Archive for June, 2011

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JR Tokai Chooses Station Sites for Future Maglev Line

June 9, 2011

JR Tokai (Central Japan Rail), which manages train lines more-or-less between Shizuoka and Aichi prefectures (as well as the shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka), recently announced station sites for their planned high-speed magnetic levitation (maglev) line.

JR Maglev on its test track in Yamanashi

Photo via JR Tokai

The line will begin in Shinagawa in south downtown Tokyo (where there is already a shinkansen station), head to Sagamihara in Kanagawa prefecture (a fair bit north of Yokohama), then to Kofu in Yamanashi prefecture and Nakatsugawa in Gifu prefecture before arriving near Nagoya. Running at speeds of up to 500kph, the new line is projected to cover the 286km route in as little as 40 minutes (current shinkansen take about 90 minutes to go from Tokyo to Nagoya, and standard local trains take roughly 6+ hours).

The environmental assessment of the proposed route is expected to take about three years, after which construction is scheduled to start in 2014. The route will use the 48km test track already built in Yamanashi prefecture, and JR Tokai projects the total cost will be about 5.1 trillion yen, or about US$60 billion (although confidence in predicting the cost of a 300-km, decade-long construction project seems laughable. My guess: take that figure and triple it).

I’m torn on this. On the one hand, ultra-high-speed levitating trains are quite possibly the coolest thing I could hope to see in my lifetime. On the other, this is a hell of a lot money to be spending on a massive project that provides only an incremental benefit over the (also extremely expensive to build) system already in place. Plus, the current plan only connects two cites. I’ve been to Sagamihara and Kofu; they are not bustling metropoli by any stretch of the imagination (while Sagamihara could be called close to Yokohama, the fastest train connecting them takes 35 minutes, longer than the maglev trip from Sagamihara to Nagoya). Some sources have estimated that simply converting the existing Tokaido shinkansen, linking Tokyo to Nagoya along the coast, would cost only one-tenth as much.

While I would love to zoom through the mountains at over 500kph, I can’t help thinking there are better uses for the money. Developing low-speed (~100kph) maglev for mass inter- and intra-city use would be a good start, as their lack of moving parts translates to lower maintenance costs, and they produce far less noise or pollution. This has already been achieved with the Linimo line near Nagoya, although because the line doesn’t connect major population centers (it was built for the 2005 World Expo and links the park with outer Nagoya), current ridership is low. Still, going this route could turn an incredibly expensive prestige project that few would use on a regular basis into an actual money-maker with wide-spread support.

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Satoshi Furukawa Heads for the ISS aboard Soyuz

June 8, 2011

JAXA, Japan’s space agency announced this morning that the launch of the Soyuz spacecraft (27S/TMA-02M) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan was a success. Furukawa is part of a three-member crew, joining American Michael Fossum from NASA, and Russian Sergey Volkov from the FSA. This is Furukawa’s first mission, Volkov’s second, and Fossum’s third.

The craft will dock with the ISS, where the three will be joining long-term expedition 28 with Russians Andrei Borisenko, Aleksandr Samokutyayev and American Ron Garan. They will then start expedition 29, which will last until December, giving them over five months in space.

Mission patch for TMA02M

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Elements 114 and 116 Confirmed

June 8, 2011

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry released an announcement yesterday confirming the existence of elements 114 and 116. Researchers collaborating  from Lawrence-Livermore in California and Dubna in Russia had announced their discoveries in 2004 and 2006, but only now has the IUPAC determined that their results meet the criteria to be considered new elements.

While still in their unconfirmed status, the elements were referred to as Ununquaduim (1-1-4-ium)  and Ununhexium (1-1-6-ium), but now the researchers will be applying for official names to be given. Over the last few decades the trend has been to name new elements after pioneers in nuclear physics (Meitnerium, Mendelevium, Bohrium) or important research centers (Dubnium, Lawrencium, Darmstadtium). #112 was dubbed Copernicium, so perhaps we’ll see a Gallileum or Newtonium.

This confirmation means there will be gaps in the periodic table at 113 and 115, as there have not yet been enough observations of Ununtrium and Ununpentium to meet the IUPAC’s criteria.

Interestingly, 114 (or more specifically, isotope Uuq-298) is theorized to be a potential ‘island of stability’, with a half-life significantly longer than elements and isotopes surrounding it. So far, the most stable example observed has had a half-life of 2.6 seconds, although an possible isomer (an isotope of the same weight and structure, but with nucleons in a higher-energy state) may have a half-life of just over a minute. In comparison, the most stable observed example of 116 is Uuh-293, with a half-life of just 60 milliseconds.

 

Update (2012 Oct 9): Elements 114 and 116 have been given the names Flerovium (after Russian scientist Georgy Flyorov) and Livermorium (after the Lawrnce Livermore National Laboratory in California), respectively. The names were officially decided on earlier this year.

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A New Guide to the Old Stomping Grounds

June 6, 2011

In 1954, Ishiro Honda dressed a man in a rubber suit and told him to smash his way through a miniature Tokyo.

And a legend was born.

Godzilla's Back! by JM Rocher
Godzilla’s Back!, a photo by JM Rocher on Flickr.

It’s been nearly 60 years since Godzilla first appeared on screen, but in that time the monster has become an icon of science fiction and pop culture, appearing in over two dozen films in Japan (plus an American remake better left unmentioned) and spawning an entire genre of giant monster movies. Today, people who’ve never seen a monster movie know who Godzilla is, and the giant lizard once famously placed #3 on an early 1990s American survey of the most famous Japanese (then again, Bruce Lee was #2).

For those devotees of the kaiju (giant monster) genre who want to go that extra step by making a pilgrimage to the settings and birthplaces of their favorite films, a guidebook is available that may make the trip easier. I just came across “The Monster Movie Fan’s Guide to Japan,” a 48-page guide by Armand Vaquer. Combining travel and immigration tips with a list of attractions in cities from Sapporo down to Kyushu, it looks like it could be a useful tool for a road trip. The guide is available from ComiXpress for US$15.00.

monster movie fans guide to japan cover

I haven’t read Mr. Vaquer’s guide, but I will add a few post-3/11 notes for folks planning to come here from overseas. Keep in mind that the people of Sendai and Fukushima (locales listed in the contents) have recently been through a real-life disaster movie of their own, and may not be all that thrilled to have tourists come and gawk. On the other hand, lending a hand will be gratefully accepted, but relief agencies are seriously overworked so please make advance arrangements (either from overseas or in Tokyo) with one of them if you wish to volunteer. People just showing up in wrecked areas saying they’re here to help (especially if they don’t speak Japanese), will likely be asked to leave.

The guide may have been written too early for this, but the shinkansen (bullet trains) were very recently extended to Aomori in north Honshu and Kagoshima in Kyushu.

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Live from Tokyo, it’s Saturday Night!

June 4, 2011

Tonight marks the debut of the Japan version of Saturday Night Live. It’s not just a coincidental name, they’re advertising it as the new Japanese edition of the American show. While I’m interested enough to give it a watch, I have a few misgivings.

  • Rather than starting off with relatively unknown young comics, the cast includes Sanma Akashiya and Koji Imada. It would be harder to find a more established pair of TV insiders short of casting Ken Shimura and Beat Takeshi.

Saturday Night Live JPN cast members Sanma Akashiya and Koji Imada

  • Japan doesn’t exactly have a tradition of political satire, at least not in major fora like network TV. Watching how most networks avoid stepping on government toes when it comes to investigative journalism, you’d think we were still living in an era where the shogun could go lopping off the heads of any commoners who failed to show the proper respect. There goes a major source of what made the American SNL funny.
  • They’re not much better when it comes to satirizing other celebrities, either. The big ad and casting agencies wield tremendous influence over the networks, and they tend to clamp down hard on attempts to make fun of any member of their talent stables. Celebrity satire therefore tends to be limited to very mild impersonations. There goes the other major source of what made the American SNL funny.
  • SNL has, with a few exceptions, been one of the only sketch comedy shows on American prime-time network TV for years. Japan, on the other hand, has many shows airing at all hours of the evening that feature comedy in a live-ish setting, where comedians bounce between performing skits and swapping jokes with each other while sitting around the studio. This is a format that Sanma and Imada have worked in for decades, and they’re really going to have to stretch outside their comfort zone to make SNL JPN stand out from the crowd.

That said, it could be good. The first guest host is Takashi Okamura of the comedy team 99, who can truly be creative and funny, while Ken Hirai will be the musical guest. Promotional materials have also mentioned that former PM Junichiro Koizumi will be a special surprise guest at some point (their PR department may need to look up the meaning of ‘surprise’).

For now, Fuji TV is limiting the show to 45-minute episodes once a month, which should help them to work out the bugs and keep the creative juices fresh. I’ll be tuning in later tonight, and I’ll let you know how it went.

[1 hour later]

You know, it wasn’t bad at all. Imada and Okamura did a  good job keeping the skits flowing, and they seem to have a solid base of young comedians supporting them. I’ll definitely be looking out for next month’s episode.

However, there was a major weak point in the whole show: Sanma. While Imada and the rest did a decent job of becoming their roles, Sanma basically played his one shtick in every skit, and it brought things to a halt every time, even when he was supposed to be a minor background character.

The 45-minute format with two music breaks gave the show a comedy:music ratio of almost 1:1, which may not be a bad thing.

As I was concerned about earlier, I didn’t see a whole lot that set the show too far apart from other comedy/variety programs. There were hints of it here and there, but they need to keep pushing. Less Sanma would definitely help.

Nearly all of them need to work on not laughing at their own jokes.

Pelting the studio audience with water balloons at the end was certainly different.

My first though a few minutes into the opening was, “I guess we know who the sponsor is.” Coca-cola products and logos were positioned all over the set, and they even worked the name into one of the skits.

Oh well, it has places that need improvement, but I’m willing to stick with it for now.

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Asahi’s New Colder-Than-Ice-Cold Beer

June 4, 2011

Earlier this week, one of my co-workers came by with a flier for a new spot that had just opened up in Ginza: Asahi’s Extra Cold Bar. The concept is that they serve beer (Asahi Super Dry only) chilled to -2℃ and… well, that’s about it, really. The selling point is that since Tokyo gets ridiculously hot during the summer, a super-chilled beer should be just the thing.

So on Friday a few of us decided to give it a try and headed on down to Chuo-dori. We arrived to find the bar packed and a 30-minute line of people waiting to get in. Not having anything better to do, we decided to wait it out, and soon enough we were inside and enjoying our sub-freezing beer.

So what does it taste like? Nothing.

Chill something down that far and the taste buds simply don’t react to it. It had the same smell and after-taste as regular Asahi Super Dry, but during the actual drinking there was no flavor at all. Also, while the glass was extremely cold, the beer itself didn’t feel all that much colder than a regular chilled draft beer. Still, after a day at the office enduring 38 ° August weather because the air conditioning has been shut down as part of this year’s energy-saving measures (what with four reactors going tits-up) , I could see the appeal. Still, there wasn’t nearly enough space for all the people who wanted to come in, and the only reason we were willing to stand outside and wait for half an hour is because the weather last night was so mild. Had it actually been the kind of day that would make one want a beer so cold it shuts down your tongue, we would have taken one look at the massive line snaking around the corner and headed for the nearest pub with climate control and room-temperature English ale.

On the other hand, the staff are very friendly and the food is excellent. The background music is low enough that you can have conversations with the people at your table without raising your voice. As an added attraction, they offer a free (well, for the cost of a beer) bartending mini-course where one of their bartenders shows you how to do a proper pour, after which you receive a card certifying you as a Draft Meister.

All in all, it wasn’t bad but I don’t think I’ll bother heading back. There are already plenty of bars closer to my office and my home that serve beer cold enough to meet my needs, all without having to stand in line. If you’re in the neighborhood you might want to check it out, but last order is at 10:30 so don’t expect to get in if it’s the third stop on your pub crawl. Beers are 550 yen for a half-pint (quite expensive for an Asahi Super Dry), snacks are 250-450. The Extra Cold Bar will only be open until August 31.

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Return to Saint’s Row

June 3, 2011

I discovered the Saint’s Row series after Yahtzee (of Zero Punctuation. If you’ve never seen his reviews, check him out. Now.) gave it high praise as a GTA IV clone that dumped all the angst, grit and cousin-caretaking in favor of flat-out ridiculous fun. Based in large part on that recommendation, I decided to give Saint’s Row 2 a try when it came to Japan.

Quite simply, the game was fantastic. I’d never played the first Saint’s Row, but the intro gives you as much backstory as you need: you’ve been in a coma for five years after a bomb explosion (an actual event at the end of Saints Row 1), and in the meantime the Saints have broken up and three new gangs have taken over the city. Most of this is fed to you in the course of gameplay, so the flow is very smooth. You then free your best friend from death row, get a few new lieutenants working under you, and get to work taking over and taking apart the entire city.

Like GTA IV, you’re dropped into a sprawling metropolis with miles of highways, streets and alleys to explore. Unlike GTA IV, you’re not constantly being pestered by your cousin asking to go bowling or to strip bars, and there are no relationships that need tending. You can pursue the actual storyline at your leisure (and you’re free to pick and choose which of the three storylines to advance), and there’s enough fun to be had with the side games or just screwing around to keep you occupied for hours on end. The best part about the game, however, is the humor. The team at Volition understood the nature of people who want to be let loose in a citywide sandbox for the purpose of creating chaos and catered to them 100% with side games that included flinging yourself into traffic, flashing pedestrians, car surfing, and dousing entire neighborhoods in raw sewage. Plus, the dialog was hilarious, and even just walking down the street listening to passers-by was a treat. But that was three years ago, and while I still come back to play it now and then, I’ve explored all it has to offer.

Today, I saw this: the Saint’s Row: The Third trailer (hosted by the Escapist).

It looks great, but then most trailers do. It’s by the Volition team again, so that’s a good sign that it will have the same high-energy blend of humor and action. Unfortunately, my 2008-vintage PC may not be up to the task of running it.

Release is scheduled for November this year, so I’ll be on the lookout for it.