Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Japan "Enters the era of smartphones"

According to BBC News, Japan has freshly entered "the era of smartphones", and now everyone is worrying that we'll all be bumping into each other over here because we're too inconsiderate to look up from our LCD displays while crossing the street.

I'd like to point out that, if Japan has really been slow to adopt smartphones, there are two very good reasons for this:

1) The preexisting phones in Japan were unimaginably superior to the pre-smartphones of Europe. I remember coming to Japan for the first time in 2007 and being amazed at the capabilities offered by my Japanese mobile. In addition to the basics such as a camera etc., it had navigation (maybe GPS, or perhaps based on triangulation of transmitters), and email. My wife -then girlfriend- had a slightly better mobile that supported even nicer features such as TV: it honestly made phones on the UK market look absolutely laughable.

According to the wiki, the iPhone came out that year, but it was at least a year before it even entered the Japanese market. And if you already had a decent "standard" Japanese mobile, you might wonder at the advantage in getting an iPhone back then. In fact, according to Wikipedia "In 1999, the Japanese firm NTT Docomo released the first smartphones to achieve mass adoption within a country".

Basically, either the features Japan's phones were too competitive compared to our notion of "smartphones", or they were already fully-fledged smartphones. Effectively, Japan was using smartphones before anyone else. Maybe they weren't touch-screen, but they were powerful beasts for their time.

2) Utilising smartphones to their full potential requires a decent internet connection, and the mobile companies over here are very happy to charge an extraordinary amount of money for this service. There is very little choice when it comes to data plans, and if you go with one of the "big 3" providers here, you options are all or nothing. I'm not sure if this has been the case previously (there is a 6 year gap between 2008 and 2013 where I was in the UK), but I suspect expense will have been a big motivator for holding onto older mobile technology.


With that out of the way... I do wonder about the whole "dumbwalking" thing. I guess with the increases in functionality, there is a greater likelihood that people will be walking and doing something on their mobile, especially now things like LINE allow you to message without spending any yen. Increased adoption of phones in general is also likely to be a big contributor (even my 10 yr old nephew has a dumbed-down phone). Nonetheless, Docomo's simulation of everyone crossing the road while staring at their phones is really just a bit of sciency fun. I'm sure the simulations may have some use when realistic parameters are used, but you don't need me to tell you that most people will actually be looking where they are going. This is illustrated very cutely in the end of the BBC's article, where the author sets himself the goal of walking across a busy junction, deliberately not looking up from his phone, and the fact that "I'm sure I'm going to get hit, but after a few seconds I relax. It's OK. Everyone's reacting for me", and "It's so silly I have to look up". This is how the real world works: people try to get out of the way, but they are generally aware of the need to stop, and look up when necessary.

To be honest, its a nice little article, but I just get the feeling the author is trying to write life into an issue that simply doesn't exist.

Then again, I've yet to live in Tokyo.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Translating typos with Google search

Its probably fairly evident that I love Google's services by now, and I thought I'd just highlight a particularly useful feature in Google search.

When translating documents upwards of 10000 characters (10+ pages long), the chance of finding a typo somewhere is not by any means small. I have on numerous occasions banged my head over a frustrating translation, where a word would simply not make sense in context.

My usual procedure is to double tap Ctrl+C to bring up Golden Dict, into which I've plugged in an offline version of the indispensable WWWJDIC, which will resolve 90% of my queries immediately. If this fails, I alt-tab to my browser where Weblio is waiting with a whole host of dictionaries (including WWWJDIC, and the Life Sciences dictionary by Kyoto University), which will catch the remaining 9.9% or so (and also tends to give some very nice technical usage examples).

If a word fails at this point, frustration sets in as I splice and dice the word to see if the supposed word is actually 2 or more words strung together, but even this will not help if the word is a typo.

In this case, there are few options left available, but a Google search is often invaluable, not only providing some nice usage examples, but sometimes even finding a definition in some obscure internet glossary. In the case of typos however, Google will automatically search using the "correct" spelling. At this point, the fact the search term is actually a typo becomes clear and we can start at the beginning with the correct term*. Lovely! Imagine trying to work this out for yourself with paper dictionaries back before computers were on hand. Eugh.

A word of warning, though. Google love search terms that are common, and it isn't necessarily obvious whether the Google search is deciding against using your search terms because of a typo, or because it is just prioritising what it thinks you want to read about.

*Today I came across "胚葉体形成" in a source document, which can be split into "胚葉" germ layer, "体" body, "形成" formation, which I initially translated as "germ layer formation", but was unhappy with the context, and while dropping "body" improved the flow I wasn't happy about it: "body" could have referred to cells in a germ layer. I decided to Google the term and see if there was a useful precedent, only to be bombarded by results for the similar: "胚様体形成". At this point, I realised "胚様" and  "胚葉" are homophones, and that this may be a typo. Sure enough typing in "はいよう" with Microsoft Japanese IME puts "胚葉" at the top of the candidate suggestion list. "胚様体形成" translated to "embryoid body formation", which fit better into context.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Reinterpretation of the Peace Constitution. Does it matter?

Japan's government has recently begun implementing its reinterpretation of the Peace Constitution. For more than 60 years, Japan has foregone the right to use military force except in self-defence, but the new changes being implemented by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) mean Japan will now exercise the right to "collective defence".

Here, collective defence means providing military force in defence of an ally. What does this mean in real terms, though? I think its fair to say that if a nation allied to Japan came under attack, that the Japanese government would be quick to forget the peace constitution and make ready to commit troops anyway, where such a conflict was endangering Japanese security. One example often touted by the media is the new ability for Japan to shoot down missiles from (for example) N. Korea, that were headed for an allied country (i.e. the USA). I would conjecture that even without the reinterpretation of the constitution that Japan would do this, because it cant risk losing face to America because of its dependence on the US for trade, and it could easily justify the action after the fact. The same goes for any conflict involving major trading partners.

In this light, the reinterpretation seems very much like what Japan has been continually doing: posturing. There is overwhelming support among the political parties of Japan for the reinterpretation, and so we can probably assume that (for example) shooting down a couple of North Korean missiles would be received relatively positively over here, regardless of the constitution. The real power of the changes is political: PM Shinzo Abe will gain a fair amount of domestic support from this move.

The problem with such reinterpretation of the constitution is the same problem with Japan that it has always had from posturing: international relations. China and S. Korea have both objected to the change, and the reinterpretation of the peace constitution provides a tempting foundation upon which to criticise Japan. It would be easy at this point to paint Japan as re-militarising, increasingly extremist, and unwilling to resolve disputes diplomatically.

It makes me wonder, is the gain in domestic support really worth the loss of respect in Asia? Then again, does this political posturing really have any impact on trade?

EDIT: Reading the paper this morning, while Abe managed to push this through through the government, it isn't riding well at all with the public: Polls suggest public support for the Abe cabinet has dropped under 50%, with 54.4% disagreeing with the move, and only 34.6% agreeing. Its kind of nice to know the Peace Constitution is valued by the Japanese people, and this raises some questions over the validity of Abe's actions; however, I'd like to think that the Japanese people don't in principal object to the idea of shooting down missiles en-route to their allies..

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

C25K, cardiovascular risk, and running in the morning

My wife's first words to me this morning were "You shouldn't run in the morning, it increases your risk of stroke" - in the background a man in a white lab-coat gesticulated on the TV, but I didn't stop to listen*.

The reason for this permutation of the words "good morning, treasured soul-mate" is my recent foray into exercise, particularly the morning run which I've incorporated into my week in an attempt to make my body more resistant to the risk factors incurred by my inability to peel myself away from a computer screen.

In particular, I've gone through the podcast-based "C25K" training program, with some minor alterations**. My main aim here was to bring my resting heart rate to a more reasonable level (I measured 90 or so, which is right on the upper limit of normal), so I recorded it the whole time I was doing the program.

For the record, heart rate is a pretty strong indicator of cardiac risk, and being at the high end is probably not what you want, especially when you factor in the proportion of deaths due to cardiovascular problems in developed countries.

So what did I find? The C25K program was effective at reducing my heart rate. I'm not sure by exactly how much, however, due to my somewhat inconsistent method for taking my pulse (I became more fussy about when I took my pulse in the latter half of the program, which is probably a big source of bias considering how much my pulse changes during the day). Nonetheless, maybe I reduced my pulse by 10 beats per minute or so, 20 beats per minute at the most.

Using the diagrams on the previous link ("High heart rate: a cardiovascular risk factor?" - Cook et al. 2006), that corresponds to a reduction in risk of heart failure by anything up to 50%. Given the reduced cardiovascular risk, I'm fairly sure I'm better off running, and risking a morning stroke, than not running at all. I cant run in the day because it is simply too hot***, and I don't fancy running in the evening on a belly full of dinner, or in the dark*4*.

While I had a hard time finding any evidence to the contrary*5*, I just managed to dig up this paper, which states that "the protective effects of exercise were more significant in the afternoon and evening group than in the morning and forenoon group". This sounds fair enough to me: its not a bad idea to run in the morning, but its likely a better idea to run in the afternoon.

*TV/radio knowledge is somewhere behind oral tradition in my mental filing cabinet. In my mind, anything heard on a program not even ostensibly about science means nothing more than something to perhaps look up on the internet later. Of course, the internet can be far, far worse, but at least you can find peer-reviewed science on it.

**specifically, I juggled around the order of the runs slightly so that the length of the runs increased more linearly. Those familiar with C25K will remember looking at week 5 and thinking "WTF!?". I recommend juggling around the days as you see fit: the person who made C25K doesn't appear to have had any formal health/exercise qualifications at the time he designed the program, so I can't imagine you'll do yourself any additional harm by applying logic, especially since it will make the progression less intense.

*** To me, this sounds like a damn good way of getting heat stroke.

*4* And this, a pretty good way of distributing my brain on the bottom of an irrigation ditch. Morbid? Me? Noo...

*5* Maybe more due to lack of familiarity with the subject than an actual lack of evidence