Thursday, March 31, 2011

[jules' pics] Sakuragicho

Sakuragicho, Yokohama

Morning at Landmark Tower

The Sakuragicho area of Yokohama seems like the only place around these parts where there has been any town planning. Even the electricity cables are underground. A century ago some of it may have been underwater, and then there was the earthquake and WW2, which both flattened much of Yokohama. A few years ago was the last time I looked down on it all from the top floor of the Landmark Tower (tall building in lower picture), when the area looked like a not particularly successful SimCity game. But maybe most of the blocks are filled in now - the curved one in the lower picture has certainly not been around long.

Posted By jules to jules' pics at 3/31/2011 02:44:00 PM

[jules' pics] 3/31/2011 08:06:00 AM

A couple of days later... (than this)

The rings are large and James the mathematician thinks it was only about 50 years old. Being a ginkgo it could yet regrow, but its roots must pass through much of the building plot so I wouldn't be surprised if it gets dug up.

Poor ginkgo.

Posted By jules to jules' pics at 3/31/2011 08:06:00 AM

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What's the difference between Tokyo and Bahrain?

The answer of them is in a state of martial law with rioting on the streets which is described by the US State Department as having "experienced a breakdown in law and order", and the other has such a severe natto shortage that British citizens are advised to "consider leaving the area".

Compare the current FCO advice for Bahrain and Japan. People are advised to avoid all but essential travel to both of them, but residents are only advised to leave (oops, "consider leaving") one of them. Having acknowledged that there is no significant health risk from Fukushima (for the Tokyo area, remember) and even sneering at the French for their advice to leave which is "not based on science" the FCO still argue that the "potential disruptions" justify this warning, even though life here has now been basically back to normal for some time.

Incidentally, the natto shortage was explained to us today at work. Apparently there's some rumour that it protects against radiation. I'm not sure if that requires it to be eaten, or smeared on the body like sunscreen. I remember a similar run on natto a few years ago when it was supposed to help with dieting. Truly, a magic food.

Talking of magic food, I'm looking forward to a week in Vienna at the EGU meeting next week. We even have an extra day courtesy of Austrian Air who have redirected all their flights via Beijing to avoid the radiation "risk" of Japan and also shifted our flight day. If the "chew well before swallowing" Beijing air is really healthier than that at Narita, I'll eat my schnitzel. Well, I'll eat it anyway. I'm not complaining too much, the flight is annoying longer than it needs to be but we just got the last two tickets for the Philharmonic on Sunday morning.

Whither the "flyjin"?

Lots has been written about the exodus from Tokyo and the surrounding area. Some journalist coined the term "flyjin" for the foreigners who have left (gaijin who run away at the first sign of trouble, geddit?) but since "jin" just means "person", the term should apply equally to the Japanese who have left in rather greater numbers (albeit surely as a smaller proportion). See the discussion here for more on the origins and relevance of the term, and here's a whole blog on the topic. This article talks about the full hotels in Osaka, which is Japan's second business centre and where some companies have shifted (some) operations, and there are also reports of pregnant (Japanese) women fleeing to the west of Japan. There simply aren't enough foreigners here to have caused the reported crowds on the shinkansen and at the airport.

There is no doubt that overall a lot of people have left, and for may of them it was a logical enough decision - for example, consider a family with children, with power cuts, disrupted transport, yoghurt shortages in the shops and Tokyo Disney shut who found themselves facing an unexpectedly extended spring break holiday when the international schools closed a week early. While I reserve the right to gently poke fun at some who have run away rather irrationally, it did actually take a bit of work before I was completely confident that staying was an entirely correct decision, so I don't think vitriolic accusations of "cowardship" and "desertion" (which I've seen no mention of outside the rather febrile ex-pat community) are really appropriate. When you have government and (potentially) relatives overseas pressurising you to leave, it may be hard to stay put. On the other hand, for many people there is no really compelling reason to leave either, as the current (past) disruption is hardly major.

Anyway, what I haven't seen discussed is, what are the leavers going to do now?

If they are actually worried about the current level of contamination (which I've argued is basically negligible) then this is not going to go away any time soon. Plutonium has been found outside the reactor buildings (albeit at near-background levels - see the 28 March, 23:00 UTC update), partial meltdown is now widely accepted to have happened, and there is ongoing leakage of highly radioactive water. This might take quite some time to plug, since all the while they have to keep pumping more water in which is leaking straight out and adding to the contamination, which as well as threatening the local environment must be making life increasingly difficult and dangerous for those trying to actually fix things. Incidentally the much-quoted reading of 1,000mSv/h (I wonder how many know that that is 1Sv/h?) for the water seems to be merely the upper limit of the meters they are using, so it could be an arbitrary factor worse than that (ignoring that these units seem pretty inappropriate for the surface of a body of water). Ultra-low-level (but detectable) food contamination will probably spread substantially further and continue for years. At some level all agriculture is probably contaminated by past bomb tests, of course.

So when, if at all, are the "flyjin" going to come back? In time for the new financial year start on April 1, or the school year which begins the following Monday (for the international schools at least)? When various governments remove their (IMO silly) advice to stay away? Are they planning on waiting for the Fukushima problem to be "fixed", which experts are warning may take months or even years? Or have they simply re-emigrated in a hurry, never to return? I wonder how much thought they have given the subject.

It was recently asked what JAMSTEC's policy was towards staff who had left the area on the advice of their governments or otherwise. No answer has yet been forthcoming. In fact I still don't actually know if any such people exist, though I would expect there to be one or two. There are all sorts of special leave provisions in our rule book and JAMSTEC is generally a generously paternalistic employer (albeit horribly bureaucratic), so I'm sure they will do their best to be flexible. But they can hardly be expected hold jobs open indefinitely, let alone continue to pay salaries, for staff who have no clear commitment to return. And of course we are a govt-funded research lab that doesn't actually have any real products or customers. No-one will care too much if we don't get quite as much research done as we might have hoped (and the computer down-time is a great excuse anyway). For a company whose bottom line depends on actually making and selling stuff, staff desertion may be hard to tolerate. It will be interesting to see what happens when their patience runs out - if it hasn't already.

Monday, March 28, 2011

[jules' pics] Niwaki #2

This is what really high-end tree pruning in the proper Japanese way gets you:


However, just down the road from that photo at Zuisenji, chain-saw based, "progress" continues apace:


And even more sadly, the building next to the most beautiful gingko in our neighbourhood (previously blogged here) has been razed. Hope the new build will sport a solar-paneled roof! It is not clear to me whether the tree will survive but I suspect its days are numbered:


Posted By jules to jules' pics at 3/28/2011 01:15:00 PM

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Weather forecaster in forecasting weather shock

Well, it had to happen. The meeja demands a forecast, but the Met Office won't give one any more (basically because they realise it's hard to be both skilful and useful within the constraints of newspaper soundbites). Journalists abhor a vacuum but unlike nature they can simply invent something to fill it up, and in that vein the Torygraph has given one of these "independent long-term forecast experts", one Jonathan Powell, a free plug. I didn't find anything useful on his website (and certainly no evidence of demonstrated ability) but according to the Torygraph Article he has basically suggested that there will be weather this summer:

“Summer does not look as good as the last two years – it will be more of a ‘brolly and sunblock’ summer, with a mixture of good and bad weather.

“It will be mix of dry, sunny and warm days plus some cooler, cloudier and wetter conditions.

“It’s not going to be a poor summer, and will encouraging at times – but we will have to take the rough with the smooth and enjoy the good weather while it lasts,” he said.

To be fair, there are some hints at quantifiable outcomes too, such as no prolonged hot periods in June (but what is prolonged and hot?) and temps above 30C in early August. We'll see...

The great tissue paper shortage

Has predictably turned into a glut. I hope no-one was too seriously inconvenienced by it.

The latest shortage is bottled water, of course...and natto. Not sure how the latter qualifies as an emergency foodstuff - there are some who would dispute it is a foodstuff at all, though jules and I are quite partial to it on occasions.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Slowly leaking

And I don't just mean the power plant itself.

It's been interesting to follow the news management of this ongoing event, and particularly the slow dripping of information coming from TEPCO. I've blogged several times about how I don't think the risk is currently that serious for me, but that shouldn't be interpreted as any sort of approval of how TEPCO have handled things. They are clearly a fairly incompetent and dishonest outfit, with a history of maintenance failures and cover-ups, shielded from any genuine oversight by their cosy relationship with the government and the pusillanimous nature of the local media. There's plenty of evidence of their failures, eg here, here, here. Incidentally, and not at all coincidentally, TEPCO was also at the centre of the recent "amakudari" kerfuffle. I can imagine how the departmental "oversight" goes: "So, what is the current status of your maintenance program, TEPCO technical director?" "Oh, it's fine, Director-General Ishida-san. But enough about that, let's sort out the salary for your non-executive directorship position next year." It is telling that the Govt has basically been completely reliant on TEPCO for all information about the crisis, and it's been reported that PM Kan has basically had to resort to yelling at TEPCO executives to get some information out of them.

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, all the evidence has for some time pointed towards a significant leak from a reactor core. The radiation levels around the plant don't seem to be dropping much if at all - it can't be expect to actually decay much over a few days, but should surely start to disperse if the source is eliminated. There was a brief mention of neutrons being found some way off-site, which I think suggests ongoing and unshielded fission, long after the reactors were supposedly shut down. Remarkably, this news was only released 10 days after the observations were actually made, and it was only at that point that TEPCO said they would start to look for uranium and plutonium! And it is only now, following the unavoidable evidence of the recent radiation burns suffered from workers on site (who weren't even wearing boots despite wading through water!) and heavy contamination of the sea, that the likelihood of a leak is being openly discussed by officials (also here and here).

The accident looks like being upgraded to a level 6, though I don't think this is official yet. There is a de facto increase in the official 20km exclusion zone to 30km, as it seems that no-one will make deliveries in that area and there's not much point in living there when you have to stay indoors all day and the Govt is openly admitting that "the present conditions are projected to continue over a long period of time". Some modelling suggests that infants may have received as much as 100mSv so far, even outside of the 30km advisory zone. It's obviously a horrible disaster for the area.

[jules' pics] 3/26/2011 02:35:00 PM

party, originally uploaded by julesberry2001.

Ate all parts of the chicken last night.

One curious dish, which was a novelty to many at the party, was raw chicken cooked just on the very outside, with the inside warmed lightly to optimum salmonella growing temperature. At least we got to debate whether or not it was more dangerous than the water. Not that many were drinking water...

Posted By jules to jules' pics at 3/26/2011 02:35:00 PM

More transport plumes

Ignacio has been busy generating more analyses of the transport around Fukushima.

The first plot here is the transport from Fukushima based on NCEP winds, I think this was for about one week ago, maybe 17-19 March, and it doesn't look like it includes anything detailed about concentrations, just an idealised calculation showing the direction of travel:

And this second picture is not a west-travelling plume, but rather a back-calculation showing where the air in Tokyo (at 23:00 on 26 March) will have come from, with the colour coding representing age (eg some of the air was near the China coast 24h previously to arriving in Tokyo):

So we can still expect most of whatever is floating around up there around the reactors, to be heading out to sea. On the other hand, obviously some stuff has spread inland. I wonder if the reality may be a little more diffusive than this modelling suggests...

Friday, March 25, 2011

Power cuts cut (for now)

Well, the power cuts have turned out to be rather less frequent than threatened. It seems that people have no problem turning off a few lights (including the wholly unnecessary ones on millions of automatic vending machines) when asked politely. All the weekend/holiday slots seem to be quite reliably cancelled, as have been the ones that are marked as "possible" (starred) on the calendar. We had a brief cut last night, but it was only a bit over an hour, not the expected 3h. It's like a sort of comfortable version of staying in a mountain hut for a few hours, and since we do that by choice regularly enough, we find little to complain about.

On the other hand, it is spring now, still a bit chilly but close to the biannual trough in power consumption. Summer promises to be grim, and even next summer might be difficult, according to this article. Even if the Earth Simulator comes on for a month or two soon, I wouldn't be surprised if it had to go off again over the summer. We've previously come close to power cuts in the summers anyway, just due to the limited capacity. I'm not so bothered about the computers but I find 28C+ very uncomfortable for working so further A/C restriction may get pretty unbearable. I'll be keeping my eyes open for travelling opportunities! It's not all bad news though, the Govt might actually consider changing the clocks and giving us more holiday.

I should also put in writing, jules' immediate suggestion was that all new builds should be required to include solar panelling on the roof. Solar power is a particularly well suited to Japan, with the peak electrical demand coinciding with the sunniest summer afternoons. Including solar panels at the outset, rather than as a secondary bolt-on kit, should also reduce costs and provide a helpful boost to the industry. Given the extraordinary Japanese rate of house-(re)building, this could make a significant contribution in the near term.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Water water everywhere

But none of it fit for human consumption.

Except it is really, it just went over the threshold for infants which is extremely low. The Japanese threshold is 100Bq/l (Becquerel, yet another unit...) for infants, 300 for adults and the measured level was about 200 at one point, briefly. The thresholds recommended by Euratom and the IAEA are 500 and 3000 respectively (via Japanprobe).

Still, better safe than sorry. From now on I'm going to be drinking only...

Life is tough.

Radiation risks

Or, how I stopped worrying and learnt to love the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Over the past rather abnormal week or so I've read a lot more about radiation and nuclear power than I ever thought I wanted to know. Mostly, I learnt that there are about half a dozen different and incompatible ways of measuring radiation, though the Sievert seems the most directly applicable, being a measure of the biological impact. Even this is sometimes presented misleadingly with people talking about Sv when they really mean a rate, Sv/h, and vice-versa. There's a typical example in this horribly confused Yomiuri article which talks about the likely fatal effects of 3,000mSv/h, when they presumably mean 3,000mSv total (over some short time). Another here in the Japan Times reports a reading of "0.000142 millisievert" in the Tokyo area, which obviously misses "per hour". It's possible that the Japanese media is particularly bad at this: their style is often to spew out context-free numbers, rather than actually educate (eg crime stats of foreigners, which are never actually directly compared to those of natives, because they are generally lower on a like-for-like comparison), and adding in mistakes makes it even harder to make sense of.

Xkcd (which I copied here), while not claiming to be a reliable resource, provides a convenient summary of a wide range of exposure factors and outcomes. David Spiegelhalter also has a good article here about the risks of Fukushima. He links to this article which suggests a 0.04% risk of cancer (29,000/70,000,000) from a CT scan, say 5mSv, or round it to 4 for convenience. That works out (under the linear assumption, which is disputed but let's gloss over that for now) to 1 cancer per 10Sv, whereas this perhaps somewhat rosy-hued article pegs the risk as 4% for 1Sv, or only 0.4 cancers per 10Sv. I'll stick with the worse figure and invent the new(?) unit of the microcancer (µC), analogous to micromort, and use 10µSv = 1µC. (The purpose of this post, as some of you may have guessed, is really just to show off that I've found that Option-m = µ on Macs.)

If we assume a typical cancer incidence of 25%, then a typical day of life averages about 9 µC (0.25 per 80 years). Typical background exposure is about 3mSv per year or 10 µSv per day, which would imply via my conversion factor that this background radiation is responsible for about 10% of all cancers. So far, these hand-waving approximations all seem to hang together surprisingly plausibly.

So, what about the effects of Fukushima? According to this (governmental) web site, 5 µSv/h is the the ambient radiation rate at which official measures have to be taken in Japan. That value is at the very top of the graph, with the observed data (for the prefecture I live in) nearly flat-lining at the bottom around 0.1µSv/h, though it's clearly been creeping up in the last couple of days. There were a couple of bigger bumps last week too which have dropped off the graph now, but nothing as high as 0.1µSv/h. There is certainly some leakage from the plant going on, that is reaching us. Other prefectures are a bit closer to the threshold (the parent page is here) and Fukushima, for which there is a pdf of lots of stations rather than a single graph, has much higher readings in some places.

5µSv/h is 120µSv/day or 43mSv/year, roughly the limit for workers at nuclear power plants. According to my conversion factor, this should translate to 0.4% additional cancer chance per year, which would add up substantially over a lifetime. Now, nuclear power station workers don't have such significantly elevated cancer levels, but they also probably don't actually get that much radiation either continuously throughout their entire careers - it's the limit, not a target. So I'm not ready to throw away the calculations yet.

100µSv/h sustained continuously with no attempt at mitigation would amount to about 70mSv in a month, and this would certainly mount up to a pretty substantial dose (and cancer risk) over time. Some of the Fukushima readings are up at that level around the edge of the 30km "stay indoors" region, and I don't think I'd want to stay there indefinitely if the level does not drop. However, even in this case, it would not amount to an immediately dangerous emergency requiring a panicked evacuation. It may be reasonable to stay there for a week or two, especially if it's possible to stay mainly indoors, and hope that the situation will be brought under control in that time. Assuming it is mostly iodine, the half-life is only 8 days so it won't hang around indefinitely.

It's also worth noting that cancer rates vary pretty widely from place to place and lifestyle to lifestyle anyway. Japan has famously high stomach cancer rates, for example, probably due substantially to the diet. Of course it has low rates for other types and a long life expectancy overall, but the point is that these risks vary substantially due to various lifestyle factors, that people show no signs of wanting to change. Some people even choose to smoke, probably because they are nervous about a nuclear catastrophe :-)

This page suggests about a 15% chance of lung cancer from smoking, so if we assume a 20 per day habit for 40 years, each cigarette is about half a µC, and the day's tally is 10µC or equivalent to 100µSv of radiation, a rate of 4µSv/h continuously through the day. So it seems that plenty of people find that sort of risk completely acceptable.

From the public health perspective, of course, these figures seem much more alarming. Even a single microcancer per person adds up to tens of cases over the Greater Tokyo area. And I think it's entirely right that there should be regulations to limit the extent to which TEPCO and similar can just dump pollutants on everyone. Beyond the health impacts, it is also (at least potentially) a major environmental problem for the immediate area, if substantial contamination does occur (or already has). Farming in the area may be completely wiped out. So I don't necessarily disagree with the Steve Bloom types who are going on about what a catastrophe it is. However, I'm approaching this analysis primarily from the selfishly personal level, as the British Embassy requested that I "consider leaving the area". I have done so (considered, that is, not actually left!), and it seems to me that the risks are entirely acceptable to me at the current level. By this I don't just mean the actual radiation which is currently negligible here, but the threat of an increase should things turn pear-shaped. I've got several orders of magnitude to play with before I need to feel worried. I can still resent TEPCO for imposing the risks on me, but reasonably decide that I should stay here rather than run away (taking a small additional radiation dose en route) for some uncertain, but potentially rather long, period of time.

If we assume (quite reasonably) that pedestrians suffer about 10 times as many serious injuries on the roads as deaths from traffic accidents, and (as a wild guess) that a typical pedestrian crosses a road every quarter-mile, then it seems from the micromort animations (1 micromort = 17 miles of walking) linked above that a single µSv of radiation exposure is quite literally not worth crossing the road to avoid. I'm equating a cancer with a KSI statistic here, which may be debatable but doesn't seem entirely ridiculous. Coincidentally, the peak radiation rate in Tokyo a few days ago, that had the media in a quite a tizzy, was a little less than 1µSv/h (and this level didn't last long). Hope no-one ran home in a panic.

[jules' pics] Sorts of duck



Mallard, and Northern Pintail being chased by Wigeon, all in Hachimangu pond, Kamakura. I noticed that one of the Northern Pintails at Hachimangu is more elegant than the others, with a striking glint of green to his head, so I was interested to see on the internets that Mallards and Northern Pintails can inter-breed! Meanwhile, at home, we are still enjoying duck-fried potatoes, Ducky having been eaten at Christmas last year.

Posted By jules to jules' pics at 3/23/2011 04:44:00 PM

Jaw-droppingly bad media coverage

Fox news had this wonderful graphic last week showing the location of Japanese nuclear power plants:

That "Shibuyaeggman" plant looks rather close to the centre of Tokyo. Let's zoom in a bit:

There it is, just north of Shibuya station. Seems a bit strange to put a nuclear power station in such a densely populated area, where you might be more likely to find a live music club instead. Oh, actually, it is a live music club. They even have a disclaimer up on their website stating that they have no nuclear power plant and are powered by music instead. Maybe they had Blondie headlining recently?

But we expect that from Faux News. Surely CNN can do better?

Not really, no.

Charlie Booker has some more:

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

[jules' pics] More Ghosts and Zombies


At Yodobashi Camera Akiba, the lowered electricity-saving lighting makes it possible to photograph the Ghosts.


Zombies caught in the sunset at Akihabara.

Posted By jules to jules' pics at 3/22/2011 09:51:00 PM

Monday, March 21, 2011


Needs to be looked at full size (click on it). From xkcd.


Andy mentioned his flight back (on Friday) was about 75% full, so I went to check whether seats were freely available. Both BA and Virgin have seats available on all flights, you can only book at most 9 and 8 people via their respective websites so I can't say how many more seats than that they have. They aren't even expensive - BA in particular are unusually cheap, we paid almost three times as much for our trip last summer which we booked months in advance.

On the other hand, there are reportedly huge queues at immigration offices of people trying to get re-entry permits - you don't need one of these to come to and live in Japan, but without it you lose your visa on leaving the country even for a short trip. We just automatically get them along with our visa renewals anyway, there seems no reason not to for reasonably regular travellers. There have also been pictures of hordes (mostly Japanese, I assume) trying to get tickets at Narita. Presumably these people are going somewhere...

Tokyo, city of ghosts? Keep taking the tablets

No, we didn't buy an iPad, though we did visit the Mac Shrine in Ginza...the launch of the new model has been delayed in Japan. Yesterday we visited Tokyo for the first time since recent events. Partly, we just wanted to see if it really was as empty as this hyperventilating woman said in the Sun. And the answer?

Ginza Ghosts?

Akihabara Zombies?

It was a bit quiet, even for a Sunday afternoon on a holiday weekend. But we didn't have that much trouble finding some people :-) To be fair to the subject of that Sun article, it is quite possible that the whole story is a journalist's fabrication, as the British press are wont to do. There is plenty more silly stuff along similar lines, like the extraordinarily fortunate person who had a "very lucky escape" through being in a taxi in Tokyo when the earthquake hit, and getting out of the country a couple of days later. I'm glad to see he is getting roundly abused in the comments.

By the way, those bright green people in the top shot are not luminescent through eating spinach, but collecting for the tsunami victims. Remember them? They are still there, while the rest of the world flaps over the power plant.

One more excuse for our visit was that the UK Embassy was handing out stable iodine tablets, just in case we are advised to take them. I am sure the Japanese would hand them out too, but it is possible for foreigners to fall through cracks due to bureaucratic bloody-mindedness, and I was also interested to see how many people were around. In a typical display of British incompetence, the process was farcically inefficient, with two people who I presume to be doctors only managing to see about 250 of us in total over a 5h period. We had to wait in a room on the opposite side of the building where the pills were actually handed out, and one person came to ferry people from one room to the other in groups of 2 or 3 - the net result being that the doctors must have spent most of their time twiddling their thumbs. We first turned up about 2:30 when the queue was a mile long and not moving, so we went and did a couple of other things before returning later when things had quietened down and we only had to wait a further half an hour or so. (Jules said she thought she recognised someone from earlier.) If every person represents a family of 2 British on average, that means 500 were dealt with on that day (this article referred to 540 British Nationals, but may include other consulates and different days).

Apparently the Ambassador was on telly in the UK saying that most seemed to be staying, defiantly or otherwise, though I'm not sure how he could know really. Andy reported that his flight home was emptier than the one coming out (which itself was after the advice to not come). In contrast, the vast majority of the French seem to have left

Sunday, March 20, 2011

St God's vs St Arbucks

St God's on the Bluff may be closed for the duration but St Arbucks is still providing succour to the faithful, serving coffee and cake as usual. Kamakura is actually reasonably busy again this morning, which is an encouraging sign.

For an alternative take on what missionaries do in time of need, see this article:

What do missionaries do when their world shakes and crumbles? They continue in mission as best they can.

Thats what I thought too, but what do I know. Jules says she is considering returning to her Methodist roots!

The Wesleyan Centre is where she spent the night of the earthquake, incidentally. We have offered to stop by this afternoon if we can be of any help but to be honest I expect another couple of bodies getting in the way is the last thing they need right now.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

[jules' pics] 3/19/2011 04:24:00 PM

James, originally uploaded by julesberry2001.

Post Great Tohoku Earthquake James.

Photo taken this morning in St Arbucks, where the service pauses only for powercuts. contrast to the ex-pat Anglican congregation in Yokohama (as James already mentioned). After coffee we enjoyed the weekly shop in an unusually busy, but well stocked, supermarket and then supported the local economy by lunching in town.

Posted By jules to jules' pics at 3/19/2011 04:24:00 PM

Friday, March 18, 2011

Business as usual

Since the Great Tohoku Earthquake (as it seems to be called) and its aftermath is still attracting some interest, I thought I'd give an update about how things have progressed since then down in deepest darkest Kamakura and Yokohama, which are on the south side of Tokyo itself (K is 50km SSW of T, Y is about half way between the two).

Perhaps the most important thing is the trains, which were pretty chaotic at the start of the week, but are basically running now at between 50-100% service on most lines (and mostly near the top end). We were a bit embarrassed on Monday morning, when we arrived at the station to find all the JR lines in the area were shut. There had been no hint of this on the English language JR train status page, but it turned out that this page was not being updated at all! We have since started using the Japanese language page which is much more detailed and reliable, but I didn't think to check it then. So we had to turn round, go home and get on the bike to get to work. We had several visitors in different locations and with different schedules, so this caused a bit of a headache but it all worked out ok in the end. At this point our supercomputers (not just the 5MW Earth Simulator but two lesser ones) were all switched off to save power - initially for a week, but we have just heard they are off for the rest of the month at least. Horrors, we will have to think by ourselves for a change! It may delay IPCC runs for a while, but I think these were well ahead of schedule anyway and wouldn't be surprised if we still beat most other countries, so long as the power comes back at some time.

The rolling power cuts were announced over the weekend (12-13th) but didn't seem to materialise immediately, as power consumption is substantially lower at weekends anyway. They have, however, happened during the week more or less as planned. The schedule is presented as a series of overlapping 3h40 time blocks, and the actual cut seems to run for the middle 3h of this. We have gas to cook with, and even high power efficient LED lights from our bicycle (made by Lumicycle) so it's no hardship. All we lose is the internet, which is probably no bad thing! An unofficial projection of the cuts can be found here, and a map of the different groups here. TEPCO doesn't seem to release the timetable info publicly more than a day ahead, though. RIGC has actually been exempted from the power cuts - perhaps a quid pro quo for switching off the Earth Simulator. We have also heard that our Saturday night cut is expected to be cancelled.

On Tuesday we got an email message originating from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism which requested that non-essential workers stay at home for the time being, mostly I think to avoid overloading the trains. Well, of course we are entirely non-essential being mere research scientists, but again with a visitor having just come all the way from the UK it seemed pretty essential that we make use of his trip. I've not seen any mention of this in the news, which is a bit odd if it really is official - there is far too much verbiage to wade though the Japanese language MLIT site thoroughly but nothing caugh my eye. It would certainly help to explain why Tokyo is a bit of a "ghost town". We heard the commuter trains were hugely packed at the start of the week thanks to the reduction in service, but they should be mostly ok now. We were not actually discouraged from turning up - I think JAMSTEC's position was really so people didn't feel pressurised into attending if they were worried or had other priorities. Some Japanese people with relatives in the western regions have used the opportunity to pay them a lengthy visit, and it's possible that some of the non-Japanese employees have left the country but I don't know of any who have gone for sure (I've been in touch with a few who have not gone). We do know of lots of other ex-pats who are now re-pats! (maybe they are ex-ex-pats, or ex2pats in the new acronym lingo that seems popular in scientific circles these days). It was certainly quiet last week and we didn't get a whole lot done but we did made good use of Andy's visit and avoided some of our local power cuts.

There is plenty of food in the shops, as I posted recently. Some shops have run out of things in the short-term - it's worth noting that Japanese supermarkets are really small, with only a handful of each item on display, so even a small mismatch between supply and demand can cause a sell-out. There is plenty of food in general, and even the hot items get restocked rapidly (eg see the comment on that post).

The UK Govt's Chief Scientific Advisor gave some very forthright advice that there was unequivocally no real risk from the Fukushima power plant, which also seems consistent with all the informed opinion I can find on the web. It was therefore disappointing that the Foreign Office said those living in Tokyo should "consider leaving the area". While not actually an instruction, it is entirely predictable that it would have been interpreted in this way by some. For example, the Mission to Seafarers used this as an excuse to withdraw it's Yokohama chaplain, who also happens to act as the Rector for the local English-speaking Anglican congregation in Yokohama Christ Church. If the good old CofE isn't prepared to offer support and leadership to people who are genuinely, if perhaps somewhat irrationally and excessively, worried and upset, it rather makes me wonder what they think they are for. It's not as if anyone is expecting them to do anything genuinely brave, like the TEPCO staff who are risking serious injury and sickness in trying to deal with the reactor. It's not supposed to just be tea and biscuits! We considered our position, and decided that any pre-emptive move would be a ridiculous over-reaction to what is only at worst a rather hypothetical and implausible risk, that we could deal with easily enough if it actually happened. Currently my biggest worry is that the UK Govt will strengthen its advice further, which could put us in a rather uncomfortable position. I actually wrote to a couple of people I know who may be in some sort of position to influence this, though I suspect they are too busy to even read my email.

While writing this post, an email arrived saying that from Tuesday 22nd, JAMSTEC is back to business as usual.

Fukushima plumes (hypothetical!)

I should probably start off this post with a bit of a health warning, as it is based on historical data (ERA analysis), ie a series of past March conditions rather than current/forecast winds. But Ignacio Pisso, who works in the Atmospheric Geochemical Cycle Research Team of our institute (undergoing a website reorganisation, sorry) and blogs here, has produced some pretty pictures which should give some indication of the way things might tend to go.

First, some pictures of the typical 24h trajectories, these are three consecutive March data sets, 2007, 8 and 9 (actually a chunk of 20 days in each case, judging from the titles on two plots):

And also a plot of impacts, which he describes as a histogram of particles from the March 2007 hindcast, taking into account residence time:

I think the message is that the vast majority of whatever release may occur, is very likely to end up not going far and predominantly out to sea anyway. Tokyo is not marked on the map (and the coastline is rather approximate) but it is basically at the top of the first sharp inlet at around (140E, 35N) as you head south and then west round the coast, with Kamakura bit further away to the SW. Perhaps Ignacio will be able to answer further questions - this is very much more his field of research than mine!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Nonempty shelves

Popped into a small supermarket on the way home to stock up on tonic. It's the only place we know that sells 500ml plastic bottles, and actually it's a pretty rubbish shop otherwise so we only ever go in for that one purpose.

There were certainly some gaps where particular products had sold out, such as instant noodles and bread. But there was plenty of food. No-one is going hungry here!

[jules' pics] Monty Hall problem Part 3 - pigeon v. Professor

The food that is for sale is really meant for the big smug koi in the pond, but Kamakura is still devoid of tourists and the pigeons and ducks are clearly feeling peckish. 

Pigeon man

Whether or not they can win at the Monty Hall game, the pigeons, clean, polite, and friendly, certainly managed to win over Andy. 

pigeon stacking

The pigeon stacking game

pigeon head

Head pigeon

strutting pigeon

Happy pigeon

Posted By jules to jules' pics at 3/17/2011 12:41:00 PM

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Comments from Sir John Beddington and Hilary Walker

These people are the UK Govt's Chief Scientific Advisor and deputy director for emergency preparedness at the Department of Health respectively, and I think their words deserve more prominence:

"Unequivocally, Tokyo will not be affected by the radiation fallout of explosions that have occurred or may occur at the Fukushima nuclear power stations."

And it's not as if they have any particular reasons to cover things up, an accusation that could plausibly be levelled at the Japanese government. Their comments are backed up by the USA (which due to the military presence has its own radiation monitors) and also Australia.

Thanks to Justin, here is the full transcript. The JT quote above is actually not quite taken verbatim from the conference but seems a fair paraphrase to me (search for "unequivocally" in the page).

The whole story

So here's the blow by blow account of our uniquely unique experiences (well, us and about 60m others, that is) of what it's like to be a couple of hundred km from a major disaster. No prizes for getting to the end of it, I'm sorry to say.

Jules and I had both been in Tsukuba for another workshop, but she had left promptly to go and visit a friend in Tokyo for the afternoon whereas I stayed for a leisurely lunch at my favourite Tsukuba restaurant, "TonQ", and had just started off, planning to leave Hugo and Niel at their respective hotels on my way home to Kamakura. We were just a few minutes outside Tsukuba when the earthquake struck. The first we knew was that the train started braking quite hard and announced that it was emergency braking. The train was swaying from side to side, so I initially wondered if there was a problem with the track, but the bouncing around got worse as we slowed and kept on after we stopped at which point the penny dropped. We had felt the 7.2 earthquake a couple of days before during the workshop, and had had a couple of large aftershocks in the night, so it wasn't too much out of the ordinary. I did wonder if the train was going to topple over sideways, and then I realised that the whole line was high up on stilts and that it might sting a bit if the whole shebang collapsed. But of course that was never on the cards really. We sat there for a while, and there were lots of aftershocks, which seemed a bit unusual, but we didn't really have any idea how big it was, though it was enough to shake clouds of pollen from the sugi trees (small scale re-enactment here). I assumed it was just another minor aftershock of the previous biggy, but exaggerated by our location. However I now think with hindsight the suspension of the train and viaduct probably made it less violent than for those on solid ground. We could hear some of the aftershocks coming towards us before they hit, which was a little eerie, and one of them was almost as big as the first one. The train staff were great with regular messages (not that they really conveyed much info, just that there had been an earthquake and please be patient, but compared to British Rail...) and they also came through the carriage to make sure we were all ok. After about an hour and a half of sitting there, we were evacuated out of the front of the train and walked along the track to the next station (about 1km), where we got out.

We could see the odd bit of damage - some small bolts pulled out of the concrete, but nothing too dramatic or structural. Thanks to Niel's phone, I sent jules and some others a quick email at 5:30 to say I was stuck (and got an email saying she was fine, and was slightly surprised to get emails from the UK enquiring about my safety...). The station was a windswept and desolate place with not much in the way of facilities, I had brief fantasies about a fleet of buses arriving to save the day but instead we were walked in convoy (by the train staff) in the rapidly fading light to the nearest evacuation centre, which was a primary school in the local village. There wasn't much info and I wasn't at all sure what was going on, but by now we had discovered it had been a massive distant earthquake and not just a modest local one.

At the school we sat around in a draughty room, someone brought some green tea and there was a TV which I looked briefly at, but I was more interested in my evening's prospects for food and bed than the news really. There was no food for us at the school, and there was talk of a local business hotel which I pricked up my ears at, but no-one was moving and I wasn't at all sure what was going on. So I asked the train staff directly, and they said they were still trying to check if the hotel could take us. We also worked out (thanks to Niel's phone yet again) that we were actually within walking distance (6km) of Tsukuba, so tried to phone the hotel we had just been staying at....but the lines were busy/down, even for land lines. At this point I finally realised that the lack of info was not due to my own linguistic limitations, but rather that there really was no info to be had! It was actually quite reassuring to find everyone else was in the same boat.

Meanwhile, in Tokyo, jules had enjoyed a comfortable earthquake in a one year old building built to the highest earthquake standards. Apparently built on some sort of sliding mechanism, the building feels very sensitive to minor quakes, but in a biggish one, slides beautifully smoothly. Nothing at all slid around inside the building. Not even a book, or a cup... Her biggest personal challenge was trying to cope with the worry of her friends, who, being more nuts-and-berries than sciencey types, tend towards free outward expression of their plentiful emotions. In this relatively secure environment, jules recognised it as a similar slow feeling kind of quake to the one two days previously, suggesting it might have come from about the same place. However, now located further south in Tokyo, she guessed it was a bigger magnitude. Of course, this realisation just made the panic of her friends seem worse, as it was clear that they were all perfectly safe while others elsewhere were probably not. After the earthquake Widney performed spectacularly, and jules soon had information on the quake size and was replying to emails from family, to say she was fine, while I was surely not expected to be heard from for a while thanks to being on the train with no internet access. Mobile phone and land lines were close to useless, but people posted their status on Facebook and the like. The power of Facebook was now clear: one update - "not dead yet" - and you're done! Must sign up to that thing for next time. Jules being jules she had no clean knickers or toothbrush, but did have the power charger to keep Widney running all night and also a cable to keep everyone's iphones powered. Luckily there were no power-cuts. Everyone waited in the nice new building until all their group had met up or been accounted for (some had been en route), and then the six of them left for her friend Sarah's house (which was close by) around 6pm.

Back in the primary school in the middle of nowhere, when we realised that no-one present knew much more than we did and that the cavalry was probably not coming to our immediate rescue, we decided just to set off to Tsukuba on foot. We reasoned that a big town with many hotels and restaurants was probably a better bet than small village with nothing, plus I know people who work and live around there so we reasoned we might find some more support. It was hard work to convince the head honcho that us three gaijin should just head off by ourselves into the night. "It's dark! Dangerous! You'll get lost" etc etc but anyone who's lived in Japan for any length of time will be quite used to hearing that sort of stuff every time they fail to follow the set routine in the approved manner. It was about 6km pretty much straight along a main road, mostly lit (it was a clear moonlit night too) and with a decent pavement, so was not actually a serious challenge. It also felt much better doing something rather than just waiting around aimlessly. Apart from some bits of roof tiling lying around, there wasn't much sign of physical damage, so I don't think I really believe the JMA estimate that we had an upper 6 level on their scale (Tsukuba is somewhere towards the SW edge of the lowest red section below):

That rating is suppose to mean it is impossible to stand and many houses collapse, but there was certainly no sign of the latter. Lower 5 might have been more realistic. Most of the restaurants and shops on the road were shut, however. Those that were open seemed to have big queues outside.

We came into Tsukuba straight past TonQ on the way to the hotel, and were pleased to see it was open and doing a roaring trade. The hotel and immediate surroundings had suffered a power failure and lots of workshop attendees were camped out in the lobby and restaurant. Initially the hotel staff seemed pretty off-putting, they first asked me what room I had stayed in the previous night, before telling me they were full anyway?! Then they showed us a map of other hotels we could try. It was about 21:30 by now, and we were quite prepared to sleep on someone else's floor anyway, so we were not really tempted to head off randomly into the night again on the slender chance of finding empty rooms. We met Andy who did have a room and who said we could use his floor if necessary, so we went back to TonQ with him for our second hearty tonkatsu meal of the day before returning for the night. While waiting for a table at TonQ we did wander around and try a couple of hotels which were also full of refugees and suffering power failures, and I also made use of the wifi at a (closed) McD to let jules know what we were up to. So we were happy to return to Okura Frontier Hotel Tsukuba (where do they get these names from?) by which time the lobby was full of people lying around rolled up in bedding, rather like the inside of a yamagoya (eg). It seems that many people were not prepared to go up to their rooms as they were a bit freaked out by the aftershocks which were amplified by height. Even Andy said he preferred to stay downstairs. We were not so squeamish and shared his room between the three of us, which was pretty comfortable, at least for the lucky one who got the bed :-) We were on the 4th floor and had aftershocks about every 10 mins, so with that and the snoring I didn't actually get much sleep, but it was good to lie down for a few hours.

Back in Tokyo, jules was having the novel experience of helping to cook dinner for 7 people. She doesn't normally cook, but the horror of the non-stop disaster porn on the TV drove her into the kitchen. Fortunately, Sarah had a huge amount of food in, as her husband had recently visited a place called Costco, which are places like shops but they sell food in unusually large packages and can only be found in Japan by Americans. Soon they were all feasting on ham and stir-fry, bread, salad, rice and red wine. They also fed Mike, the stranded husband of a friend, who works nearby and was unable to get home as all the trains were stopped. Now it it clearer why it's important to stock generously for emergencies. It is not just for us, but for others. In an earthquake, we all swap families, and it is hard to know in advance how many visitors you will get. Two of Sarah's children were with other children's parents, as children in the schools were only allowed to travel walking distance to a home for the night. Mike's wife over on the other side of Tokyo was being Ma for a large number of children from a local school. After dinner the friends returned with food to the very new building that is also Sarah's workplace, which in a strange twist of fate contained some stranded UNHCR workers. As well as food, it was possible to provide sleeping space and bedding for them, since the anticipated guests in an apartment in Sarah's workplace were stranded at Narita Airport. jules didn't sleep very well due to aftershocks, interspersed by surprisingly frequent ambulance sirens. Only the next day did she learn from Sarah that the latter was usual, as a major hospital is located nearby!

In Tsukuba, Andy came upstairs at 6am the next day and told us that the power had come back up and the restaurant was operational! First stop was the internet for email and news, and Niel was by now being phoned up every few minutes by the BBC desperate for some on the spot reporting. I must admit we egged him on a bit. It got a bit much when the researcher asked Niel if he knew where his next meal was coming from and he said we were thinking of walking downstairs to the restaurant! I don't think that was live, more's the pity. Pancake breakfasts gave the day a rosier hue. We also found the conference wifi was accessible from outside the building, and started to investigate options for getting home.

We heard that some trains were starting to run again, but the details were sketchy, mostly coming from jules who was busily searching the internet for updates. The Japanese in the hotel lobby were glued to a TV of apocalyptic images but it didn't seem to be doing them much good so we amused ourselves by wandering round an eerily quiet Tsukuba centre. The station was of course closed, and there was only perhaps one long-distance bus service running with a huge queue of people waiting for it. There wasn't any major signs of damage, but the main shopping centres were closed (including our intended destination of Starbucks) and on closer inspection there were bits broken. Nothing really structural, just things like ceiling panels and broken glass, and tables with hastily abandoned meals.

One supermarket was open and doing a roaring trade, it had even run out of fresh baked goods.

But all the other shelves had plenty of food.

Around 12, we were very kindly given a lift in someone's car all the way to Toride station, which was as far north as the Joban line was operating. The station area was packed with lengthy queues, but we soon worked out that these were all people on their way out of Tokyo (having been stuck at work on Friday night) and were waiting to get buses and taxis home. We didn't have to wait long for a train towards Tokyo (Ueno station) which was not too full, but saw that the trains coming the other way were absolutely stuffed. At Ueno, I pointed Hugo off in the direction of his hotel (Asakusa, which was walking distance) and Niel and I continued south on the Keihin-Tohoku line. This was running very slow, so we changed to the Tokaido line at Shinagawa. On the platform, I used the local Narita Express mobile wifi hotspot to tell jules what was going on and to let her know it was safe to leave her sanctuary and come home.

After breakfast in Tokyo, onigiri (rice balls containing nasty surprises) were made and taken to the UNHCR for breakfast. Then jules discovered the power of Twitter! The trains were slowly starting up again, but the official websites were no use and the only reliable information was live updates from passengers on Twitter. So she sent information to me on which lines were running, as well as plotting workable courses home for all those staying with Sarah; they had all left by around 1pm. Then Sarah's children returned followed by her husband. Then my texts arrived saying I'd got to Shinagawa, and jules left the house just as the couple who had been stranded at Narita Airport arrived. jules' course home was fine. The trains ran fast, there just were not may of them. Finally we met in Ofuna station, and wandered back through peaceful Kamakura sharing adventures.

Kamakura was very quiet, so, to continue our newly inspired charity and generosity of spirit (don't worry I'm sure it won't last), on the way back from Starbucks the following morning (Sunday) we were moved to feed the poor hungry ducks and pigeons at Hachimangu - hungry because usually the tourists feed them, and today there are almost no tourists.

There is no sign of any visible impact in Kamakura. Lights and stock are a bit low in the supermarkets, but at least the comfortably-off people of Kamakura are panic-buying in style. Yes, those are bottles of Perrier!

Are there lessons to be learnt? Well, it is very rare that we are both away from home and in different places, and this made communication a little difficult. But it's not worth getting mobile phones for. In fact the internet was far more useful than telephones of either land or mobile variety, and kept working reliably throughout the event, though some pages (eg train companies) were hard to access and not very useful. The number of wifi spots make a passable alternative to a truly mobile connection - we can use mobilepoint in every McD and Becks cafe in the country, for example. And most importantly, don't panic! The communication and transport snarl-up probably caught up two orders of magnitude more people than those who were under any sort of real physical danger, so a lack of contact is nothing to worry about. The speed with which things returned to near-normality was amazing (only outside of the directly impacted area, of course - I don't mean to minimise the ongoing suffering). We found it very encouraging and impressive how quickly and smoothly everything happened, considering the scale of the problems.

[jules' pics]

Hello Kitty Armageddon, originally uploaded by julesberry2001.

As he packed to leave for the airport, Andy Ridgwell's cat got shot. In the head. Unfortunately, it was not dead. There was no alternative but to abandon the trip to Japan for the vet. The cat survived with one eye fewer and a bullet lodged forever in its neck. But that was back in 2010. The rearranged visit was this week. Andy knew we'd never talk to him again if he cancelled his trip, and he has funding for a project on which he needs our expertise, for goodness sake. Since the Earth Simulator has been switched off, presently we can do our science where we like. Today's meeting was in a nice cafe in Kamakura.

Posted By jules to jules' pics at 3/16/2011 04:29:00 PM

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

[jules' pics] 3/16/2011 07:40:00 AM

Sprouting House, originally uploaded by julesberry2001.

Spring is in the air, the birds are singing and houses are sprouting.

Having all your power produced in a small number of locations seems to be a bit problematic, so why don't the Japanese government make solar panels (or solar roofing) mandatory on all new buildings?

Posted By jules to jules' pics at 3/16/2011 07:40:00 AM

Monday, March 14, 2011

More stupid hype

Fears and shortages in stricken Tokyo

Fears? Well, I suppose there must be some people who are scared. But the city is hardly stricken, it's not even getting any power cuts because it is far too important for that (the cuts are planned for the surrounding areas, but they didn't happen yesterday and in fact I've not heard of any happening anywhere yet). The trains are certainly a mess, and when everyone runs out to the shops to buy the same thing, of course the shelves get empty, but there are no real shortages.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Don't panic!

And I really really mean it this time...

Obviously I don't mean to belittle or diminish the huge devastation and suffering in northern coastal areas, where the news is pretty horrific. But down here in the Tokyo area, come on...the media hype is just ridiculous.

I would certainly say it's not a great time for a holiday here, but even Saturday's somewhat ad-hoc train journey home would have counted for a good day on the London Tube. Info on the planned rolling blackouts is a bit sketchy, but it seems that the first one (which was supposed to start here at 6:20am) has been postponed. It's inconvenient for our visitors trying to schedule meetings and seminars, but it is not threatening in any way. It's actually a great time of year for power cuts, our electricity consumption plummets in the spring anyway as the climate is so comfortable.

I did take a picture of the "empty shelves" in Tsukuba UPDATE now featured on the BBC. (Technically that is Niel's pic not mine, but it's the same shelf.) But I we had to frame it carefully to cut out all the full shelves round the rest of the shop. I'm not sure that my first thought in a disaster would be Hokkaido cheese cake and raisin bread though. Perhaps it is the chocolate croissant shortage that has panicked the cheese-eating surrender-monkeys into running away?

This is what panic buying looks like in Kamakura. Yes, we stockpile Perrier for emergencies. But only for washing with, we drink champagne :-)

Come on people, get a grip. It's an inconvenience. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a catastrophe down here, and the best thing most people can do is to get back to normality as quickly as possible. Turn off the wall-to-wall disaster porn on TV and have a look out of the window. It's a beautiful spring day and the cherries are starting to blossom.

[jules' pics] Sunset this evening

Man and Fuji-san


peaceful Japanese coast

Posted By jules to jules' pics at 3/13/2011 08:45:00 PM

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Mildly inconvenienced

Niel (left) had a great interview on the Nolan show (BBC 5live). The phrase "post-apocalyptic" was used.

Hugo (right) suggested that "mildly inconvenienced" might be closer to the mark. Things always feel better after a hearty pancake breakfast.

Some trains running now, perhaps, though not quite the ones we want. Looks like we'll be home tonight somehow.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Earthquake fun

Yes, I did have the fun of a short walk along the track after the train stopped a few hundred metres short of the station. Followed by the rather longer walk to Tsukuba in the dark after it became clear that facilities at the primary school at Banpakukinenkoen (local emergency evacuation point) did nor extend to food!

All very orderly but I'm looking forward to getting home, it looks like the trains may start up again but it's not entirely clear how soon or completely.

PS Thanks to all for your thoughts. It's basically just disruption here, nothing like the devastation that I've now finally seen on the news.

[jules' pics] 3/11/2011 10:37:00 PM

photo.JPG, originally uploaded by julesberry2001.

Thanks for your queries. We are not dead yet, and that was not Tokyo's expected "big one". Different fault. James is stuck in Tsukuba, his least favourite city in Japan, having trekked down the trainline. I'm in Tokyo, and had a pleasant earthquake in a very very new building, built on wheels - the building just glided and nothing even fell over. In a bizarre twist of fate we have just taken food and bedding to the UNHCR.

Posted By jules to jules' pics at 3/11/2011 10:37:00 PM