The Words You Really Need to get Around in Japan

After months of squeezing in language study where I could, my trip with Kate to Japan in May taught me what words were really most useful. These were the ones that we used daily as we navigated Tokyo, Nikko, Kyoto, Koya-san, and all the spaces in between:

  • wakarimasu (I understand) and wakarimasen (I don’t understand) — probably the most useful phrases ever.
  • daijobu: It’s all good, everything’s okay.
  • sugoi: wow! amazing!
  • chizu: map (surprisingly common!)
  • gomi bako: trash can (surprisingly rare!)
  • A bunch of handy train words, including tsugi (next), hidari (left), migi right, eki (station), and noriba (platform). Useful for learning which door (left or right) will open at the next station.
  • nimotsu (luggage) and omoi (heavy)
  • ichimai (one), nimai (two), sanmai (three): counters for flat things, like…
  • kippu: ticket (this is one of my favorite Japanese words to say. It’s just fun.)
  • iriguchi (entrance) and deguchi (exit) — I even learned the kanji for these, since we encountered them so often
  • oki (big) and chiisai (small) — I also learned kanji for these, primarily from toilets. You can select a big flush or a small flush based on the kanji labels.
  • kore o, onegai shimasu: this one(s), please — this was my generic way to indicate that I wanted to purchase something.
  • shita (under) and mae (in front of, before) and ue ni (up, above) and shita e (down, lit. “towards under”)
  • shite imasu: know
  • panfuretto: brochure (from “pamphlet”?)
  • mizu: water
  • tori: bird
  • kaieru: frog
  • chou: butterfly
  • taki: waterfall
  • zembu: all
  • itsumo: always
  • nani mo nai: nothing (lit. “what more not”)

There are far, far more that we used (consulting our phrasebooks frequently), but these are the ones that stuck with me. There’s nothing like living it to provide a great incentive to learn it!

The Great Southern California ShakeOut

I attended an excellent lecture this evening by Dr. Lucy Jones of the USGS titled, “The Science Behind the ShakeOut.” The Great Southern California ShakeOut is an exercise that will involve millions of southern California residents and responders in simulating a magnitude 7.8 earthquake at 10:00 a.m. on November 13, 2008. The scenario is pretty dramatic, but was deliberately chosen not to be the worst-case scenario; the goal is for the exercise to feel realistic enough to send a “this could really happen” message. Participants are encouraged to plan out how to get messages to friends and relatives in the aftermath of the quake (tip: text messages are more likely to get through than live phone calls), how to survive (stock up on water!), and to do a thorough check of what could fall/ignite/explode in the house.

The simulation videos are pretty fascinating (and disturbing). The earthquake originates south of L.A. but quickly propagates northward up the San Andreas, then gets “stuck” in the L.A. basin as the thickly piled sediment floor rattles around like jello for an estimated 55 seconds. (The 1994 Northridge earthquake lasted a grand total of 7 seconds.) Likely damages include:

  • Power lines crossing the San Andreas will be severed. This will trigger a cascade of failures that will take out the entire West Coast power grid. Interestingly, we will probably lose power 20-30 seconds before the quake reaches L.A.—a kind of “early warning” system.
  • Water crossing the fault will be disrupted. This is the most severe threat to post-quake survival, since the water distribution system is mostly concrete, quite old, and has little likelihood of being retrofitted to be more robust, and because humans don’t live very long without water. And we live in a desert…
  • On the other hand, our lack of water means that the chance of soil liquefaction (scary thought) is low.
  • Landslides will be rampant, causing damage and blocking roads.
  • Natural gas and gasoline pipelines crossing the fault will be severed. So will fiber optics and telecom lines. Just about all of our incoming lines and pipes of this sort cross the San Andreas somewhere and are therefore vulnerable.
  • Roads and rail lines crossing the fault will be broken. Fortunately, heavy investment in bridge retrofitting since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake has reduced the chance of bridge failure in the major highways.
  • 1 in 16 buildings will be “significantly damaged” (defined as incurring damage that would cost more than 10% of the replacement value to correct).
  • 133,000 houses will be burnt due to post-quake fires.
  • $213 billion in damages is expected.
  • There will be 53,000 injuries and 1,800 deaths. The latter apparently is quite a small number for a quake of this magnitude, due to increased building safety codes and other existing preparations.
  • Yes, this really isn’t the worst-case scenario. It assumes no Santa Ana winds (that would spread fires much further) and that the quake doesn’t propagate much further north than the San Fernando Valley. It also does not account for any damages that would occur due to the (probably large and several) aftershocks.

After the quake, we are likely to experience “rolling light-ups”, in contrast to rolling black-outs; each block will get a couple of hours of electricity per day, at rotating times, as the electricity comes back up to speed.

Overall, the talk was full of fascinating detail, and it’s clear that they’ve invested a lot of effort in defining the simulation scenario details. Many of the estimated numbers are the result of multiple independent teams making estimates and then pooling them together, to increase the reliability of the estimates. The likely outcome is sobering, and this isn’t a low-probability event; large quakes happen on the San Andreas about every 100-150 years. The last large one at the south end (where this scenario originates) was in 1685.

I signed up for the ShakeOut a few months ago, out of curiosity. Now I’m even more motivated to get around to preparing an actual earthquake kit and stocking up on water—and planning how I would get word out to friends and family to assure them of my survival.

Productivity in Writing

I’ve tackled a few large writing projects over the past few years. Because I am a geek, I wrote a script that tallied the number of words I’d written every 15 minutes during each project. Because I am a scientist, I’ve analyzed the results and determined that, in each case, very different behavior is evident.

Among other things, writing my dissertation in 2001-2002 was an exercise in pure, undiluted focus. For several months, I did little but wake up, eat, write, sleep, repeat and repeat and repeat.

There are some gaps in November and December due to working on job applications and otherwise being distracted. The gap in February occurred when I fell victim to some horrible contagion that had me flat on my back for days, stole my voice, and forced me to reschedule a job interview. But from March to mid-May, it was smooth sailing. As my deadline approached, you can see the slope increasing until, near the end of May, I submitted the dissertation to my committee members for their review. I defended in June, made some revisions, and finally Phinished in July.

However, that smooth exponential behavior was not observed while working on my Master’s thesis in 2008:

Progress occurred in a very discontinuous way, because this time I was fitting writing time around my work schedule, mostly on weekends. I learned first-hand how hard it is to write a large document when each time you return to it, you have to invest significant effort in re-acquiring your train of thought. (The large gap in late May cannot, however, be blamed on work, and was instead due to a fabulous trip to Japan.) Writing also had to compete with coursework for my attention until early May. But it wasn’t only the time constraints that slowed me down. My job already involves a lot of technical writing, and I often found that at the end of the day the writing part of me felt drained dry, with little left over for more technical composition. Sure, the dissertation was much longer than the thesis… but sometimes it felt like writing the thesis took even more determination and willpower to bring it into being.

It’s interesting to contrast both of these to my productivity during November 2006, in which I tackled a work of fiction. National Novel Writing Month challenges you to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Now, my dissertation was just over 50,000 words, so I knew it was theoretically possible–except that I’d had much more than a month to write it. Of course, writing fiction is a whole different ballgame, unfettered by factual reporting and experimental results. Since the goal is to produce a certain number of words, rather than a coherent document about a research project, it’s much easier to break it down into equally sized daily word count targets, which we see reflected in the plot:

This one is much better fit by a linear trend than an exponential one, indicating almost no procrastination that would otherwise necessitate a final push. But “procrastination” is a deceptive term. Exponential productivity in writing a thesis or dissertation is not necessarily a result of procrastination; you can’t really split up the final goal into tiny daily chunks because it’s hard (or impossible) to define what the final product should look like until you’re already there. Outlines are helpful, but no one can predict how many words it will take to address each point you need to make. Overall, I learned that if the goal is raw, regular productivity, then I can meet it, at least for a month (even working around a full-time job and the hardest class I ever took at USC!). On the other hand, if I’m attempting thoughtful, substantial, technical composition, then I do best with solid uninterrupted chunks of time. This definitely isn’t a place where I can work wonders while multitasking!

Geocache and Geoseek

This is my second post in the Kiri Learns to Use Technology Ten Years After Everyone Else series (previously: iPods). Due to an exceedingly generous friend, I now have my own GPS unit. That means I can join all the cool kids at and play technological hide-and-seek!

I set out today at about 4 p.m., equipped with GPS unit, camera, sunglasses, water, notebook, pen, wallet, and iPod Shuffle. Well, first I spent a little while fiddling with the GPS unit to learn its interface. I pushed buttons for a while until I figured out what each one did, and what kind of information the unit could provide (all sorts!). I then fiddled with it some more until I figured out how to set a “waypoint”, which I named HOME (always nice to be able to get back to where you started). I was impressed at how intuitive the interface turned out to be; I am an inveterate manual-reader, but since I did not have a manual, I had to learn by trial and error. This actually worked quite well, which I attribute to good interface design. I reset the current trip memory to start fresh from HOME and set off walking.

My first target was a benchmark, used for surveying purposes. I had only a dim idea of what one might look like, but I decided to see if I could find it. It turns out that EV2479 is only about four blocks from my house. I walked along the sidewalk, staring down at the GPS unit, until I reached the specified coordinates, then looked around. Nothing. I found an interesting plaque dedicating a tree to a couple that had passed away and a metal label on a streetlight about 3 inches off the ground, but nothing that looked like a benchmark. After a while, I gave up and kept walking along the road, until (naturally), I almost walked over the benchmark. It wasn’t where it was supposed to be — but the webpage does note that “the horizontal coordinates were scaled from a topographic map” and indeed, the latitude was correct but the longitude was off by 0.026 minutes.

Next, I decided to tackle a real geocache. The closest one to my house ended up not working out; there were too many people walking around, and I gather that part of geocaching etiquette is to not be obvious about what you are doing, so that the non-geocaching folks (referred to, of course, as “muggles”) don’t get curious and come steal/vandalize/enjoy the cache. However, while looking around, I did encounter an awesome praying mantis. They were right about interesting serendipitous discoveries while geoseeking!

After a nice long walk, I finally found my first real geocache. I reached the location and sat down on a rock to puzzle out the clue for where the cache would be hidden. Unlike the benchmark, I didn’t even have a fuzzy idea of what I was looking for, except that it would not be in plain sight. I got up and explored trees, bushes, rocks, and the railroad ties that were erected all along the jogging path. Finally, I sat back down on the same rock and at some point realized that I was literally sitting next to the cache (revealed due to the unnatural way some dead weeds were positioned). (I’m being a little vague so as not to ruin the surprise for anyone else.)

I rolled a rock over and found that the inside had been hollowed out and capped! I opened it and found a log and a tiny ziplock with “treasure” inside. The log not only had names and dates, but it seems that some people have custom stickers made up, and others even have customized stamps. I added my name and the date to the log. I believe the tradition is that you can take a piece of treasure if you replace it with something similarly small and fun, but I was content just to look and replace everything. It took me a little while, as I had to replace it in between joggers and people pushing strollers and a horseback rider passing by. But it was a beautiful evening and it was great to be outside… and away from the computer! All told, I was out for two hours and covered 5.5 miles.

So here’s my first find… and here’s to several more. :)

Presidential Candidates Failing at Prior Commitments

I remember being surprised to learn that U.S. senators maintain their positions even when their time is heavily consumed by other activities, like campaigning for president. I had naively assumed that any senator in this position would resign, since their heavy travel schedules and appearances at town halls and debates would surely prevent them from continuing to provide good representation for their constituents. Yet in the current campaign, at least, no resignations have occurred. Well, how much senatorial activity have Clinton, McCain, and Obama been able to muster over the past year? Wonder no more! tracks congressional activity, including each senator’s vote (or missed vote) on each issue that is raised. And here’s what we find:

Senator Votes missed in 2007 (of 442) Votes missed in 2008 (Q1-Q3) (of 196)
Clinton 103 (23%) 103 (53%)
McCain 247 (56%) 160 (82%)
Obama 166 (38%) 124 (63%)

In each case, it seems that the senator was absent a significant amount of the time, presumably due to campaign activities. On a typical grading scale, the successful vote rates would give each one an F in 2008. And there’s more to being a senator than just appearing for a vote; there’s discussing issues with other senators, debating and discussing, interacting with the voters you represent, and so on. I’m curious as to whether the citizens of New York, Arizona, and Illinois find this at all dissatisfying. These senators aren’t anomalies, nor even the worst offenders; for example, John Kerry’s missed vote rate averaged 72% in 2003-2004, spiking to 100% in Q3 of 2004. In what other occupation can you consistently fail to perform your duties, over the course of a year or two, be absent up to 100% of the time, and still retain the job? Still get paid?

I would expect that the senators would in good faith attempt to be present for the votes that matter most to their electorate, but if it comes down to a choice between canceling a public appearance or missing a particular vote, which one wins? Do candidates for office, who have other existing obligations such as representing those who previously elected them, schedule their campaign activities around those prior obligations? Were the presidential candidate debates timed so as not to conflict with congressional roll calls? I’m guessing that this was not a consideration. Further, the problem is aggravated by our continually lengthening campaign period prior to an election.

Our earliest representatives frequently spent six months to a year away from their families, suffocating in humid Philadelphia to forge a national identity and independence. Family emergencies sometimes could not even call them away from their positions as delegates. John Adams, where are you now?