Category Archives: Japan

A mini blog re: Mega Fauna

RR panel 1

Productivity gurus occasionally say that to make time for the most important things (e.g. promoting your next book) you need to cut back the time you spend on less-critical stuff (such as, writing it yourself) by making priority calls (translation: hire a ghostwriter).

Sadly, I haven’t met any ghostwriters comfortable starting blog posts with 50-word-long sentences such as the opening above – probably because every communications teacher / prof would advise against it – so my blogging has ground to a halt so solid, it would make the Western Front of the World War I seem fluid and dynamic. (Well, crap, that was another 56.)

But first, for non-history buffs: the Western Front of the First World War was where the European powers perfected trench warfare, causing the front line to stay unchanged for about four years.

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Passing Gas – EV’s now outnumber gas stations, in America


My latest piece is up on GreenCarReports, here. It’s where I sourced the photo from. :)

And yes, putting “Passing Gas” in the title was deliberate. Hey, it’s catchy!

From what I can tell, electric vehicles also outnumber gas stations in Japan as well. Alas, Canadians are somewhat behind our American and Japanese (and no doubt, Norwegian) friends in this regard – from the data I’ve been able to collect in my database, we only have about 2000 plug-in electric vehicles versus about 13,000 gas stations.  You can’t win ’em all.

…but as long as you can win Olympic Gold in ice hockey, by and large, the losses everywhere else are largely tolerable.  ;)

Whatever foresight is, it’s not 20/20…

(originally written Jan 3, 2012.  Part of my Great Upload of 2013.)

Come December’s end, the nervy among us like to review what they got right in the past year. The nervier like to predict what’ll happen in the New Year. Ever the blithe contrarian, I figured I’d visit the Ghost of Predictions Past and see where I got things wrong.**  :)

I do this taking comfort that Great Men, like me, make mistakes sometimes. (Oh, it was tempting to “forget” those commas…!)

Take the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius — he almost ruined his reputation as an enlightened philosopher-king when, fed up with a particularly quarrelsome ethnic group, he set out to exterminate the… Germans. (Ha! Betcha didn’t see that coming! :) )  Historians also dock him points for leaving the Empire to his sadistic son Commodus, whose death the lightly-factual chopumentary “Gladiator” got wrong. Among many, many other things, Joaquin Phoenix should’ve died in his sleep. Strangled by a bodyguard, sure, but in his sleep none the less. ;)

Probably my biggest mistake in 2011 was thinking the Fukushima nuclear disaster wouldn’t be as catastrophically epic as it became. While there are no directly attributed deaths*, it’s estimated that the clean-up will take decades — at great cost of time, money, and confidence in Japanese public and private institutions. In conceitedly thinking that a serious nuclear accident would never happen “here” in the First World, I overestimated human knowledge and underestimated human nature. We do have a genius for corruption and corner-cutting…!

Overestimating human knowledge

A back-in-the-day Canadian example of overestimating human knowledge is that of the Dryden Chemical Company, which was responsible for an outbreak of mercury poisoning among the Grassy Narrows First Nation. The company made chlorine to bleach paper, using mercury in the reactors. Tonnes of mercury made their way into the lake over the years, probably with an engineering justification to the effect of “well, methylmercury is the bad stuff, but we’re dumping inorganic mercury, which is safe enough to drink. So it’s not ideal, but there’s no real problem”.

Not being biologists, the engineers would not have realized that some shellfish metabolize safe inorganic mercury into unsafe methylmercury — meaning that any mercury dumped in the lake became unsafe mercury, in short order. And remember, that’s just the techno-hubris of forty years ago; we’ve since moved on to bigger things!

Underestimating human nature

A recent American example of underestimating human nature is that of Monsanto’s Bt corn, engineered to produce an insecticide toxic to the corn rootworm, but harmless to most other species. Apparently rootworms are developing resistance to the insecticide faster than expected — in part because farmers aren’t following the recommended usage instructions. (I bet they don’t decrumb their toasters every six months, either.)

The rootworms will become resistant to the insecticide anyways (because the only rootworms having rootworm babies will be the Bt-tolerant ones) — it’s just that the rootworms are ahead of schedule because the engineering solution didn’t accommodate enough end-user misuse.  A definite lesson for us technically-minded folks.

Up next!  (maybe)

Next time: more Klippensteinian hubris, as we look at rising oil production!  Falling gold prices!  (Both temporary, I’m sure. ;) )

Or maybe I abandon this thread and muse about more interesting going-forward stuff, like the probability that activist groups will soon follow the example of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and deploy unmanned aerial vehicles (beefed-up radio-controlled model airplanes with decent cameras) to monitor their opponents.  Which also makes it likely that corporate interests will soon do the same every time there’s a protest.  Now, if I could just find a stock whose business plan consists of renting aerial drones to all parties…  ;)


* A couple anti-nuclear campaigners (Mangano and Sherman) recently came out with a calculation that there were 14,000 excess deaths in the US in the weeks after the disaster, but they put the data through enough Cirque-du-Soleil contortions to earn a PhD in BS.  And not for the first time; in the summer, they’d alleged baby deaths in the US Pacific Northwest spiked after the meltdown…  conveniently ignoring data showing that death rates were even higher three months before the accident.  Which doesn’t exactly add credibility to reality-based concerns about the effect of persistent, low-level radiation exposure.

** alas, unlike conversations, my mailouts are checkable…  :)

Dilbert Jan 3 2012

Japan visit 2012 (part 3)

We stayed with my in-laws while in Japan, who head a two-person, six-cat, thirteen-umbrella (!) household. That theory about squirrels forgetting where they buried their nuts, no longer seems farfetched to me…  :)

Mom-in-law’s years of experience herding cats have been invaluable in managing her husband, an atypically adventuresome Japanese entrepreneur who possesses the kind of jaunty self-confidence that has helped many an investor make a small fortune in the Japanese stock market, out of a big one. Lucky for him, that’s a hypothetical: he didn’t start off with much to begin with. ;) And he’s got lots of company. If your country’s principal stock index has been trending down for the past twenty-two years, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone whose investments haven’t endured some downsizing!

After years of asserting his maverick status by driving foreign cars despite the steering wheels being on the wrong side, dad-in-law settled on a Prius, which has been among the top-selling cars in Japan for the past few years, thanks partly to public policy favouring fuel efficient vehicles. To offer up a statistically irrelevant but deceptively impressive anecdote, there are three (and soon to be four) Prii on the lane where they live.



Some of you may remember the phase in the 1980’s when American automakers fell in love with the “ie” sound, jamming it into the Cutlass Ciera (GM car), the Sierra (GM truck), the Fiero and Fiesta (Ford cars). h/t to The Straight Dope for that factoid!

Well, in contemporary Japan the “it” sound is… “it”, as evidenced by the Honda Fit, Toyota Vitz, and Sukuzi Wit — all three of them compact cars, directly competing for the same customer dollar!

Japanese carmakers sometimes rebadge cars when they’re exported to other countries, because the home-market names can be a liability: how many of us would drive around in a Nissan Bluebird or a Daihatsu Naked? I think we’ll all agree though, that the prize for least-exportable brand name goes to the committee that came up with the Mitsubishi Toppo BJ. That is not a typo, and it is a real car. The initials stand for “Big Joy”, which really doesn’t help things. As relaxed and liberal-minded as I think I am about such topics, I still felt compelled to avert young son Leo’s eyes when I saw it. ;)

Sticking with cars a bit longer, I saw the Nissan Leaf TV commercials while over there, which upended all my expectations for automotive advertising. They basically position the electric vehicle as a mobile family energy reservoir:
– charging at night when demand on the electric grid is low
– or when the family’s solar panels generate electricity (Japan announced a massive solar feed-in tariff recently)
– providing power to the household during peak times (easing the strain on the grid)
– and of course it can drive you around town, too

Irritatingly, I can’t seem to find the solar panel-containing ad on the Nissan YouTube channel, but the others are there.

The Leaf comes with a 24 kWh battery — enough to power a Canadian household for a day, or a Japanese household for two. Since Nissan has sold 30,000 Leafs, they’ve already put 700 MWh of potential “grid storage” on the market. Put all the automakers’ electric-vehicle plans together, and we soon get enough grid storage capacity to do very nifty things, in the event of natural disasters.

I could imagine that by 2015, one of the carmakers will come out with a major ad campaign built around a testimonial from a customer saying how their Chevy Volt / Nissan Leaf / Mitsubishi MiEV / Ford Focus Electric / or other electric vehicle helped their family get through a [hurricane, earthquake, or other disaster]-related power outage, safely, by keeping the lights or heat on / the radio working / or some such thing. I didn’t include the plug-in Prius in this list, since its battery is a lot smaller than the aforementioned cars, and would run out of power sooner.



Soccer seems to have replaced baseball as the most popular sport in Japan — I wonder if the growing number of baseball players going to America has the effect of diminishing Japanese baseball, making it seem like a minor league. It was interesting that the sports section of the news had the usual local sports, then tacked on a review of how each Japanese player in Major League Baseball had done the prior evening.

On that topic, Ichiro Suzuki from the Seattle Mariners got his 2500th American hit a little while back. If you add his Japanese league hits he’d now be third on the all-time hit list, having recently passed Hank Aaron. If he’s able to get 3000 hits in the US, he’d have more trans-Pacific hits than all-time hits leader Pete Rose (who gambled on baseball and was banished) and second-place Ty Cobb (who gambled on baseball and was pardoned). No word yet whether Suzuki likes to gamble. ;) Still, he’s had a miserable past two seasons so it’s doubtful any team will keep him around long enough long enough for that.

Japanese baseball is infamous for trying to prevent foreigners from breaking records held by Japanese players, so it’s worth noting that when Hank Aaron (black) broke the all-time home run record held by Babe Ruth (white) in the 1970’s he received a lot of hate mail — and even death threats. I’m almost old enough to’ve been alive back then!


and Baby Races

What else… oh yeah, Leo won the second of the two baby races he participated in — these are events put on at various malls by the local baby-goods retailers. He got lucky too; if I remember correctly, one of the other three babies was in the lead, but then got distracted by one of the baby toys placed partway along the course. (If you can call a four-metre stretch of foam flooring, a course.) Fortunately for him, Leo was interested in the toy that was at the finish line, so crawled all the way there before sitting down to play with it. :)

The decision by baby-goods retailers to put these community events on was one of the many, many examples of thoughtful service that seem to permeate Japanese culture. Another example was a discount grocery store which had a complimentary dry ice dispenser, so people’s frozen goods would stay frozen on the drive home… especially if they needed to make another stop elsewhere. Such a level of service must necessarily result in higher prices, but customers seem willing to pay the extra money to get that level of satisfaction. Even the store run by Wal-Mart (!) seemed more heavily staffed than the grocery stores over here.

In that vein, I wonder if people would grumble less about taxes if staff counts at government centers was doubled, and employees were forced to be cheerful. As gauche as I am, even I’ve grumbled Fraser Institute-like words after waiting in long lineups in an unpleasantly stuffy office, only to have a rude clerk give me unhelpful (later to be proven incorrect!) advice.  (For US readers’ benefit, the Fraser Institute is essentially the Heritage Foundation‘s Canadian franchisee.)

Another example of the “proactive” thinking was a Hitachi fan which automatically shuts off once someone touches the metal grille around the blades. I imagine they use the same kind of technology used by SawStop for their table saws — which also immediately shut off once they detect a finger. (A very small electrical current is run on the saw blade; body parts or hot dogs cause a change in the measured resistance, causing the saw to be immediately halted.)

Given the sweltering weather of the past few days, and the fact that Leo is now almost tall enough to reach the base of our floor fan, I’m kind of wishing we’d bought that Hitachi unit and brought it back. I’ll be rigging some safety netting up (I’m too cheap to buy one of those nifty Dyson fans) but it’d be nice to think that North American appliance-makers valued kids’ fingers as much as the Japanese ones do…!

Japan visit 2012 (part 2)

(written June 3, uploaded July 21)

As I’ve occasionally mentioned, one of my favourite things to do in Japan is to visit the fridge section of leading electronics retailers. The product selection puts ours to shame!  This may be because each of Japan’s tech conglomerates (Sharp, Hitachi, Panasonic, etc.) tries to differentiate their refrigerators.  The Japanese government’s Top Runner program probably helps too, as it forces companies to improve product efficiency, meaning innovation is incentivized.

From the looks of it, Sharp’s patent on magnet-based refrigerator doors is still in effect: this allows the design of a fridge door which can open from either side, and they continue to be the only ones offering this feature.  (When you open the handle on the left, the magnets on that side disengage, and the door pivots open from the still-engaged magnets on the right.  And vice-versa.)

Toshiba came out with a model where you can open the fridge door simply by pressing a touch pad — no yanking open required! Aya’s sister bought one, and she thought it Awesome… until her eighteen-month-old son got just… barely… tall enough to slap the touch pad while on his tiptoes, causing her to have to walk past a giggling infant to re-close said fridge’s door, dozens of times per day.  :)

Meanwhile, my in-laws have a Panasonic which beeps when the door is left open too long.  As ridiculous as it felt to be scolded by an appliance (!) for wasting energy, I immediately changed my behaviour to avoid further harrassment.  So, it worked…!

I’m also pleased to report that you can still take the electronics stores’ massage chairs for a”test ride”, and that the technology has continued to advance.  :)

In other shopping observations, the 7-11’s don’t just sell Vitamin Water; someone has come out with a Vanadium Water product, bottled around Mount Fuji.  The usual health benefits are claimed; realistically, every trace element is probably helpful for Something! :)

In addition to its convenience store empire, 7-11’s Japanese division owns a supermarket chain and a baby goods retailer; the latter hosted a Baby Crawling Race we entered Leo in.  Patterned after a marathon, it involves the babies crawling roughly one ten-thousandth of 42 km (that’s 4.2 meters) across a foam “racetrack” to their cheering parents.  At least, that’s the theory.  Ever seen a horse race where half the field sat drooling at the starting line?  ;)

But that tale, I’ll have to tell next time…  :)

Japan visit 2012 (part 1)

(originally written May 28, uploaded July 20)

Usually, when I visit my in-laws, I take the train from Tokyo. This time though, I flew in to Sendai Airport, which had been flooded in the post-earthquake tsunami last year. (Japanese folks have taken to referring to the disaster as 3/11.)

As we drove in, we passed a number of FEMA-type emergency housing trailers, where people who had lost their houses in last years earthquake/ tsunami are currently living. Apparently the earthquake damaged some condo complexes (Japanese condos are called mansions, hilariously enough) so some of those have been abandoned as well. There’s enough work to be done rebuilding things as it is, so these damaged buildings haven’t yet been torn down. They just stand there, projecting a ghostly emptiness.

Though it’s in the temperate zone – Sendai is at about 38°N instead of Vancouver’s 49°N – there is a distinct tropical feel to the place. Part of this may be the persistence / virulence of the greenery here – it sprouts out of every nook and cranny, like facial-orifice hair on very elderly gentlemen. :)  Seeing this, one immediately understands the inevitability that jungles would overrun the ruins of abandoned-but-not-all-that-ancient civilizations.


With too many people crammed into too little space, it’s still common to see rice fields in the sorta-rural enclaves between towns. Although this makes no sense from a purely economic standpoint, it makes sense from a geopolitical one: while they could probably generate more revenue from land by developing it, Japan already imports about one-third of its calories!  Becoming ever-more depending on food imports would be a bit of an Achilles’ heel…

There remains a tradition of giving fruit as gifts in Japan, which is what sparks the insane food price inflation the country is infamous for.  While I saw a high-end general-purpose mango for 1200 yen ($15 Cdn), gift mangos, blemish-free and beautifully boxed, retailed at the bargain price of 12,600 yen ($150) per pair.  Yowza!