Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Memorial Service for Old Needles

From the local tourist info email, this looks unmissable:

Memorial Service for Old Needles

Broken and bent needles are stuck into tofu, and a service is held to pray for peace and improvement of dressmaking skill.

Location: Egara-Tenjinsha Shrine, Kamakura City
Date: February 8 (Thu)

It's just a 10 minute walk down the road from us. Jules says she may take the remains of the needle that she stitched through her finger (nail and all) with...

Monday, January 29, 2007

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Dog bites man

And in other headline news today, some crusty 71-year-old oyaji in the Japanese Government refers to women in a derogatory manner:

"The number of women aged between 15 and 50 is fixed. Because the number of birth-giving machines and devices is fixed, all we can ask for is for them to do their best per head."

He's only the Health Minister, so that's ok. I'm sure his constructive intervention will help to solve Japan's demographic problems (the population is projected to crash by 30% in the next 50 years).

Straw poll time: is calling women "birth giving machines" less or more insulting than exhorting them to "whelp like bitches"? I wouldn't like to cause offence around the office. Or, indeed, at home :-)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

"The investigation" on Stern

There's a BBC Radio4 programme on Thursday evening (8pm GMT) concerning the Stern Review, from the same team who brought us "Overselling Climate Change". Here's a longer article about it. Should be worth a listen - especially as I've been assured that my contribution ended up on the cutting room floor :-)

Then the following week they will ask why doctors need to earn about three times as much as scientists, not that they put it in exactly those terms. Of course I already know the answer to that one: we're in it for the love of the job and to help humanity, they do it to pay for the golf and skiing habit.


So, I slept through my 5am alarm :-) and listened again instead. A fair chunk of it was the same old stuff that has already been done to death on the blogosphere, but they managed to find some interesting new (to me) points of view and it was well put together, so even those of you who are thoroughly bored by the whole subject should find it worth listening to anyway. Stoat is justifiably proud of his contribution: "for those of you with black and white radios, the red line is beside the orange one."

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Tenure denied

Before the vultures start circling, the headline isn't specific to me. Rather, this post is about JAMSTEC's new employment system, which is being introduced from April. It's easy enough to summarise the new tenure system: there isn't any. There isn't any tenure, that is. There's plenty of system, about 70 pages of it in close-written Japanese, with no English translation yet (ever?). The motivation seems to go as follows: there is too much dead weight in the universities with tenured professors who do no work, and anyway science is supposed to be an insecure career (yes, really, this was said). So the solution is that we (within JAMSTEC) will all have contracts of up to 5 years in length, which can be renewed or not at the whim of our bosses.

In practice, it actually seems rather similar to the present system at FRCGC (which was set up as a new institute 10 years ago without too much thought as to how it was actually going to work), although that was de facto and ad hoc, and this is now being formalised and rolled out to all the other labs. In theory there is something roughly touted as "tenure track" which seems to be modelled on the NCAR system. In our version of this there are 4 grades starting from post-doc, the promotion from each is a one shot "up or out" decision and even after reaching the highest level, you still only get renewable contracts and no-one seems to have much of an idea how these will be reviewed (of course as it's a new system, no-one seems to know how any of the decisions will be made - at least, they have not been able to tell us yet). In parallel, there will be some staff who just have fixed 5 year (or less) non-renewable contracts, but (AIUI) people in these positions can apply for a "new job" at the end of their term anyway (which in fact jules and I both did a couple of months ago, as we had reached the end of our initial 5 years), and as a result it doesn't seem that the process for promotion and renewal on the "tenure track" will be materially different from that of applying for a "new job" on the "contract staff" track. It is yet to be decided who will be assigned to each track, and why.

I have tried to tell the powers that be that if they want to turn JAMSTEC into NCAR, it will take a lot more than introducing (or at least ossifying) a shitty employment system. I don't expect anyone to listen, of course - if they had wanted the opinions of the staff, they would presumably have asked us at the outset rather than merely telling us after it had been decided - but the UK generally abandoned its experiment with widespread term-limited contracts some time ago. By the time we left our previous jobs, NERC had adopted a system of one term-limited contract to start with followed by an open-ended one at the first renewal, and I think now some posts may even be open-ended from the start. There is also a big new fellowship scheme for the universities whereby you get to transfer to an open-ended lectureship after ~5 years.

I wonder how long it will take for JAMSTEC to realise the mistake it is making. Actually, as has been mentioned in the comments previously, it is primarily a technology-based organisation with little background in science, so maybe this is a deliberate plan to keep us in our place.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Every week is "Asian food week"!

Walking past the Kinokuniya supermarket in Kamakura today, I couldn't help but laugh at the sign out the front indicating that they are currrently having an "Asian food week".

So what do they think I've been eating day in, day out for the past 6 years?

(Of course it's not really that odd to use "Asian" to mean "non-Japanese Asian", just as British people use "European" to mean "non-British European", and Tony Blair says things like "There is a dimension that concerns and frightens scientists, never mind people". But still, it provoked a hollow laugh.)

Two-body situations

There's been a brief flurry of posts about dual career scientist couples (well, here and here at least, and see also this thread). One thing that struck me was that it seems to be mostly the female halves of the couples are writing about this issue, not the male ones. So even though our situation isn't particularly exciting or noteworthy, I thought I'd add a few thoughts from my perspective.

Actually, I'm not entirely convinced it is such a unique experience for scientists (or even academics). Dual career couples are pretty much the rule rather than exception these days (except perhaps in Japan) and the need to compromise and negotiate on career and personal goals must be rather similar in all cases. But I suppose scientists are generally expected to move fairly often, and suitable jobs are probably more sparsely located than for say two school teachers, lawyers, doctors or any combination thereof. Therefore, scientists probably come up against this issue more than most.

The foundation of our solution is to work in the same field. Both of us were happy enough to move straight out of our PhD specialities (maths and astrophysics respectively) and do something a bit more useful. Our working hypothesis is that there's a better chance of finding two jobs in the same lab than finding two labs in the same location with wildly different foci. The first situation also gives employers the opportunity to make things happen in a way that the second does not. We've not worked in universities (except me briefly) but rather research council labs in the UK and the equivalent in Japan. It's possible that they tend to be more willing and able to accomodate than university departments, with greater emphasis on long-term employment and less on throughput of short-term postdocs.

Anyway, our experience is that our labs have always been helpful. Immediately after graduating, we weren't sure how things would work out and ended up in a long-distance situation but soon decided it was not for us. When I told my boss I was planning to leave, and why, the department director's immediate reaction was to ask for jules' CV to see if there was any way of getting her to join me rather than vice versa. We didn't take him up on it as I'd already judged that the writing was on the wall for my lab (after several rounds of redundancies it finally closed last year). At the same time, jules's boss was making efforts to find me a post at her place. On a couple of subsequent occasions when one of us has been a bit vulnerable in our positions (to put it euphemistically), the desire of the other's boss to keep their staff member in post has motivated management to solve the problems (which were essentially political, not performance-related in each case).

My impression is that in the UK at least, employers have as much of a problem finding and retaining decent staff as scientists have in finding jobs, so they can see the benefits of capturing 2 people at once and being able to keep them. If you are one in a gazillion indistinguishable post-docs hoping to work as a lab slave for ~18 months before moving elsewhere then I guess you might not have much leverage.

I can think of 3 couples in climate science, all 6 of who are fairly prominent although in each case I think it's fair to say the man has a higher profile (possibly, the females have taken on the bulk of childcare responsibilities, I don't know them personally). I'm sure there are plenty more I don't know about, especially since name-changing is relatively rare these days. Here's an article which mentions one of the pairs, in fact.

One thing that surprised me about the linked posts at the top is the number of times one person seems to have applied for a job and only later started to worry about what to do as a couple. Maybe that's fair enough if you aren't really sure whether you intend to stay together, or if one person's career is somewhat secondary (eg due to childcare responsibilities), but it's not for us. Given the high drop-out rate of scientific careers, I suppose it might be arguable that following a famous spouse around is a decent strategy - at least you'll have someone putting their weight about to get you a job. Anyway, we got married as soon as the question of joint career decisions came up (when I left my first job) and subsequently have not even applied for anything that wouldn't have at least a strong possibility of two jobs. As a result I guess we might not have climbed the greasy pole quite as high and as fast as we could have were we single. On the other hand, I reckon it's been more fun this way. There are advantages in combining two sets of office gossip, being able to attend two different meetings simultaneously (and only having to put up with to half as much bureaucratic guff) while quickly picking up the gist afterwards, and conference travelling is a whole lot more fun. Hence my post title - I wouldn't describe it as a problem!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Why I don't want to go home

The subject comes up with decreasing frequency these day, now we have been here for nearly 6 years, but there's often an unspoken subtext - "When are you going home" and "Don't you want to go home?"

To us, "home" is basically where the tandem is parked - we've not spent more than about 6 years in any one place since leaving school, and as an ex-pat Scot even university was in a "foreign" country" so it is not really obvious where I would "go" to "go home". But on the assumption that the questioner means the UK (and to be fair, it probably is one of the most likely future destinations):

This sort of thing is why I don't want to go home :-(

That's just a newsworthy example, of course. There's a whole lot of mundane stuff we left behind, like
  • the feral children who used to kick a football against our lab windows in the evenings (and put some air-rifle pellets through them until we got bullet-proof glass)
  • my sister getting her wing mirror kicked off her van for the second time (this time round she had even thought to keep a spare for this eventuality)
  • having rockets fired at us when cycling home all though the month of November each year (admittedly they were only fireworks, not proper munitions)
  • the razor wire around the primary schools in the neighbourhood - whether to keep the pupils in or the vandals out, I'm not sure
  • the bollards and steel shutters in front of every shop window to stop ram-raiders
  • bicycles getting vandalised even when securely locked
  • someone putting a brick though the window of our flat (recently, while rented out to someone)
  • prostitutes servicing clients in our lab car park
  • fly-tippers dumping rubbish on our drive
  • joy-riders dumping and burning out cars on the public commons around our lab (and occasionally starting bush-fires in dry summers)
Well, it all adds up to a pretty unpleasant scene.

Returning to the news story that prompted this post, people sometimes complain that Japan is institutionally racist - in some ways it is, and to its shame there is no legislation to outlaw such behaviour, despite the Govt having signed up to the UN International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination. But I bet that despite the laws, most Japanese people in the UK experience much more aggression and hostility than we have ever done here - being occasionally asked "can you eat Japanese food" and told "oh, you are good with chopsticks" is a bit boring but certainly is not ill-intentioned. Even though life isn't perfect here, it only takes a few minutes reflection on what we left behind to cheer me up again!

As if that wasn't enough, we even have sunshine in winter here too :-)

Monday, January 15, 2007

"This trail is notsafety"

"So we are not responsible for your life and what you do."
So say the signs prominently positioned at the start of the Yoshidaguchi climbing trail on Fuji, outside of the summer season of July and August. Needing no further invitation, we marched on up...

Ever since our summer trip, we'd been toying with the idea of a winter climb of Fuji. By last weekend, with my New Year cold having cleared up and the weather set fair we had run out of excuses so off we went.

Fuji in winter is a very different proposition from the lengthy but straightforward trudge that most people experience in the summer season, and I wouldn't want to encourage anyone reading this blog to take it on casually. There is only a single hut open, at "5th station" - this is the half-way point where people usually drive to and start from in the summer, but it's heavily snowed up in the winter so even getting this far is a moderately strenuous walk. From there it's an unremittingly steep and snowy climb up a further 1500m with no shelter from the notoriously strong wind, and temperatures easily dropping below -20C and possibly past -30C.

Due to circumstances beyond our control, we weren't able to make a serious attempt at the summit. Having walked up to the hut on Saturday, we found that it was shut on Sunday night, so rather than having a whole day to reach the summit and return there for the night, we only had a couple of hours practising crampon use up the increasingly icy and steepening slope (reaching about 2800m, roughly 7th station and still 900m below the summit) before having to turn back in time to descend all the way to the train station.

I'm not one to leave a serious challenge unshirked so turning back was not such a hardship :-)

Maybe we'll have another go some time.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Blue Eyed Salaryman

Just finished one of our Christmas presents. If I was thinking of writing a book based on our bizarre experiences in Japan, it's certainly put paid to that idea. There's no point - it's already been done, and done rather well. The book is the story of an Irishman who worked at Mitsubishi in Japan. Of course the details are different but overall it was scarily similar to our own experiences here. And based on the reviews on its Amazon page, there are a lot more out there who feel the same!

So, if you want to find out what life is like as a salaryman in Japan, you can save yourselves the trouble of working here for a few years and just read the book. It's well-written and makes a nice antidote to Charisma Man and the overly cute "Life in Japan" columns in the Japan Times.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Baer on Stern

Paul Baer posted his Comment on the Stern Review on Post-NormalTimes some time ago. I tried commenting but it seemed to vanish in the spam-trap, so I'll comment a little more substantively here instead.

Like many, Paul rejects the Stern Review. However, in his case, it's because he thinks Stern doesn't go far enough. It's a lengthy article which I recommend you to read and make up your own minds over, but I think I've got the essence of it here:
  1. Melting the Greenland Ice Sheet would be a "catastrophe"
  2. Catastrophes are things that we must do everything possible to avoid
  3. 550ppm CO2 leaves open a significant probability that the GIS would melt
  4. Therefore, we must reject 550ppm as a target
In a break from tradition, I'm not even going to complain about his climate sensitivity estimates, as although he does take some of the high climate sensitivity estimates rather more seriously than they deserve, that probably doesn't qualitatively refute his argument. Even with a sensible sensitivity of 2.5C, 550ppm CO2 could result in a large-scale melting of the GIS (based on my understanding of what people think). Of course this is likely to be a glacially slow process. but I don't deny it could happen in the long term.

My complaint is rather that he doesn't define "catastrophe" anywhere (except implicitly as "something we must avoid at all cost"), and therefore doesn't actually go to the trouble of justifying including GIS melt in this category. Nor does he attempt the difficult but necessary step from the idealistic but unrealistic "avoid at all costs" to any analysis of how feasible it is, and what the costs and benefits actually might be. As a result, the whole essay seems to be lengthy illustration of the logical fallacy known as "begging the question".

On a related issue, I was looking through the BBC news pages on Stern, and found these clangers in their summary:
  • If no action is taken on emissions, there is more than a 75% chance of global temperatures rising between two and three degrees Celsius over the next 50 years
  • There is a 50% chance that average global temperatures could rise by five degrees Celsius
I don't have any idea where they might have got this nonsense from, I'm sure it is not in Stern's summary of climate science, exaggerated as that is. I don't believe there is a single active climate scientist who would defend either of these statements, even if the second is interpreted as meaning by 2100 rather than the implied 2050.

From the same page, I also don't believe:
  • Crop yields will decline, particularly in Africa
and would be willing to bet against it. That is, I expect crop yields to increase for decades into the future, as they have done in the past (eg random google).

And more subtly, the alert reader will note in the following:
  • Extreme weather could reduce global gross domestic product (GDP) by up to 1%
  • A two to three degrees Celsius rise in temperatures could reduce global economic output by 3%
  • If temperatures rise by five degrees Celsius, up to 10% of global output could be lost. The poorest countries would lose more than 10% of their output
  • In the worst case scenario global consumption per head would fall 20%
  • To stabilise at manageable levels, emissions would need to stabilise in the next 20 years and fall between 1% and 3% after that. This would cost 1% of GDP
that all of the climate-related "losses" and "costs" are presented as the upper end of their uncertainty ranges, whereas the cost of mitigation is a wonderfully confident and precise "this would cost 1%" even though Stern's estimate of the cost of stabilisation is right at the bottom end of all published estimate (even John Quiggin struggles to defend it here: "a range of costs for a 60 per cent reduction in emissions of between 1.8 and 4.2 per cent, with a midpoint of 3 per cent, which is in the upper part of the Stern range").

Uncertainty is a wonderfully versatile thing in the right hands :-)

Well JQ thinks my quotation of him is "tendentious, to put it mildly". So you'd better go and read his whole post and see for yourselves how much of a ringing endorsement he provides. It's not really central to the point I was making on the selective treatment of uncertainty though.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Hot year hype

Some more drivel in the Indescribablyoverhyped, which starts off with
"A combination of global warming and the El NiƱo weather system is set to make 2007 the warmest year on record with far-reaching consequences for the planet, one of Britain's leading climate experts has warned."
I call bullshit on sentence 1. To clarify, I don't challenge the very reasonable prediction that 2007 could be the hottest year yet (with probability 60%, according to the Hadley Centre via the BBC, which doesn't quite reach the standard "likely" threshold but perhaps is close enough to not be worth quibbling over) but I do challenge anyone to describe the "far-reaching consequences" which will arise if and only if 2007 is indeed hotter than 1998.

In other words, I'm looking for a statement of "far-reaching consequences" X such that the proponent will be prepared to bet on X occurring if and only if 2007 becomes the warmest year on record. That is, if exactly one of "X is true" and "T(2007)>T(1998)" occurs, then you lose, since either set of outcomes is inconsistent with the proposition that a new high temperature will have those far-reaching consequences. If neither or both happens, you win, since both outcomes are consistent with the proposition. Any offers?

No, *I'm* in the middle

I'm sure I don't need to tell you as you've probably all already read it elsewhere, but there's been an amusing start to the year in the blogosphere courtesy of this Andy Revkin piece in the NYT concerning the "middle ground" in the climate debate. Predictably, RPJr (who was quoted in the article) announces his victory, only to find Gavin Schmidt (in the comments here) insisting that in fact it is he (well, the scientific consensus of people such as James Hansen, who was also quoted) who actually won. In fact the whole RealClimate crew has now responded with a "We are in the middle" post. Just about the only person who isn't proudly proclaming that they are the middle is the ranting David Roberts who responds with "I find it wrong in every empirical detail and utterly wrong-headed in spirit." OK Dave, if you insist, you're a fruitcake who we can safely ignore :-) Just kidding, honest. Well, maybe.

In the article itself, RP is quoted as:
"A lot of people have independently come to the same sort of conclusion," Dr. Pielke said. "We do have a problem, we do need to act, but what actions are practical and pragmatic?"
"What actions are practical and pragmatic" is hardly a conclusion, IMO it's little more than a restatement of the question, although I guess with that choice of words he may be explicitly abandoning any hope of rationality in favour of political expediency.

Anyway, in case there is any doubt about it, I'd just like to point out that in fact everyone else is either on the left of me, the right of me, above, below, in front or behind me. Therefore, I'm in the middle. QED.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

1 dies on Fuji: 4 die from mochi-eating

Just another typical New Year in Japan. One person died on Fuji, falling 1000m down the mountainside which is now rather icy on its upper half. I don't know any details, but we have noticed on previous trips that a large proportion of walkers here equip themselves with crampons and not an ice-axe, which I was always taught was wrong - in the event of a slip, it's the axe that stops the fall, and crampons are worse than useless. Fuji is a very uniformly sloping cone with no precipitous falls, but it would certainly be a serious endeavour at this time of year due to the altitude and exposure. We were thinking of attempting it ourselves, but chickened out mainly due to my having not quite shaken off a persistent cold. Instead, we wandered up a neighbouring peak and enjoyed the sparkling views:

Meanwhile, 4 deaths from mochi have been reported so far. This is an old traditional Japanese version of euthanasia-cum-Russian-roulette, when old people are fed glutinous sticky lumps of pounded rice, which at this time of year is typically soaked in soup just to make it as soft and sticky as possible. Actually, everyone eats it, but it's the older ones who choke. Of course I'm not suggesting that it's as hazardous as Fuji in winter, in percentage terms :-)

In other news, the Year of the Pig started with a group of wild boars attacking innocent villagers. I suspect that the villagers had actually gone looking for some wild boars to harass or perhaps even barbecue, but I wouldn't expect them to admit that :-) The past Year of the Dog started for us with a stray dog chasing us along the road as we cycled off on a short holiday.

I'm not sure I want to be here for Year of the Dragon.