can you imagine that?
Strawberry crunch cereal
Boil-in-the-bag spicy chickpea curry
Madras curry sauce
Skippy peanut butter (smooth) Japanese peanut butter is weird, far too liquid and sweet. One supermarket in Nanyo stocks import peanut butter, but only chunky. I'm a smooth man.
Unflavoured tortilla chips Making nachos with Doritos or the like just isn't right.
El Paso flour tortillas

For some reason I didn't buy a jar of extra hot jalepenos, a decision that I've been regretting ever since.

Right, I'm off to make some enchiladas.

Bonus geek news: I want to buy a fancy electronic dictionary that will let me input kanji by drawing them, but they're not cheap. The recent unveiling and subsequent merciless (and highly enjoyable) mocking of the iPad got me thinking about tablet computers, and after much consideration I've just ordered an Archos 5 Internet Tablet, a touchscreen device running Android that really blurs the boundary between media player and computer. I'm thinking that as well as solving my kanji problem it will make for a handy GPS and in-car entertainment unit. Currently doing that job is my beloved Sony Ericsson W810, but the screen is tiny and its three year old battery is on the way out.

Update: I've eaten too many enchiladas.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Transformers, robots in Nagai

I'm in last friday afternoon limbo again, so here comes a blog.

At lunchtime I walked past two teachers standing in the hall, doing a kind of brisk upright Russian dance. One of them was even humming a tune that sounded a lot like the Tetris music. Amused and mystified, I complimented their dancing in the local dialect (the Yamagatian equivalent of the Doric "fit rare") and they invited my to join them, which I did. I have no idea what that was all about. They were probably just trying to keep warm; the corridors of my school do put one in mind of Siberia.

It's only been a three day week. On wednesday the first and second graders had a ski trip (to which I was not invited), while the third graders had a day of tests. They must have been gutted. Anyway, there was no call for an ALT, so rather than spend all day at city hall, I burned a day of annual leave. Asking just two days in advance was maybe a bit cheeky, but since I was fitting my day off around when I wasn't needed, and given my pre-school heroics of monday, they couldn't really complain.

The long-range forecast promised blue skies over Zao for wednesday, but by the night before this had been downgraded to 'show showers' and on the day it was overcast, misty, and snowing heavily. On top of that, the snow was decidedly icy. So, a pretty sketchy day all in all, but I enjoyed the empty pistes and free parking (as opposed to the usual 1000yen fleecing) afforded by weekday riding. My piste-side quasi-vert moves are getting better (including the harder-than-it-looks air-to-fakie, or "pop tart"), and I'm slowly working through my boardslide issues. Also, I managed to recover my glove (and more importantly the valuable ski pass contained within in) that I left there last time, without any hassle. I love the honesty of the Japanese when it comes to lost property.

Thursday was - you guessed it - a public holiday: "National Foundation Day", as if anyone cares. So I took the opportunity to hit up an izakaya on wednesday night with an assortment of native and gaijin teachers. We really pushed the boat out with 3 hours of nomihodai (all you can drink) - 90 minutes is standard. Somehow I managed not to get too outrageously drunk, and even had the sense to stay out of the soy sauce drinking contest that occurred. Of course, unlike at a British pub, eating is just as much of the izakaya experience as drinking is. I manned up and sampled the horse sashimi (raw horse) - not bad, but not as good as raw Yonezawa beef.

Ok, let's backtrack to saturday. Oddly, the nearby town of Nagai (another sleepy farming town of a similar size as Nanyo) was playing host to a robotics competition. There was no way I was going to miss this, so I braved the near white-out conditions in my little car. The event proved very popular with the local gaijin community, with around 20 of us turning up, and thus constituting a good third of the audience.

I was a little disappointed when I realised early on that all the robots were remote-controlled; there was no AI to be found. On the plus side, it was a bipedal robot competition, and clearly androids are more fun to watch than wheeled vehicles. The whole thing had a charmingly amateur feel, with the roboticists ranging from high-school students that were presumably taking part as some kind of project, to flannel shirt and combat pant wearing otaku. My kind of people. Remarkably, there were even a couple of female entrants. The only threateningly nerdy presence there was some guy who dressed up in a bunraku outfit and attached a teddy's hands to his thumbs, to give the impression that the teddy was operating the controller. The thing with bunraku is, it kind of requires a black background to work.

The first event was robo-karuta. Karuta is a reaction-based card matching game that is strangely popular in Japan. It's a bit like hardcore snap. I guess if your language doesn't lend itself to word games, something has got to fill the game vacuum left by Scrabble and Boggle. So this was just a test of which robot was agile enough to reach the correct card first. Many people adopted a kind of shuffling side-step gait, which I felt was a bit of a cop-out. I was pleased to notice that many people were using PS3 or Xbox 360 controllers to operate their bots. No-one was mental enough to use SIXAXIS.

Then came the main event: one-on-one fighting! The first robot to knock over its adversary three times was the winner, or failing that, it went to the robot that had scored more downs at the end of three minutes. The judgement of this was a little subjective, since unforced falls were not penalised, and there seemed to be a bit of a grey area surrounding attacks that resulted in both robots hitting the deck. While possibly detrimental to fairness, this ambiguity facilitated some enjoyable punditry between us spectators.

As someone who has programmed simulated bipeds to fight in the past, I can tell you that it's not easy. It's hard enough to make a two-legged robot move around without falling over; delivering any kind of shove, kick or punch without sending yourself flying backwards is really tough - Newton's Third Law is a bitch. The less sophisticated robots just shuffled into their foe hoping to knock it off balance, but the stronger competitors had some proper moves.

The contest was rather overlong, dragging on for several hours. This did however mean that one had time to get to know the bots, choose one to support, and trash talk to the fans of whoever it was up against. I gave me backing to the poorly-named rsv3, a very surefooted effort with a nice crouching/scything attack. It made it all the way to the final, but narrowly lost out to 'Garii' following a couple of dubious judgements. I'm real happy for Garii, and I'ma let it finish, but rsv3 was one of the best robots of all time. OF ALL TIME!

The most crowd-pleasing robot had to be the one that was dressed as a teddy bear, and thus looked just like 'Teddy' from AI. This robot was perched right on the edge of the uncanny valley, looking adorable when it bowed at the start of a fight or clapped its hands to garner support, but suddenly becoming genuinely unnerving when it shuffled around with its distinctly mechanical gait. It's creepiness was not helped by the fact that its head was on a bit squint, giving it a zombie-like quality.

The final event was a five-a-side robo football match. Predictably, this quickly descended into a chaotic ball-chasing clusterfrak, but there was something deeply pleasing about watching nine androids and a teddy fighting over a ball.

As I now have quite a lot of spare time, I did entertain the notion of becoming a robotics hobbyist. But I imagine that it's rather an expensive pastime. Then I thought about entering an online simulated robotics competition, but the notoriously buggy Webots (the simulator) seems to crash as soon as I start it. Still, maybe its something I should persevere with. It occurred to me the other day that this is the longest I've gone without programming in a decade, and I miss it.

Monday, February 8, 2010

It's a kinder magic

There are times in this job when I really feel like someone, possibly JET, is contriving stressful situations for me as some kind of elaborate test. The first time I felt this way was a few months ago, when my nose started spontaneously trickling blood while I was chilling in my local onsen. As soon as I realised, I made a sharp exit from the bath – you must be clean before you enter the water, so bleeding your filthy gaijin blood into the communal pool is surely not cricket. As I was trying to stop the bleeding in the shower area (which wasn't easy, given that the only tools available were water and my own naked body) a nude old man was intent on asking me, in Japanese, all sorts of questions about my life.

If that was my cultural adjustment test, then today would have been my teaching one. For no discernible reason, I slept terribly last night, so I was hoping for a fairly easy ride today. At about 10am I was hanging out in the staff room during a free period. A call comes in from the board of education, asking where I am. Shit, I thought, have I forgotten some appointment? I couldn't remember being told anything special was on today. I was told that I should get my ass over to city hall immediately. Due to language problems, I couldn't really get a straight answer as to what this was all about, and I started to concoct all kinds of terrible scenarios in my head, like it was some meeting to tell me that my request to stay another year had been denied. Finally I figured out that this had something to do with kindergarten.

As I was ushered out of the building and into my car, I was thinking: if they are expecting me to take a kindergarten class with no preparation then I'm just going to politely but firmly say no. But as I drove to city hall, almost despite myself I began planning out what I could do with a room full of preschoolers given no materials and no prep time. By the time I got there I'd pulled three or four activities out of my mental bag.

Sure enough, when I met my supervisor he told me that back in May, i.e. three months before my arrival in Japan, my services had been booked for today by the kindergarten. No-one had thought to mention this to me. The kids were waiting for me, could I do it? I took a brief moment to compose myself, like Nick Cage listening to Lowrider in Gone in 60 seconds, and then accepted the gig.

I was thrown pretty much directly into the fray, and hit them with the classic Head, shoulders, knees and toes, before moving on to doing the Macarena while counting, and then scraped the barrel a bit with two back-to-back games of London bridge is falling down. Then a second class came along and I did it all over again. Then it was time to have lunch with the kids, so I sat down with my chopsticks at a comically small table. On a regular day I have lunch with 12-15 year olds, and while they are sometimes curious to ask me questions, quite often we'll just eat in silence. But there was no question of the kindergarten kids showing the same reserve. They fired questions at me in Japanese, their immature minds apparently not grasping the fact that I couldn't speak their language. Between the teacher knowing a little English and me knowing a little Japanese (actually, more of the latter, which was quite encouraging) I managed to field most of their queries.

They asked what the number after 'ten' is; clearly they have been taught to count to ten in English and no further. They received 'eleven' with the kind of amazement other people would reserve for an eleventh commandment, a ninth legitimate planet, or a sixth Girls Aloud album. They asked what my favourite colour is, and when I said blue, clamoured to show me any blue object they could find.

I found it particularly endearing that they had not yet learned that it's rude to stare at people who look different. They would just gaze at me, open mouthed, while the more adventurous among them would run up and touch me. One kid asked what colour my eyes were, and when I said green, everyone wanted to take a good long look at my non-brown eyes (which cause me not to use chopsticks very well, according to government drug advisors).

Perhaps my lessons had been a bit ramshackle, but I left feeling pretty pleased that I'd prevailed in such challenging conditions. I suspect my efforts won't have gone unnoticed by the board of education folks either. As I arrived back at my school, I got a not inconsiderable further morale boost from the fact that No Doubt's Don't speak was playing over the PA. I shall explain why.

Thursday and Friday last week the Japanese teacher of English was off work due to a bereavement, so I was required to give a few solo lessons. Teaching the textbook is bit beyond me, because it's tough to explain grammar without using any Japanese. So I was given free rein to do whatever I wanted. I pulled out my old Don't speak activity for the most able class. (That song really is a bit fast, I think I might use RHCP's Under the bridge in future – I reckon the drug references are oblique enough to get away with.) As I understand it, the lunchtime music is selected by the 'broadcast club', a group of students that might be something like the Brit-confusing American concept of 'AV club'. (Incidentally, AV means 'adult video' in Japan.) So, extrapolating a little, I'm assuming one of my class is in broadcast club, and was sufficiently taken with my choice of mid-90s pop-punk that he made the effort to acquire the track and play it over lunch. I was touched.

Update: my supervisor just showed up at my door bearing a six-pack of high-quality beer. It seems he appreciated that he had dropped the ball, and was grateful for me rolling with it and thereby kind of saving his arse. Job's a good 'un!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Ehou, ehou, there's nothing else I can say

(Are Lady Gaga album tracks a bit obscure for title puns? Perhaps.)

When I woke up this morning to the sound of my kerosene heater roaring into life (working out how to set the timer on it was one of the smartest moves of my life), I had no idea that there was anything special about February 3rd. It's not a public holiday or anything. But it turns out that it is setsubun, a minor celebration that could perhaps be considered analogous to the Western pancake day. Given Japan's fondness for bizarre and elaborate rituals, it should come as no surprise that it's a little more complex than merely making very flat cakes.

My first tip off came in the form of my school lunch. Actually, the most unusual thing about school lunch today was that it featured a delicious creme caramel dessert make by the third graders in home economics. But also included in school lunch was a little packet of dried beans in a sugary coating (the beans, not the packet). Fellow teachers were trying to tell me there was something significant about the beans, along the lines that they were to be used as ammunition against monsters. I didn't see any kids using the beans as projectiles, so I followed their lead and simply ate them. Confused, I headed off to city hall for my usual wednesday afternoon face-time.

The good thing about being at city hall is that I have access to the internet. So I decided to find out what the hell was going on. I typed "japan february bean throwing" into Google, and was very surprised to see that the second hit was none other than my predecessor's blog. I soon ascertained that on this day, either the head of the family or someone whose Chinese zodiac sign matches the current year (i.e. someone whose age is a multiple of 12) wears a mask designating them as a demon. These rest of the family hurl dried soy beans at them until they are driven from the house, chanting "oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi" as they do so. This translates to something like "Demon out! Good luck in!". I think you then pick up the beans and eat a number equal to your age. Given that Japan has the highest life expectancies in the world, this means that a whole lot of beans presumably get eaten. It's a shame I live alone.

But that's not all! It is also customary to eat ehou-maki today. This is a particularly fat sushi roll, containing precisely seven fillings (seven being a lucky number seems to be some sort of universal truth). Normally futomaki (thick rolls) are cut into slightly-larger-than-bite-size pieces, but not ehou-maki, since cutting up a lucky symbol will of course truncate your good fortune. When you come to eat your sushi baton (an action which I could have happily watched the office secretary mime all afternoon), you must face in the lucky direction. This changes every year; this year it is west-south-west. As you eat the ehou-maki, you make a wish. You must remain silent until you have finished eating it, or else the wish will not come true (pun relevance bonus!).

Well, clearly I wanted some of this action. I remembered that my local supermarket had decorated their sushi area with demonic faces recently, but I hadn't thought anything of it at the time. So I decided to swing by on my way home. As I strolled towards the sushi, I was greeted by a number of employees, one of whom had a radio mic hooked up to the store's PA system. This in itself is not so unusual; I have seen this kind of aggressive marketing of convenience foods a couple of times. However, I was not expecting to be beckoned over, and to have a long sushi roll thrust into my hand. It appeared to be six fillings short, only containing kanpyou, the bland brown vegetable found in the very cheapest convenience store sushi. But it was free, so I shouldn't carp. The supermarket workers pointed at a big red arrow on the floor, which had on it some kanji I could actually read: west, south, and west again. I aligned myself with the arrow, and started silently chomping on the maki. Thank the lord I had done my research on setsubun - if I hadn't I would have been three times as confused as this.

When I finished, the mic-wielding ring-leader tried to conduct a little interview with me. I explained that I couldn't speak Japanese, so she just said "dream" in English, and thrust the mic back in my face. I didn't know what to say, so I just apologised and scurried away. Thinking about it now, she must have been asking what I wished for - I guess the taboo about disclosing wishes doesn't exist here. I should have said "nihongo ga jouzu ni naritai desu" - "I want to become good at Japanese" - but as usually happens when someone talks to me in Japanese, I think approximately 20 times too slowly to respond.