Monday, July 20, 2015

Now you see me

The typhoon that blew through Japan south and west of Kanto seems to have taken the last of the rainy season with it. It has been hot and humid, as one expects from summer weather here, and the local disaster prevention sections of the city offices have returned to broadcasting warnings about avoiding heat stroke.

A couple of weeks ago, though, the rainy season was still with us, and was complicated by interactions with a couple of typhoons. My part of Kanto managed to escape most of the really dangerous downpours that caused flooding and landslide damage elsewhere, but there were plenty of days with very robust rainfall and terrible visibility for drivers.

Just before dawn on one of those days, when it was light but the sun hadn't quite risen, I was driving to work, paying my usual careful attention to drivers, cyclists,  and pedestrians around me. One older guy on a motor scooter almost escaped my vigilant eye, though, as he came up to--illegally--pass me in the narrow space left in the lane between my car and the curb. That's not unusual by any means, but I usually see them coming earlier.  This guy was on a gray bike, wearing full rain gear, including  the hood of his parka pulled over his helmet.

It was raining pretty hard, and as I've done a lot of motorcycle and scooter riding in wet weather, I certainly applaud his decision to dress for the weather. Choosing rain gear in a shades-of-gray urban camouflage pattern, and riding his gray bike, though, may not have been the wisest course unless he actually wanted to be nearly invisible.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Long distance rock

A magnitude 8.5, Shindo 5+ earthquake this evening with an epicenter in Ogasawara was strong enough (Shindo 4 to 5-) in northern Saitama to motivate me to gather my passport and wallet, and prepare to grab my emergency kit if needed. It was fairly long, too, allowing plenty of time for reflection.

That wouldn't ordinarily be remarkable in quake-prone Japan, except that Ogasawara is over 1000 kilometers from here.

Coming after a quake early this morning, and after some other quakes--including one with an epicenter about 20 kilometers from here--and volcanic eruptions lately, I'm a bit concerned that there may be a much more substantial and damaging one on its way.

I haven't forgotten the 3/11 disaster, and even this San Francisco native and long-time Japan resident finds his equanimity slipping a bit.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

We will control...

A friend sent me a link to an article about attempts to prevent owners from repairing or modifying their vehicles. With the increased prevalence of computerized, software-controlled functions in automobiles, the issue is whether intellectual property protection laws can or should be used to prevent people from modifying, repairing, and tuning their own cars. 

Manufacturers are taking the position that allowing people to access and change car systems is potentially risky. Their motivations are varied, and some of their stated reasons seem ingenuous to me, but there is little doubt that the car companies are seeking to protect their R&D investment with copyrights, in the face of recent patent "erosion". Obviously, there are other financial considerations, too, both because of possible liability issues and because of possible loss of repair revenue. 

Gearhead owners point to improvements made by "civilians", to hacking issues that have been poorly addressed if at all by manufacturers, and to some high-profile cases in which the manufacturers demonstrably did not know better, and failed to see or to deal with critical safety issues.

By coincidence, I later came across the most recent of several articles I've seen lately about self-driving cars. Ray Kurzweil of Google predicts that autonomous cars controlled by AI are coming, and says, "The technology works. It's not far away." 

Three weeks ago, Nissan's Carlos Ghosn was saying that they want to put self-driving cars on Japan's roads next year, and have them autonomously navigating urban roads by 2020. I would hope that the technology is more reliable than that of the considerably simpler airbag inflators: the news a few days ago said that Nissan has added 45,000 small cars to a previous recall, apparently in response to a Louisiana woman being injured by flying shrapnel from an exploding air bag.

On the other hand, there are many people in Japan--particularly the elderly in remote areas with insufficient public transportation and few options for finding other drivers--who would benefit greatly by being able to go by self-driving car to shops, hospitals, or community centers. 

Nevertheless, I see more potential problems than benefits.

I've been driving for a long time, and I enjoy it, a lot. I would be reluctant to relinquish control of my vehicle to an artificial intelligence for that reason. Not, however, only for that reason. I've also been using computers for a long time, and interacting with AI in its various forms as it slowly has progressed.  Whether manifested as simple algorithms for predicting words in a text message, or somewhat more sophisticated ones controlling enemies and passersby in video games, I can't say that AI has reached--or even approached--the point at which I'd want to trust it with my life, driving my car.

Every time I think of the possible consequences of a self-driven (i.e., AI/computer-driven) car, I remember how many times over the years that my computers have shown me the infamous BSOD, and reflect that if the car system failed, the "fatal" part of "fatal system error" could apply to me.

Whether control over maintenance and tuning, or control over the driving of the vehicle, I'm very dubious about it. It reminds me of the ominous introduction to The Outer Limits, a long time ago.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Rainichi Kinenbi +1

Yesterday was the 45th anniversary of my arrival in Japan. Some years I remember the date sufficiently in advance to plan and execute a little celebration. Having been busy this last week, it had slipped my mind until yesterday evening, when a new acquaintance asked me how long I've been in Japan. This common question usually prompts a calculation; this time it served to remind me that the anniversary had arrived (or is it I that had arrived, after the anniversary had patiently waited for me?).

A week or so ago, someone asked me what my initial impressions of Japan were (this, too, is a very common question). I have various answers prepared for that question, depending on what I think the questioner really wants to know, and on my mood when asked. This time I gave a straightforward answer, at least for a strict definition of "initial".

I first arrived in Japan on a Boeing 707, one of the "stretched" models such as the 707-320 or one of its variants. It was chartered by the military, and left Travis Air Force Base in California, refueled in Anchorage, Alaska, and landed at Yokota Air Force Base. The weather was good, so when we got close enough, the pilot helpfully indicated Fuji-san below, and that was my first--very orthodox and very iconic--impression of Japan.

The next was the very numerous and very striking deep blue tile roofs of the houses visible below. In the early morning sunlight, they stood out dramatically. I hadn't expected to see thatched roofs or some similar near-anachronism, but for some reason no images of Japan that I had seen prepared me for the many, many blue roofs.

I and a half dozen or so other young sailors were taken by micro-bus from Yokota to Yokosuka. Since we left in the late afternoon, the traffic through Tokyo, Kawasaki, and Yokohama was heavy even on a Saturday (although working on Saturday was the norm then rather than the exception). Although I didn't know it at the time, the driver didn't take one of the routes--some of which would have been shorter in distance--that bypass the main urban areas. Possibly he wanted to use wider roads, or maybe he was doing his passengers a favor by taking what a first-time visitor would probably regard as the scenic route. Whatever his reason may have been, the ride provided me with the next three impressions of Japan: signs, masks, and cherry blossoms.

Although I should have expected it, I was shocked by all the signs that I could not read. More specifically, I was surrounded by thousands of signs that I was not only unable to read, but had little hope of ever being able to read, because they were in kanji rather than in romaji. Having grown up in San Francisco and been a frequent visitor to both Japantown amd Chinatown , I was familiar with kanji and hanzi...but "familiar" in my case meant having seen them as adjuncts to romanized/phoenetic writing, not as the main or only writing. It was a profound shock to realize that I had suddenly become so illiterate that I could not distinguish between the sign for a tea store and that for a drugstore. At the time, I was essentially bilingual in English and Spanish, semi-competent in French, and relatively good at translating Latin. I had been confident that, given time and a dictionary, I could at least translate foreign languages into English sufficiently to get the gist of the message. The sudden realization that I had no idea of even how to use a kanji dictionary was like a kick to the head.

While I was musing on my new-found ignorance, I was observing the passersby, and wondering why so many of them were wearing what looked like surgical masks. I thought it unlikely that there could be so many doctors and nurses among the crowds of people going home, and that they had somehow forgotten to remove their masks.  Although I didn't know it at the time, it was hay fever season and also the season when many people catch colds, and when I asked our driver about the masks he explained about the custom here of wearing masks to avoid catching or spreading colds, and to avoid pollen as much as possible. It had been a very bizarre early impression, though, and was among the first of what I have since habitually referred to as Another Exotic Oriental Mystery.

The final memorable impression of my first day here was the cherry blossoms. They were a couple of days past their peak, but there were blossoming trees everywhere, it seemed, and in a few areas the hana fubuki (literally "flower blizzard") had begun, combining beauty with the poignant sense of impermanence that is one of the great charms of sakura blossoms.

My first day, then, began with Fuji-san, then continued through striking color,  ignorance, mystification, and beauty. Come to think of it, the 45 years since then have seen those themes recapitulated many times.

Monday, March 30, 2015


Those who know me even a little know that I'm not retiring, in either of the most common meanings of the word. In some places, at some times, for some purposes, 65 was the "official" retirement age (and it's not really because of Bismarck, if you have been believing that). I turned 65 today, having made it well past the 60 that my erstwhile employer thought was a good age at which to retire, and I'll hit 70 sooner than I'd prefer, as long as I don't hit something more solid at high speed first. I'm not retiring, though, having neither become shy nor given up on working.

"Retire" (リタイア) as a loan word is used in Japanese, but as is the case with many loan words, its nuance is a bit different than the original's: it's generally used to mean "quit" or "give up", particularly in the sense of abandoning an individual endeavor--such as a sporting event or other competition--before completion. There are different words used for retiring from one's career or position or company. 

Some of my readers probably have been thinking that I retired from this blog in that withdrawing from endeavor sense.   It has certainly been a long while since the last post. Had I set out to write a journal, that  would not have been the case, since I would have been writing on some regular--daily? weekly?--schedule. With no obligation, implied or otherwise, to write regularly, however,  numerous personal events, both very sad and very happy, occurred in close enough time juxtaposition that I found myself at a loss to write lest I seem to be either trivializing, or exaggerating, or both. Ignoring what were--to me at least--very important life events in favor of writing about more objective, or at least impersonal, topics didn't seem to be a very responsible alternative strategy, either.

There's something to be said for maintaining a sense of perspective, and sometimes that's easier after a certain amount of time has passed. However, I've recently realized that both terrible and wonderful events, both personal and not, continue to occur, on an unpredictable schedule. Waiting for sufficient time to provide perspective seems more and more to be a strategy more suited to the historian than to me.

I still have no intention of making this a journal, but I have decided that too much "waiting for perspective" may result in my waiting until I run out of time altogether.

So...I'm back, unretiring.