Friday, May 14, 2010


The other day I was watching the news and they reported that a woman's body had been found in one of the canals. It was wrapped in plastic and it had been in there for over a week because whoever dumped it had done so just at the beginning of the Golden Week holiday.

They were interviewing one of the old guys who had been responsible for fishing the the corpse out. He kept commenting on the fact that the body had been dumped at the beginning of the holiday. I guess people don't look for corpses over the holiday, so by the time the found it, it was difficult to identify whose it was. He said that they put it in there at the beginning of the holiday, so we are only getting it out now. They put in in there just as the Golden Week holiday was starting, so you can see how that caused a bit of a problem. This guy pulled a rotting corpse wrapped in a huge plastic bag out of canal with something that looks like an oversized meat hook and all he can talk about is the timing of when the corpse was dumped into the canal with respect to his holiday.

I guess if you spend a lot of time fishing corpses out of canals you sort of get attuned to the little details and you begin to notice that some corpses really are more inconvenient than others and some murderers just don't have much in the way of decorum when it comes to timing and such.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


At the beginning of the summer vacation, I went to the meeting of the International Commission of the History of Science and Technology, which was in Budapest this year. I stayed in a small hotel across the Danube from the meeting. The venue was a technical university that faced the river from the Buda side. You can see the university in the picture below.

The conference was the biggest international meeting for historians of science. There were a fair number of talks that I wanted to hear but, because they were running ten or so multiple sessions, I wasn't able to see all of them. It was good to see some of my old teachers and colleagues who I haven't seen for a while and to meet, for the first time, colleagues whose scholarship I've been reading for years

In between sessions, and during a few dead periods, I was able to get out and explore the city. Budapest is both splendid and squalled at the same time. Here you see the parliament building, which is on the Pest side, from the turrets of an old fortress on the Buda side.

Budapest was once the two cities of Buda and Pest, separated by the massive Danube and from time to time making war on one another.

It's hard to get a sense from these pictures of just how huge the Danube is. In Budapest, the river is spanned by numerous bridges.

One of the most prevalent features of central part of the city are the 19th century apartment buildings.

Here's one that looks like it's from the early 20th century.

Years of communist rule, however, have taken their toll and many neighbourhoods are impoverished and the buildings in a state of disrepair.

With the new influx of borrowed money, there is construction going on at slow pace everywhere throughout the city. Here's a typical street that they've ripped up and don't seem to be in any hurry to refinish.

The Hungarians are famous for being a mathematical nation. I took this button panel in the elevator of my hotel as evidence of the mathematical disposition of even the average Hungarian.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Summer Vacation

I survived my first semester at Waseda. There have been many strange things to get used to but I has been going by so fast that I hardly have time to take them all in. Maybe a few examples will help.

When I first started I was asked to go to the clinic associated with the university for a check up. I was given a thorough examination and a few days later received a ten page report in the mail. The final conclusion was that I had a hearing loss and should go to an ear doctor and that I had high blood cholesterol (I had to look that Japanese term up) and should go back to talk to the examining doctor about the situation. A weeks days later I received a very polite email from someone in the human resources department saying that she had seen the report and would I please eat lots of intense vegetables (濃い野菜, the adjective usually means strong in the sense of taste or color) and do things like walking and then take another test in the summer holiday. I found it endearing that they would take such concern, but on the other hand I was relieved that I didn't have anything embarrassing that they could have found out about.

Our library is generally in a fairly deplorable state for what I'm teaching. I was going to set an assignment on eugenics, so I searched in the library catalogs to see what they had. In this case I was pleasantly surprised to see that they had many books in both Japanese and Western languages on the various eugenics movements. What was a bit peculiar, however, was that in addition to some ten or twenty books of modern scholarship there were also some hindered or so books on race, race purification and straightforward racism, mostly written in the interwar period. Given the situation, however, this is understandable. If I were Japanese in the 1920s and I was aware that someone had written books with titles like The Mongol in Our Midst : A Study of Man and His Three Faces or Our Testing Time : Will the White Race Win Through?, I would want to know what they were about as well. 

I have also had to come to grips with teaching undergraduates in their first and second years many of whom come from very different backgrounds from anything I previously imagined. I repeated realized that I was taking too much for granted. In one of the most extreme situations a student told me a week before the paper was due that she had not had time to read my long and detailed instructions on how to write a paper, but that she had decided to write her (five page) paper on the relationship between the role of determinism in the collapse of civilizations and the extinction of species and for her sources she had two textbooks, one on ancient civilizations and one on biological speciation and extinction. I told her that this sounded a bit grandiose and that moreover she should try to find some sources that dealt with her topic directly and which were not textbooks. Next, a week before her paper was due, she sent me an email explaining that she had changed her mind, that she would now write on The History of Astronomy and that her paper would have the following form: 1. Before Christ, 2. After Christ, 3. Modern Astronomy, 4. Technology in Astronomy and 5. The Future of Astronomy. I replied that this sounded like a bit much and, moreover, that I wasn't sure where she had derived this periodization but that it wasn't particularly sound. Luckily, in the end she turned in a reasonably good paper on the history of astronomy in ancient Greece. 

And finally, for some pictures and general weirdness. Here's the sign to the men's sink in a department store in Akihabara (秋葉原). The Japanese just means "face-washing" and is probably just an abrivation for the word for sink (洗面台).

In Ueno (上野) there's a shop called Powwow, run by some Japanese people that sell American Indian stuff. It has all manner of products of dubious taste...

... and a ridiculous sign. I got into an argument with my friend Nathan, who's half Maori, about whether or not this sign is racist. He maintained that in order for something to be racist the people involved had to have some clue about the racial conflict, the social context. He pointed out that the people running this shop obviously had no idea about anything to do with Native Americans, other than some fantasy they had concocted based on media and such, and they were totally obliviousto the meanings behind these things. I can kind of see his point, but whatever you want to call it, it's pretty creepy.

Finally, the curiously named Spo-Vege, short for "sport vegetables," which promises the power of vegetables for a body doing sports (スポーツするカラダに、野菜のチカラを).  


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

New Apartment

I finally moved into a new apartment at the end of last month. It is a large place for Tokyo, but it was reasonably priced because it's in an old building and about ten to fifteen minutes walk from a decent train station (and about two minutes from a crappy one). But it's really near the university, so it's fine for me.

A sign of the state of my Japanese is that I was able to do the transaction and set everything up entirely in Japanese. This included getting optical fiber pulled to the apartment and a number of calls to the internet company in which I managed to be an annoying prick on the phone while still maintaining all the superficial forms of politeness - a distinguishing characteristic of my phone manner with customer service representatives. (In the interest of the full truth, I should point out that this phone manner is not particularly effective, but somehow I find it too satisfying to change.)

This is the room that I was going to use as my bedroom, but it is just above a large road with a train track down the middle and is INSANELY LOUD. I have found that I can get some work done in it, however, so I'm going to turn it into a study with a couch and screen for watching movies.

The only green that you can see from the place is actually an old school Japanese style garden with landscaped lakes, little bridges, benches and the whole bit. It belongs to a shrine but it's open to the public and has a park for kids at one of the entrances.

Here's the little side street behind the place, which the main door of the building opens out onto.

Here's the Google Map location.

View Larger Map

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Dormitory life

It's hard to believe I've been in Tokyo for almost two months. Classes are moving at a brisk pace, and what with with prep, writing and trying to keep up with my Japanese, I haven't had much time to get out and see the city.

I moved into my more permanent temporary apartment at the end of April. It's tiny and although it has a bathroom and a small kitchenette, it's basically a dorm room. I don't even have enough space to unpack all my stuff, and my clothes are in stacks all over the place. But I just don't have the time, or the inclination, to move somewhere else at the moment.

I've got a fairly good routine down for now. Since I only have to teach classes three days a week, I am able to get in about two full days of work a week. This means that I've been able to get more done than I thought I would.

The library - shown above - is fairly good but still a far cry from great for the stuff I need. On the other hand, I can get whatever I want through interlibrary loan pretty quickly because there are a fair number of large libraries in Tokyo.

Waseda itself feels very much like a large private university. There is far more in the way of school spirit type stuff than what you get at most Canadian universities and it has all the quirks of a private school - such as ideosyncratic systems that are only marginally functional and which are justified by vague appeals to the "Waseda way of doing things."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Getting out

Deborah was in town over the weekend, so I took the excuse to take some time off and see a bit more of Tokyo.

On Sunday we went out to Odaiba island (お台場), which was once the fort protecting Tokyo's harbor and is now a huge man-made island devoted entirely to entertainment and shopping.

It's basically just one massive mall after another with rides, movie theaters and museums scattered in here and there. We went to Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (日本科学未来館) - which had some exhibits on robots and nanotechnology that were pretty cool.

There was also a quintessentially Japanese activity going on at the southern end of the island. There was some kind of organized event for the fans of idol girls to take photo shoots of their favorite girls. There were packs of older men, all in their 50s to 60s, with expensive cameras taking photos of different girls. The men all had little yellow ribbons that marked them as participants in the event and the girls were doing various pin-up like poses for them. There were also organizers walking around with yellow arm bands that marked them variously as organizers, security and such.

On the way back, we saw this man-hole cover in front of the JR Shinbashi Station (新橋). The caption literally says fire extinguisher plug, or cap. I guess it means fire hydrant.

I've finally got my office all set up. I needed a set of file drawers, a little table for my printer and a white board. I talked to various people about this but we ran into a bit of a problem with funding regulations and it was unclear, who, if anyone was responsible for paying for it, and such purchases were clearly ruled out by the stipulations of my research grant.

So me and the general office manager did what one would do in such a circumstance at any university. We went over to the building that the department had just moved out of, talked to the janitorial staff (who, in Japanese, have a much more elevated title), and together rummaged the place for abandoned furniture. The head janitor took us around to various places where he thought he remembered that stuff like that was, but he was pretty old and I guess his memory isn't what it used to be. Eventually, we did find most of what we were looking for and the janitor assured us he would let us know when he found the other stuff. Sure enough, the next day, the moving company brought everything to my office.

In the background of this photo, you can see building 11, which houses our department and the School of Commerce. The faculty offices are on the top floor.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

New Office

The moving company arrived this morning at nine o'clock, exactly as they said they would. After I witnessed the unsealing of the seal, they very quickly put everything in the front room, as I had told them, handed me an official receipt made out to the University and left.

I then made my way back over to the department. When I got there, I saw that the boxes of loaner slippers had disappeared. There were still a lot of slippers lying around, however, so I asked the guys at the front if I could go in with my shoes on. They said that I could either use the slippers or my shoes, as I pleased. I wore my shoes.

At the main office of the department, I introduced myself in rather formal Japanese, saying "Hello, I am S, who has been entrusted into the care of this department" (こんにちは、こちらにお世話になることになりましたSですが). This may sound a bit extreme, but it was regarded as the appropriate sort of thing to say at this juncture by the woman at the desk, who gave a little bow. I then asked if my contact person was in, but he had seen me come in, or something, and was already on his way over.

He welcomed me and took me to a conference room in the back, to sign the contract. While he was getting the contract papers, I took this picture of the main quad of the campus. The statue is of Okuma Shigenobu, the samurai scholar who founded the university in 1882. Somehow, signing the contract in my own shoes felt more dignified to me.

After signing the contract, I was given the key to my new office, which is on the top floor of the building with the other faculty offices. In Japanese, a professor's office is called a research room (研究室), and that is certainly what mine looks like.

I borrowed a moving dolly from the logistics company, and spent the afternoon bringing my research books into my new research room. My teaching books will arrive from Canada in the next few days.

By the time I decided to call it quits, I had everything divided into subject piles, but nothing really put away. I also had a list of things the office needed.

I'm not sure about the logistics, but hopefully I can get back in on Sunday.