Sunday, January 31, 2010

My needs are quite simple, you know.

I am quite happy with very spartan conditions. But I must say that the last 4 weeks here in Japan have truly tested my limits. But I've taken some very good steps in the right direction, towards a life that I think can sustain my health and sanity for the next 7 months.

Friday was my first pay day, and as such I did a bit of shopping this weekend. I've been pretty tight with money over the last month, as I brought a certain amount with me, and getting more from my bank account in Canada proved to be a little tricky. You see, whatever Visa may tell you in their commercials, its most certainly not all you need in Japan. In fact, in my (admittedly limited) travels thus far, I haven't ever had a chance to use my credit card. Every time I walk to the nearby subway station, I pass by a glasses store that has a visa sticker in the window, and the taxi I was on in Kanazawa city had a similar Visa sticker, but I don't really need to buy any glasses at the moment, and Mitsubishi Chemical grabbed the tab on the taxi ride.

So I've been living on the 40 000円 that I brought with me. My expenses are pretty low (lunches at the cafeteria at work are around 340円, and you can only buy so many coffees at Tully's (I tend to stick to the awesome cappuccinos there, which are also about 340円). But today I got a couple hundred thousand yen shoved into my Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi account, so I figured I'd put it to some use. Went to the train station, got out twenty thousand or so, and went to the mall.

I grabbed a map of the place (its a mother of a mall, spread over 5 or 6 buildings near the subway station), and sat down to a cappuccino at Starbucks. I can read quite a bit of Japanese, you know, especially as most words you encounter in store names, and maps of malls are in Katakana (syllabic alphabet used for western terms). But it takes me a long time. So I sip my cap thoughtfully, and with a pen, translate the map of the mall as best as I can.

First stop - back to the Starbucks counter, to buy some ground coffee. They're quite impressed when I respond to their first two questions when I walk up with a bag of beans correctly. Truthfully, I didn't understand more than a couple basic words, but obviously, what are you going to be asked when you buy beans at Starbucks? 1: "Would you like these ground?" and then "How would you like these ground?". I deftly dealt with that with easy responses of "Hai" and "Co-so o onegaishimasu", hoping that saying "coarse" with a Japanese accent would be sufficient. It was, and I walked away with some Coarsely ground extra-Bold.

Next stop, something with which to make this coffee. I had spotted a kitchen-ware store on the map, so I headed there to grab a coffee press, a mug, and a single spoon, fork and knife. I ran into a couple kids in the store, who naturally began to stalk me, giggling and running away when I made eye contact, only to sneak around to catch a glimpse of the towering gaijin. A strict reprimand was forthcoming from their parents, who apologized profusely to me in formal Japanese before running away. I grabbed my utensils, mug and coffee press, and got out of there. (These items were almost troublingly expensive, but I had no idea where to go to get them cheaper, or if the price was competitive. So I bought them anyway.)

Another item which I really, really needed was a pillow. The one provided with my "bedding" is about 6 inches square, and full of large HDPE beads. They're supposed to simulate the feeling of a bag full of small stones - a traditional Japanese pillow - and a must say it is a great simulacrum. I don't really dig sleeping on small stones, so I had wrapped up the pillow in one of my blankets to make an almost-normal sized pillow. But after a month, it was getting to me. I hadn't noticed anything on the map that really popped out at me as a store that would most definitely sell pillows, and I didn't know how to say pillow in Japanese (NB. Its ピロー, or pi ro). I found this store called "24-times" that had a massive pillow section. And a massive futon section. Futons in japan are slightly cushy mats that you put on the floor and sleep on. So I splurged and bought a great feather pillow, along with a new futon to put on top of my crappy thin one. Next on the list was an SD card reader to get pics off of my camera, which I completely forgot the need for when I was packing in Canada. This wasn't a problem at all -- electronics stores are about as ubiquitous as you'd expect in Japan, though not as cheap as I had hoped.

I had searched on Google maps earlier to find a bakery nearby, as French-style bakeries seem to be quite common in this country. I ended up finding a fantastic one only about a 10 minute walk from my doom. Armed with a loaf of french bread and some tasty pastries, I headed to the grocery store. There I stocked up on necessities. Peanut butter (Skippy's Smooth, of course), Nutella, butter, bananas, and orange juice. Along with some microwavable meals. Peanut butter/honey/nutella (any combination thereof) + banana sandwiches are as filling as you can get without including something that must be cooked, and I don't have the facilities to cook anything. Notably, cream is only to be found in bags full of little creamers, and sugar only comes in bags of sugar packs. Even with my lackadaisical view on trash, this seemed excessive packaging. So I figured I'd stick with black coffee.

I was really weighed down by this point (mostly by the futon), and had to waddle back to the dormitory. There I sat myself infront of my computer (with my newfound, now wirelessly routed, and still awesome) internet, started up streaming a Toronto radio station, made myself a sandwich and a great cup of coffee (theres an insta-hot boiler on my floor), and sat on my new pillow.

So no more sleeping pretty much on a bamboo matt with a stone-filled pillow for head support, no more drinking canned coffee out of a vending machine in the morning, no more using the same disposable wooden chopsticks for about 30 meals in a row, no more going to sit outside of a coffee shop in the morning (which doesn't open til 10) just to steal some internet to call home, no more shitty Japanese bread made with rice flour thats only sold in packs of 4 slices.

I think I can handle it here no problem. Though I can't imagine some people I know in my position even now that I'm leaving in the lap of luxury compared to a month ago. They really should have included all this in the brochure.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Its a small Japan after all...

Ohaiyou, kats and kittens.

I'm tending to my readership with my salutations, as its actually nighttime here, but morning in the civilized (western) world.

If you want to hear about the awesome part of my business trip, and not the lame coincidences that are pretty much only significant to me, please skip to the "OMG JAPAN YOU SO CRAZY".

I got back from my business trip yesterday, and I have to say, it was a great time. We flew out (my first time in first class. not too special in Japan apparently, at least not on commuter flights like this one) Wednesday morning, bound for Kanazawa City on the north west coast of Honshu island (The main island in Japan, where Osaka and Tokyo are). I got a sweet view of Mount Fuji on the way, and before I knew it we were landing... 40 minute flight. It took significantly longer to get to the airport.

So boring shit happened, had lunch, checked out JAIST University, met up with a couple profs, wowed them with my nearly uncanny understanding of everything (except for Japanese), the usual. This JAIST place is crazy, less than 1000 students (all masters or phd, best of the best of the best, sir), but no less than 5 HRTEMs (and they're getting a brand new 6th one soon), 5 SQUIDs (superconducting quantum interference device), 4 NMRs, a fleet of femtosecond lasers and a fucking MBE. This place is the best of the best for material science graduate research apparently, outside of University of Tokyo.

So anyway, I went with my boss to meet this guy named Maenosono-sensei (the quantum heterostructure sensei, not the karate kind), who I'm to be collaborating with. Hes all kinda into quantum dot, metal nanoparticle, magnetic shit for medical diagnostics and such. So I picked his brain for a while for FYDP related reasons. By this point he knew I'd worked at Notre Dame for a while, and asked whether I knew this guy Taku Hasobe. I said yah, I did, because he left ND right before I got there, and I spent a good chunk of my term hearing about how awesome he was, while I attempted to reproduce his work. Maenosono called up Taku and brought him over and we had a good chat about living and working in South Bend Indiana. The strangeness in all this is that my boss at ND told me that I had to try to find Taku while I was in Japan, I said that was highly unlikely, being that there are 160-some million people there. Well I ran into him in less than a month. Life is very strange sometimes.

OMG JAPAN YOU'RE SO CRAZY. MCRC put me up at this fancy traditional Japanese hotel while I was there. The hotel room was massive, with a bunch of rooms, all with the nice Japanese bamboo tatami mats, slidable paper walls, the whole shebang.

Looks pretty great right? Notice anything missing?

Theres no bed. I was somewhat miffed at this, and my boss said to sleep on the tatami (bamboo) mats. When we went out for dinner, I wasn't a very happy camper. I became much happier when I realized that the restaurant we went to wasn't a restaurant at all, but a Japanese hunting lodge up on a mountain. There was only a single room, with cushions around a firepit with a grill on it. They handed the 5 of us a big plate covered with meat. Some japanese is said, and Saita-dawg translated:

"She says that this is bear, this is deer, and this is... I don't know the word: big hairy pig... wild pig". We barbecued an unholy amount of bear meat, venison and wild boar over an open flame. And then a big pot of bear soup came out that we cooked over the same fire. It was legendary.

I got home and they had moved a bed into my room. Then I went and chilled in the volcanic mineral hotspring baths at the hotel's onsen.

And all was well.

Monday, January 25, 2010

My office smells extremely strongly of Fruit Loops. But I'm the only one who recognizes the smell and its blowing my mind.

That is all.

One more thing.

So I'm collaborating with a lab at JAIST (The Japan Advanced Institute for Science and Technology) for my research at Mitsubishi Chemical. Turns out I'm going to be going there every once in a while to compare notes and use some of their equipment (Mitsubishi Chemical's MALDI-TOF machine hasn't been assembled yet. Epic fail).

I thought this place was going to be down in Tokyo, but it turns out its on the other side of the country (literally, I'm on the Pacific, and its on the Sea of Japan). So on Wednesday I'm flying out to Kanazawa City for the first of (hopefully) many business trips. They're putting me up at a hotel for a couple days and I get to check out the labs at JAIST (one of the best post-grad research universities in Japan).

Kick ass. And I'm going to Okinawa in March for a tropical jungle + beach holiday. I've gotta use those 10 vacation days, you know.

For some reason I really want to play Halo 3 ODST.

So last weekend was my 3rd weekend in Japan, and it continued the statistically insignificant and not at all unexpected increase in awesomeness that occurred between the "omg-fuck-japan-i-want-to-go-home" first weekend in Japan, and the "yahhhhhh-SUMO" second weekend. This weekend will henceforth be known as "Nomihodai Karaoke".

This weekend started pretty well. I slept in, spent a few hours here at Tully's skyping my Boston-buds, and got to see my cat on skype. He looked pretty happy, when Syed wasn't yodelling him. Then I headed over to Atsugi city where my NTT-homies live. They've got "apartments" that are pretty much my dorm room plus a bathroom designed for a contortionist and a single-burner + sink kitchen area. In other words, its about a billion times better than my dorm. Fuck you guys.

So I cooked food for everyone. My Pasta Carbonara conjuring abilities are now known in the land of the rising sun. Even without pancetta or even real bacon I managed to impress. Sure, I didn't have a strainer and my sous-chef and I managed to both spill some pasta in the sink (who cares, its going back into boiling water. what could happen?), but I'd say it was pretty successful. After some awesome Japonois pastries provided by Thom, the good stuff happened.

I'm sure you've all heard of Karaoke. I'm sure you've all done it, and theres really not a whole lot to say about it. We sang some of the most embarrassing songs in existence (including favourite bands like Aqua, N'Sync, and more). I learned a few things about myself: One; that my peculiar vocal range allows me to sing the uber-low man's part in "Doctor Jones" as well as the ridiculously high girls part. But nothing in between. I've got to close that falsetto gap. Two; I know way too many emo songs by heart. I blame you Simon. Not that you're reading this. Everyone go check out, it contains all of Simon's happy thoughts.

Anyway: Nomihodai. This is the Japanese word for "All you can drink". You pay 30 bucks each for the night (10pm to 5am) which pays for your private Karaoke room plus everything you can drink. This karaoke room has a phone in it, you pick up the phone, say the drink you want with a Japanese accent ("buraku rushiano", "sutaraburi dacuri"), the number you want (you'd better know the chinese number system for "vessels which contain liquids", note its chinese counting system + pai/bai/hai depending on the number) and "o kudasai". And BAM 2 seconds later the drink is in your hands, transported by a mysterious ninja-like Japanaman. There were 6 of us. We drank a LOT. Well technically there were closer to 5 of us. One unfortunate Japan-rookie much like myself drank himself sick in less than an hour. He spent the next 5 in the bathroom. Someone doesn't have very good nomihodai skills.

The rest of us were pooched by about 4am, we dragged Craig from his happy home in the karaoke bathroom and headed home. Nota bene guys, a nice thing about sleeping on the floor every night. Sleeping on someone elses floor is just as comfortable. Wait, is this a nice thing? I'm not sure, it could go both ways. Well we slept in, and made a genuine western breakfast in the morning. Pancakes and french toast, with real Canadian maple syrup.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I take it all back.

So recall what I said about the Tokyo-Edo Museum that I went and saw in Tokyo last weekend? That it’s a complete waste of time, time better spent going up (and down!) escalators or watching grown nearly-naked men slap themselves on the ass in front of a live audience. Well guys, in my haste, I forgot an interesting anecdote from my lengthy tour of the famous museum.

In a small section near the end of the main exhibit, the museum has memorabilia and information about Tokyo during and slightly after the turmoil of the second world war. Included in its collection is the Japanese copy of the official declaration of surrender, signed by representatives of the Empire of Japan, along with the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces (Douglas MacArthur) and other Allied representatives. Among these Allied representatives included fatefully, the highest ranking Canadian officer in the vicinity, a Colonel Lawrence Moore Cosgrave.

I was aimlessly wandering the WWII exhibit when I came across this rather largish contract with the words “INSTRUMENT OF SURRENDER” written in large friendly letters near the top. Near the end were a series of signature lines underwritten by the powers that be at this time: “The Supreme Commander of Allied Forces” signed dutifully by the General, “United States Representative” and “The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Representative” signed by some high ranking Yank and Red, the lines continued with “The Republic of China”, “The United Kingdom” and “The Dominion of Australia”. Then came the line for “The Dominion of Canada” (we were still a dominion at that time, not yet freed by Trudeau). This line was empty. “That’s odd,” I thought and kept reading.

It appeared that the good Colonel Cosgreve, likely a trifle nervous in the company of great men, had signed BELOW his appointed line, instead of above it. The representative of the provisional government of France followed suit, signing under the line, as did the representative from the Netherlands. But now the lines were all used up, and the “Dominion of New Zealand Representative” had no line to sign on. So he just signed in the blank space at the bottom of the page, and got the hell out of there.

After all the ceremonies (and I imagine there were a lot) the Japanese representative was handed his copy to return to the (now quite powerless) Emperor of Japan. He glanced at it, and noted the oddities in signatures on the bottom. He was quite miffed by this. It would be no good at all if the surrender document was rendered void by some mishap such as this. He’d have to suppuku himself to a quick death. So he tried to bring up the matter with General MacArthur. Apparently MacArthur agreed that something must be done.

So he did what anyone does when they foul up filling out a form. He added a whole bunch of corrections and initialed them. He roughly stroked out “Provisional Government of France”, replacing it with “Dominion of Canada”, “Netherlands” with “France, etc, etc, down the line. Then drew a line under the representative from New Zealand’s signature and wrote his country below it. Then went down the side of the page, filling it with little “D.M.” initials to show to all concerned that the Terms of Surrender Document which ended the Second World War, was indeed completely legit.

This amusing little play zoomed through my head when I looked at the screwed up terms of surrender document. Turns out its completely historically correct. It should be noted though, that when it came time for Col. Congreve to sign the American copy of the surrender document, the one that you find on Google and in most history books, he signed on the right line.

Have you ever heard the story of the Warrior for the Ancient Laws of the Constellations?

What? You haven’t? But you have to admit, the story sounds pretty epic, doesn’t it? Well newsflash guys, but this blog is telling the story of the Warrior for the Ancient Laws of the Constellations right now.

That’s right, this Warrior is better known in the land of the rising sun as Bureiku, rendered in Katakana as ブレイク, and in Kanji as武令宮. So there are multiple kanji for each syllabic sound in Japanese, so once you have your name in Romajii or Katakana, you can pick kanji that make up the same sounds. If you’re unlucky, the best you might be able to come up with is “Small Pile of Unknown Origin” (山杳基, if your name is Yamayoomoyo), but if you’re endowed with a name like Bureiku, then you’ve got a couple options to choose from.

武令宮 (bu + rei + ku) translates to Warrior + Ancient Laws + Constellations. I took a bit of literal license with the conjunctions above, which I think is acceptable considering its my name. 無例紅 (also bu + rei + ku) translates to “a custom of crimson nothingness”. As badass as this is, I think it might be a better Japanese name for Dexter or someone with similar psychopathic fascinations incarnadine. Some other less intriguing options included “armament for the princess of the sounds of jewels” (too busy), “craft of nothingness mushrooms” (too hallucinogenic), and “warrior of the nil shinto shrine” (too Jet Li).

Monday, January 18, 2010

Sumo Wrestling in Tokyo. Or, omg its so great to hang out with people who speak English.

So a lower year nano friend of mine named Jess Sparks happens to be working in Japan for NTT (Nippon Telegraph and Telephony), doing biochemistry of all things. Anyway, she?s got a bunch of compatriots (not sure if I?ve ever used that word intending the literal meaning before ? awesome) over there at NTT, and they were going into Tokyo to watch one of the two annual Sumo tournaments, followed by a night on the town.

Naturally I was invited and enthusiastically agreed to join them. The furthest away from home I?ve gone is Yokohama city on a quest to find cheesecake, so I hadn?t had the pleasure of encountering Tokyo yet. The NTT people were all coming together, and planned to meet me at the subway station closest to the Ryogoku Sumo stadium.

I braved the Tokyo public transit system for the first time, and I know I?m going to say this about a billion more times, but it?s fantastic. I gave myself like a half hour of buffer time just in case I encountered unforeseen delays or got lost, but somehow I ended up at my destination earlier than Google thought possible, and I even got lost once. Luckily my Japanese is adequate for asking passers-by which direction the train is going.. One noticeable failing of the Tokyo transit system is that though the station names are usually in Romaji or Hiragana, the directions are often in Kanji only. I?ve upped my Kanji-vocabulary quite a bit already, so I don?t foresee it being a problem for long.

So after some brief and delightfully not-Japanese introductions, we headed to an awesome Japanese fast food joint where you order from a vending machine. Then to the Tokyo-Edo museum, which quite boringly tells the story of Edo/Tokyo from its modest beginnings as a fishing village to the American firebombings in WW2. I was recommended by no less than 4 people to go to this museum, but take my word on it? Go up the awesome epic stairs; look at the building infront/above you. Maybe go up the sweet escalator-without-steps a few times. Then leave. You?re done, free of charge.

Now to the meat of the matter: Sumo. Its pretty expensive guys, we were in the second worst seats in the house, and it was still almost 50 bucks each for tickets. But it only happens a couple times a year, so if you?re in the neighborhood, go for it by all available means. For those who know me, you know I don?t enjoy watching sports. Its boring, largely uneventful and the seating is usually cramped.

Here comes the expected twist! Sumo is fantastic. At less competitive levels (those who go near the beginning of the day), its perhaps 50-60% ceremony. At the title rounds at the end of the day, its pushing 95% ceremony. These ceremonies involve these massive guys hulking all over the clay-ring, lifting their legs, throwing salt all over the place in an aggressive fashion, slapping their bodies repeatedly and very unappealingly, beating their chests to rile up the audience, washing their bodies/armpits with a towel, FOLLOWED by aggressively washing their faces with said towel. These events culminate in the two contestants lined up, ready to go. But usually right when the tension is high, thinking they?re about to start, one guy stands up, walks away, and slaps himself nice and hard on the gut. The cycle then repeats.

Each cycle takes maybe 2 or 3 minutes, and can repeat up to 5 or 6 times before a big title fight. The crowd is insane during the ceremony, they can?t get enough of it.

The fight lasts maybe 2-30 seconds, and pretty much just involves one guy pushing the other outside of the ring or onto the floor. Sometimes it gets intense with slapping contests between the guys, or feints and rolls. Notably, its usually small and nimble wins the race. Unless you?re a buff-as-hell, 6 foot 5, 207kg Bulgarian monstrosity. Then you pick up the little fat-as-hell Sumo-wrestler looking Japanese man infront of you, and drop him outside the ring. ?GAIJIN SMASH?

Afterwards we went to get all you can eat Korean BBQ, after which my NTT buddies abandoned me in the middle of downtown Tokyo to find my way home. Thanks guys, that was a chore.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Another failed, but valiant attempt

In my continuing quest to get internet access in my dormitory room, I decided to buy a wireless router, install it in the french-guy-down-the-hall's room, and then gleefully share his internet. I figured we'd split the cost, and since internet here is Fibre, its fast as hell (100Mbit - maxes out normal ethernet), so no problems sharing.

The first tricky part was buying a wireless router. I feel like such an idiot buying a router, when we had like 5 spare routers at our old house on McDougall that are now just collecting dust somewhere. But anyway, I eventually found an electronics store in walking distance from my dormitory, and went over to grab a router.

I don't know about you, mysterious reader, but I considered Japan a land of high technology (until recently), so expected a myriad of super awesome routers for next to nothing. Turns out instead they have a bunch of brands I've never heard of (No Linksys or D-link or Netgear to be found), for exorbitant prices. I ended up getting the cheapest one from a brand I recognized (NEC), for about 60 bucks.

Setting up the router was an exercise in frustration. The whole web interface was in Japanese, and setting everything to automatic would have been hard enough. But turns out the modems the ISP here gives out are linked to the MAC address of only one computer. So I had to figure out MAC address masking on a bizarre Japanese router. Was a tough time.

Once I'd succeeded, there was a few moments of joy as my computer connected without a hitch.

Then I left the room.

This fucking router has a range of like 5 meters. My room is maybe 10 meters away, max. So now I sit outside Stefan's room, in the freezing cold corridor that the dormitory-gods don't find necessary to heat.

That is all.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Coffee Nanoparticles - Now with posting in bulk

So I just posted 6 entries. Due to my lack of internet and time, I wrote them all up yesterday at work, and now I post them while extremely cold outside of a coffee shop that won't let me in for some reason. But they do have free internet. (I figured out the internet at Tully's Coffee, its 30 minutes free, yay)

Read 'em all, yo.

Once you go Black, you would prefer to go back, but thats all they've got, so live with it. Okay? God.

Are coffee cans here self-heating or something? Theres a wierd weight on the bottom of the can of coffee I just got out of a vending machine.

These omnipresent vending machines are quite great. They have fantastic grape juice. This is one thing I think they do better in Asia: grape juice. I remember it being fantastic in China, and its the same here. Love it.

Their |Black| branded canned coffees could be better, though they've got the right idea plastering Tommy Lee Jones in his Men in Black persona all over their coffee products. I buy them even though they taste like shit. They're also only like 100 yen.

I also had tempura chicken breast today at the company cafeteria. It was like KFC, but way better. If their serving sizes were a bit bigger (maybe a LOT bigger) I'd be one happy camper. They must budget out calories to maintain a 90 pound 5 foot male's body weight. That doesn't do it for me, Mitsubishi Chemical. Do better.

Japan is old, yo

So after the incident at the bank with the crazy Japanese dating system, I looked into it. Apparently the traditional way of keeping track of years for a long time before World War II was the "imperial year." Imperial year 1 was 660 BC, thats before fucking Christ. For those keeping track at home, thats less than 100 years after the Roman empire's "Founding of the City" year of 753 BC.

Imperial year 1 was when the famous Emperor Gemma founded the Japanese empire. Wowser. This country/government is old. And we nuked it and remade it in our own image. Lame guys, lame.

Its currently imperial year 2670, but apparently the American government wasn't big on the dating system with years dating back before Christ when they took things over after WW2. Now they keep track of dates based on their effectively powerless heads of state emperors. When one dies, the year gets reset to 1, its currently 22 Heisei.

I went to a big mall in Yokohama city the other day called "Lalaport" (or in Japanese - Raraporoto) that finally gave me an impression of the Japan I expected. I really must be living in the 'burbs where I am, this place had all the subway pushers and suffocating crowds a man could want. But only a few minutes walk away was this totally peaceful and relaxing vista by a river/cannal or something. I sat there for a while in the NICE WARM SUN (haha, canadians) reading. Was nice.

Does Piglet have any place on the debit cards of this nation?

Yesterday myself and Saita-san went to get me an Alien Registration card, and then to the bank to get an account there, so that maybe I can receive my salary and get internet access or something, yaknow.

So Alien card went down without much of a hitch. The forms were all in Japanese, which didn't make good sense to me, but which I've come to expect. On the bright side, I'm getting damned good at signing my name in Katakana.

The bank was a whole other story. No one there spoke any english at all, so Saita-san was acting as a translator for me. Every question the bank-clerk-girl asked, he would translate into english. Whats funny is how many questions involved either Disney, Winnie the Pooh, or Hello Kitty.

Ever diligent, Saita-san translated all the questions to english, often with a very large smile:

"Would you like a Disney land themed check book, or a Hello Kitty themed check book?" (talk about a dilemma)

"For your web-banking interface, would you like Piglet, Eeyore or Winnie the Pooh themes?" (Eeyore, of course)

"We have special Piglet debit cards, and Mickey Mouse visa cards, are you interested?" (I'm afraid not)...

We had to do it all twice as well, because it turns out my birth year (1989) was both the year of the glorious Japanese emperor Heisei 1 and the year of the glorious Japanese emperor Showa 64. Damnit.

Doing chemistry in Japanese. Or, an exercise in perfecting a Japanese accent.

So my job is pretty awesome so far. It was touch and go for a while when my supervisor said stuff about "Zeolite membranes" and "Lithium ion batteries for hybrid electric vehicles". But he was just joshing with me (Saita-san, my supervisor, is pretty kick-ass. Plus he looks like a long lost Japanese member of the Beatles).

For anyone who knows anything about my fourth year design project (pretty much just my group I guess, and Dan and Mikhail. Holla!), my project here is eerily similar, should I choose to accept it (which I will). It makes me think.. how many companies are there working on magnetic nanoparticle-assisted protein detection/medical diagnostics technologies? Or am I just a really lucky guy?

Anyway, any job worth its salt begins with a long gruelling process of reading papers on background and what the group has done so far. Luckily, I've spent much of the last term wading through papers on magnetic nanoparticle synthesis, surface functionalization and separation. So I have time to waste writing up these blog entries in bulk.

Or so I thought, until the latest pile of papers to read on my desk are entirely in Japanese. "Whats up with this, Saita-dawg" I ask.

"This is the latest report on our progress. I have to go to Tokyo today, so you try to get a grip on the chemistry, this can serve as a hint. We'll talk about it tomorrow." responds Saita-slice.

I spent a few hours trying to go through this report, mostly saying katakana words aloud trying to figure out their meaning. Here are a few notable snippets that I'm quite proud of deciphering (with some help of chemical formulae, of course :P).

ビーズ (bi-zu) - literally "beads", japanese term for nanoparticles, apparently

ゼオライト (zeoraito) - zeolite

ポリマ (porima) - polymer

クリクケミスツリ (kurikukemisuturi) - Click chemistry. lol

エチニル(echiniru) - ethynyl group

アジド(ajido) - azide group

ツトブチルメタクリラート (tuto buchiru metakurirato) - tert-butyl methacrylate

スチランスルホンアトリウム (suchiransuruhonatoriumu) - styrene monosodium sulfonate

アセトニトリル (asetonitoriru) - acetonitrile

シリカ (shirika) - silica

マグヌトリト (magunutorito) - magnetite

アスコルビンーナトリウム (asukorubin-natoriumu) - sodium ascorbate

I especially love how elements are Japonified from their original LATIN versions (Sodium is Natoriumu). Score one for that dead language.

How to find free internet in the exceedingly far east. Or, how I came to love Makudonodo.

My first day in this country was also my first day of work. I can thank the omniscient gods of Mitsubishi human resources for that I suppose. I had this kind of insane hope that there might be internet at work that I could use, as web-withdrawl stacked on top of 14 hours of chronodisplacement syndrome is a troublesome ailment, I tell you.

"Well there is internet here, just not useful internet." says the always light-hearted Saita-san. "Go ahead and email friends and family -- if you can." DUM DUM DUMM

Gmail - blocked. Engmail - blocked. Meebo - blocked. "Pretty normal, right?" xkcd - blocked. questionablecontent - blocked. dinosaur comics - blocked. "Really? Come ONNN" pdeng/uwace - blocked "hah, okay thats going to suck" GOOGLE - blocked "WHAT!?!?! FUCK NO, I'M GOING HOME, EVERY MAN HAS A LIMIT AND THEY JUST FOUND MINE."

I do get access to an awesome email address. Yah, no names, just a number. Very efficient and all that. I am allowed to use it for non-business stuff, but theres this bizarre delay of almost an hour to send something that just screams "VIOLATION OF PRIVACY". Oh wait, never mind, they SAY they will read it right here. No violation then, keep walking.

So the next day, refreshed and feeling much less suicidal, I headed out into the world to find some tamer internet pastures. My first stop was Tulley's Coffee, right across the road from my dorm. Its like a Starbucks, but more expensive and with a fancy wood burning fireplace in it.

Theres also a wireless network called "WiFine." Awesome, punny and effective, I can dig it. It forwards me to some web portal with weather and sports and news and shit all in Japanese. No matter what website I go to, it takes me there. I'm completely willing to pay for internet at this place, but there isnt anything obvious where I could pay to get access. I fumble around and get to a couple sign in pages, but my Japanese knowledge isn't enough and I can't get anywhere. I desperately ask every employee and patron how the fuck I get internet, to no avail. "I'm sorry, no English"...

So I keep walking.. 20 minutes later I hit a McDonalds. I pull out my handy-dandy-completely-useless-on-the-900Mhz-band iPhone to check it out. "FON_FREE_INTERNET_PCM network found!"

I swear, at this moment I loved the large life-size Ronald McDonald standing infront of me more than any other human being. And not just because he was the only caucasian I'd seen since the airplane.

Turns out McDonalds in Japan have this FON internet plan. You can pay 5 bucks a day to get full internet access (or 15 bucks for a week). Or you can surf for free and have access to "Limited pages". Before I could even form the words "Net neutrality", I realized that the limited pages were everything in the extended Google fiefdom. That is, Google Search, Maps, Mail (with video/audio chat), Blogger, Youtube. And free skype access just to sweeten the (free) deal. And a little thing I like to call Google Translate. Turns out this tool can be used as a proxy to see the entire internets through Google servers. Thanks Google, you're great. The only other thing a human being could want is Facebook, and really, who cares... fuck Facebook.

Lost in Translation

So let me start this off by stating that unfiltered internet (preferably broadband, perhaps acceptably ad-supported) should be a basic human right of every human being. I preceded my trip to Japan by going up to the north Ottawa valley, in the bush, just a stones throw away from Algonquin park. Yah, there was satalite internet there, along with WiFi. And I saw it, and it was good.

So upon entering the most populated metropolitan area in the world, I sat across from my (awesome) supervisor on a train, and asked whether there was wireless internet at my dormitory:

"No, I'm afraid not, no wireless internet." he replies.

"Damn" thunk I, "Plugging in is so uncivilized, but I guess it will do. I wonder if it will be 1 or 10 gigabit ethernet."

"Internet takes a long time to get, maybe a month, maybe more" He adds forlornly. He sees a combination of terror and sadness appear on my face as the true realization of my predicament dawns. "I don't know why it is this way. Ask Izawa-san."

It turns out Izawa-san is a troubled little man who manages the dormitory. He doesn't speak a word of English, but my first experience of Japanese racism is through him. While he is talking about me to my supervisor, completely ignoring my presence, some words stand out from the others: "Gaijin, baka desu, gaijin, kuso, gaijin, gaijin."

My supervisor, Saita-san, diligently translates with a smile: "He says that he has had a lot of trouble in the past with some boarders, and that he hopes there are no problems, and he says good luck in Japan." Right, Saita-san, thats definitely what he said. I think maybe some inimity was lost in translation, based on Izawa-san's diminuative glare.

Anyway, so washed away my dreams of liveblogging my every whim and fancy in Japan, much like my modesty after my first group bathing session.

Monday, January 11, 2010

I'm in Japan yo

Don't have time for much, but I'm in the internet-less land of Japan. At coffee shop across the road from my dorm.

Here is a happy pic of Blake in Japan: