Saturday, February 26, 2011

Not Exactly Dancing Fairies in the Garden... A Spiders Dinner Dance

Now I know that T-chan's not going to like this post - so apologies to anyone that's queasy when it comes to spiders, insects, or just the whole nature thing.

The other night T-chan came inside from our front yard yelling out for me to help a tombo (dragon-fly in Japanese) because it was stuck in a spider's web. Well, I dutifully jumped into my shoes and headed out to do the right thing. Only problem was, that in the 20 seconds that had elapsed, the spider had beat me to the poor tombo. Now this was not a small dragonfly - it's wing span was perhaps 8 cm... so you might get an idea on how big the spider was.

For those that are curious - the spider was an Orb Weaver (the common Australian variety is the Eriophora transmarina... for those that are REALLY curious). Anyway, they are pretty well all over the globe, but they're pretty prevalent here. They're not that dangerous to humans, but their bite will leave you in pain for at least a few hours. They are however, very dangerous to dragonflies and other flying insects.

In size, they're about 3-4 cm (1.5 inches) big... sorry, didn't hold up anything for a size reference. Thankfully however, they are most definitely outside spiders. Now because it was twilight, I had to use the flash on the camera. I feel somewhat guilty about doing this (even with my 250mm lens) as I'm sure it was putting him off his dinner. It was however, in my own defence, difficult to photograph him as he was actually quite mobile - most probably his stomach juices (or the arachnid equivalent) were getting pretty worked up at this point.

Perhaps the most annoying thing is that they tend to spin their webs between trees and therefore their webs are out in the open spaces.We are always finding them spanning 4-5 metres between the trees and bushes and house of an evening. Now I don't have a particular thing against spiders... especially outdoor spiders. They play a very important part of the ecological cycle. Though I have to admit, I do get freaked out by seeing 100's of baby spiders on mummy-spider's back. It's also a little disturbing to see these not-so-little guys suspended, as if floating, in the evening air. There's few things worse than coming home at night, only to walk into one of their webs as you walk from the car to the front door. I will leave the rest to your imagination....

I REALLY REALLY HATE that sensation of walking into a spider web at night... but I'm sure that dragonflies hate it even more than me! Then again, it's nice to go out for a dinner and dance date... just not when you're the main show.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Introducing the Hairy (Tailed) Son - T-kun

It's perhaps overdue for me to introduce the dark-horse of our family. Our hairy son. Who is also, seriously, half horse. His name... well... let's just call him T-kun (we can't have him having a real name, now can we). He's about 7 years old, and came into our family shortly after we were married. My wife is a crazy cat fan, and has had many cats back home in Sapporo... so it was perhaps only natural that we bought a pet cat. I have to admit that I'm more of a dog person, but was easily won over by T-kun's personality.
The First Meeting...May, 2004
Since that time, he's grown to be very much apart of our family - and a source of constant delight, and he does have a fair bit of personality. However, I have to admit that cats are definitely a universe-unto-themselves most of the time. Their attraction is perhaps something that will never really translate to the relationship to a dog for example - but in many ways it's a relationship between equals. I'm sure many cats would suggest that it's far from equality however, and will never let you forget it.

T-kun's characteristics:
  • Loves sleep (he is a cat after all)
  • Has a unhealthy obsession with Daddy's pants - made even more disturbing when combined with the first point.
  • He also loves his food, and despite the fact that the pet-shop said he'd be a small cat, he's proven both them and countless diet attempts, false. He's just big boned.
  • Will often sleep laying on his back...very strange to see. I wonder if it's because his belly is so large?
  • Used to love momi-momi... our term for his using Daddy as a pin-cushion in the morning (in a very loving way). And by that I mean, that was his own variation on alarm clock. And initially I did get very alarmed by it.
  • Makes a very loud goro-goro (the Japanese sound-ism for purring )... what a soothing sound...[see note below]

More Traits
  • Has almost no hunting instinct (unless you're talking toy mouse). He does occasionally catch insects, but will often just sit on the back lawn watching the birds playing (and teasing him).
  • Following on from the previous point - he has almost no ability at jumping, and by and large is a very clumsy cat (there's nothing more sad, or funny, than seeing a cat fall off a bed for no reason)
  • He's a indoor - backyard cat. We don't really like when cats are let to roam - especially when it comes to their typical tendencies to hunt. Yes - it may be denying their inherent hunter natures, but them are the rules in our house.
  • The other aspect of that is that he's no longer shooting with real bullets (if you get my drift) and has been micro-chipped.
  • He's only really been "free" a couple of times through a gap in the fence... and even then he just spent the night no more than 5 metres away from the front door (even though we were looking for him and calling out to him for a long time). Let's face it... he's a coward - but in a good way.
  • He is however, incredibly tolerant of our son's attention (and chasing)
  • He loves company, and will follow T-chan around, even when she's doing her Zumba.

He has beautifully soft feet - and very rarely uses his claws. I did have the misfortune of one day closing my clothes drawer without realising he was standing up underneath... which lead to his front paws getting caught in the drawer. Let's just say that I did experience the other side of his cute feet that day... though it was only from his initial attempt to get out of the drawer. Ouch. On both counts.

The best thing about T-kun however is that he's always there to lend a hand (or paw), and will often reach out his leg to touch your face or hand in such a gentle way. He is, after all, not only our hairy son... but also our friend in life.

It's for this reason therefore that it's always extra difficult to do our annual migration over to Japan... cats are generally not good at being re-located, and we can't stand the idea of him being in a cattery for 2-4 weeks at a time. So that always becomes a very important part of our travel plans... how to have T-kun looked after whilst we're away. I have to admit that we've relied very heavily on both friends and my brother to help out. You don't necessarily think of these things when you first get a pet... and in truth we sometimes wished we could have more freedom to travel. Yet - every time he reaches out with his paw... how can anyone really regret? 

Language Note: Japanese go absolutely nuts over words that convey impressions, or in this case reflect the sound of things. In this case, goro-goro is meant to sound like a cat purring. This sound-wording is called onomatopeia... but it's worse in Japan as these repeated word combinations are used to describe just about anything such as smooth = tsuru-tsuru, clean = pika-pika, and sparkle = kira-kira. Actually, the list is almost boundless - and I'm sure there are location dependent versions... and this most probably will be the source of another blog later on.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Shogi... The Art of War And Changing Sides

Today I was going to talk about something that I wish I could talk about a whole heap more. Shogi. Now, for those that don't know, Shogi (将棋) is the Japanese Chess. And the analogy to Chess is very good; at least in most ways. As with International Chess, the goal of the game is to checkmate your opponent's King piece using a turn-based sequence of moves. Unlike Chess however, you don't have a "white" and "black" set of pieces... for reasons I'll explain later... but rather you have pieces facing different directions. The pieces have a very close resemblance to those used in International Chess as well.... I will very briefly describe (where I've included the abreviated names and kanji):

Reigning King, or ō (王) and the Challenging King, gyoku (玉) : moves 1 adjacent square in any direction
 The Rook or hisha (飛)  : moves any number horizontally or vertically
The Bishop or kaku (角) : moves any number diagonally in any direction
The Gold Generals kin (金) : moves 1 adjacent square except diagonally backwards
The Silver Generals, gin (銀) : moves 1 adjacent square forward and diagonally backwards
The horsed knight or keima (桂) : moves 2forward + 1 left or right
The Lance or kyō (香) : moves any number of squares forward only (to the first obstruction)
The Pawn or foot soldiers, fu (歩) : moves 1 square forward only.
Shogi board in the starting position

Opponent pieces are captured by landing on them - however, this is where the first real differences comes in to the game. Unlike western Chess where captured pieces amount only to a score - in Shogi, the captured pieces can be re-used (or dropped back on the board) by the capturing king. In other words, the more you capture, the stronger your force. Now whilst this might suggest that wholesale capturing of pieces is the best strategy, it isn't. Indeed more times than not, it's the giving away of pieces in order to displace your enemy that wins the day... as the end-game is often a hectic orgy of attack and counter-attack with both sides trading pieces in a checking contest. In this case you also have to be very careful what pieces you sacrifice as they may be the very pieces that your opponent requires to win! It's because of the ability to drop your opponent's piece that all pieces look the same.

The limitation on drops is that the dropped piece must have a legal move available for it (e.g. pawns can't be dropped at the final row), they cannot produce an immediate checkmate, and for pawns you can't drop them on the same column (file) as another unpromoted pawn. Drops are a critical part of the game, and the key feature that distinguishes it from international chess and which makes it so much more demanding. And exciting.

On an historical note - the uniqueness of drops in Shogi I believe reflects a fundamental difference between Japan and the international chess communities. Japanese warfare has always been largely clan based throughout it's history (being largely internal in focus), and is therefore very much dependent on the relationships between clans that can span centuries. Loyalties changed in a much more complex way than perhaps was often seen in the west, and this dynamism is nicely reflected in the drops system.

Now talking about promotion... when a pawn reaches the final row in Chess it can be promoted... whereas in Shogi, when a piece (except the King or Gold General) reach only the last three rows (the promotion zone) they can be promoted. The hisha and kaku are promoted to the dragon king or ryū (竜) and dragon horse or uma (馬) respectively which retain their powers plus gain the power to move 1 square in any direction. All other pieces are promoted to an equivalent power of a Gold General. The Silver General becomes (全) , the Knight becomes (今), the Lance becomes (仝) where these can all be called nari which means to have grown or be promoted. The Pawn becomes (と) and is known simply as to. Promotion is purely voluntary - and in some cases such as the Silver, you may chose not to promote it in order to retain the diagonal backwards mobility. The promoted pieces are turned over to reveal the promoted kanji.
Example of "promoted" pieces which are turned over

One of the variants of shogi is known as tsumeshogi (詰将棋) which revolves around identifying how to achieve checkmate within a certain number of moves. In this case, the board only has those pieces that are important to the solution, already assembled in a particular pattern. The single player must then move his first and subsequent attacking moves into checking positions such that opponent must always be moving to escape check. The player must be able to identify which placements would result in checkmate in the shortest number of turns and resulting in no pieces remaining in their hands (including captured pieces).
Example of a tsumeshogi problem

One of the many difficulties in getting into a hobby like shogi is that it's hard to find English books that really allow you to get into it. They tend to either be too simplistic or too complicated (assuming at least a high level of understanding of chess). There are a number of books, but the Art of Shogi by Tony Hosking (below) is a good one. The other often quoted book is Shogi for Beginners by John Fairbairn (though I found this one to be written in a slightly less easy to read style).

On a personal level, Shogi was one of the things that was a good bonding point between myself and T-chan's father (who was really into Shogi). He took on the job of trying to teach me how to play... a challenge given my very limited Japanese. Still we managed ok. However, the hardest thing has been that there's no one really to play with back here in Adelaide when I came back... so my ability to learn properly was limited to playing against the computer (using Japanese software). That's a pretty bad way of learning as you don't improve by observing good play - only by trial and error. I have to admit that over the last few years since L-kun was born I haven't been keeping up with Shogi at all which is a big shame.

As I write this... I can't help but feel regret at not having been more dedicated... and that I've slowly forgotten most of the skills. I think it's time to re-invest the time.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Haircut time.... L-kun Tries His Hand At Hairdressing

Well today I had a haircut - and for the first time, L-kun came with me. He was a very good boy (if a little shy), but was very well looked after by our hairdresser (the subject of a later post perhaps). He was lucky enough to get a very yummy biscuit from the cafe next door (and Daddy had a delicious cappuccino as well). Actually, there was a bit of return-of-service required however... including some well needed hair brushing of Daddy's shoulders... a job that L-kun took completely seriously. Actually, one thing about L-kun is that he's actually quite a tidy boy (not that you'd necessarily pick that from his room, or the rest of our house that is).

(Sorry for the photo quality -  my mobile cam isn't so good inside)

If you're looking for a great haircut in Adelaide, try out Elevate on 206 Hutt Street, (Ph: 8232  8025). I'll give them a proper speel later on.

Cleland Wildlife Park...A Good Day Out

Last weekend we were looking for something to do... and L-kun chipped in with his suggestion. Let's go to the zoo. Well. We'd already been to the zoo, so there was one place else we wanted to take L-kun to. Cleland Wildlife Park, up in the Adelaide Hills (right next to Mount Lofty Lookout). The easiest way to get there via car is to go straight up the South Eastern Freeway and take the Crafers Exit (it's well sign-posted from there).
View Larger Map

Like the Gorge Wildlife Park that we went to in late December, Cleland is famous for being able to walk around with the animals. At least some of the animals. Actually, it's been perhaps 4-5 years since last we were here, so our memory wasn't that clear. But, we all love animals, so we were happy to make an afternoon of it. And L-kun was pretty keen to get in.

I'll show a few photos of some of the animals there... nothing too exciting. For example the Tasmanian Devils were looking decidedly sleepy... and not that devilish. If you're wondering, their names come from the noise they make (pretty awful really, for such a pint-sized mammal... and yes, they can also be rather vicious if you're an even smaller mammal).
Tasmanian Devil
One of the things you'll notice a lot is that there's quite a bit of the native wildlife that can be found running around the park... especially these little potoroos.

Someone sneaking into shot
Perhaps the one thing that Cleland was famous for was the chance for people to get up close and personal with the koalas. And let's face it - koalas are just so cuddlicious.
And Cleland has always been famous for your ability to get up close and personal with the Koalas... you can have a quick pat, and take your own photo for free during the "Koalas in Close Up" times (11:00 to 12:00 and 2:00 - 4:00pm as long as the temperature is not above 32 degrees). It's definitely not as up close and personal as it was at the Gorge Wildlife Park, however, it's still fun. 

And the Koalas sleep up to 19 hours a day, and basically eat (only eucalyptus leaves) when they're not sleeping. That's a lot of leaves.

Of course - not everything is as it seems... and you have to beware of imposters. Though I have to admit that L-kun doesn't exactly look sure of this new way of sitting down.
A Koala imposter

However - one thing that was a very pleasant surprise on the day was that L-kun had discovered the joy of opening gates for people. Not just his parents - anyone. Every time he saw a fence with a gate, he'd be off to open the gate. I know we should treasure these days when he is so polite.

Speaking of fences (but one largely without gates), the biggest fence in the world (supposedly) can be found in Australia. 5320 km long... it's not quite the Great Wall of Australia, but it's been an important part of our farming. It's purpose is not to keep the Southerners in (or the Northerners out)... but rather to stop dingos moving from the arid interior into the farming lands of the south east coast.

Dingo's... Australia (almost) native dog. Actually they came here from south east asia (where they can still be found in very small numbers), and have been responsible for the mass extinction of many real Australian native fauna. They were semi-domesticated by aboriginals, but remain essentially a wild dog (actually they're more closely related to wolves).
The dingo is the largest predator (ignoring the crocodile) in Australia, and has unfairly been given a reputation of being mean and vicious... however, the problems with the dingo stem largely from where they are in a domestic situation and interact and depend on people for survival.

Whilst they may not be the uncontrollable killers that they are sometimes portrayed as, they are nonetheless definitely hunters and carnivores (don't ask where the food comes from.... wildlife parks have a tendency to breed some animals that aren't used for "display purposes")

On a much more calmer note... Cleland also has a good range of birdlife as well.
Cape Barren Goose

Little Pied Cormorant

I always thought that the Pelican is a strange bird... 

And from one big bird to another... the emu. I know people will approach these to feed them, but for me, I prefer the idea of 10 digits well and truly remaining on my hands. I just don't trust 'em.

Apart from koalas, Cleland (like Gorge) Wildlife Park is famous for the ability to feed the animals (a bag of feed will set you back $3... but our experience was that the animals were more than well fed by the time we arrived in the afternoon. We still have half a bag left. Still - it's fun trying to coax the kangaroos and wallabies to have a nibble. Normally they'll oblige.

Another one of the interesting animals you'll find here is the Echidna... the Australian ant-eater. These are an amazing creature, and are known as monotremes.... mammals that lay eggs. Platypus (a close relative) also have this trait - and it's a very unique branch in the mammals evolutionary tree.

Whilst it may not exactly be a unique animal... the Tawny Frogmouth is one distinctive looking bird. And by distinctive, I guess I mean grumpy (and that's being polite). And I had assumed that they were owls - but they're not (though related). Their principal defensive strategy (especially when nesting) is to remain perfectly still and blend into the surroundings. That would most probably work if you were in a forest of Frogmouths... though the tawny colour an squat somewhat irregular shape most probably greatly aids in the camouflaging.
Tawny Frogmouth
Anyhow - that's my brief speel on Cleland. The park costs $17 per adult and $10 for children >2 years old. I have to admit that I used to think that Cleland was much nicer than the Gorge Wildlife Park, but this time around I'd have to admit to reversing that opinion. Cleland's great for going for a stroll in the Adelaide Hills, and feeding the kangaroos/wallabies is nice. It just lacks the variety of Gorge... but is perhaps a little closer to the original conservation theme. It's a nice escape from the city - but be prepared to mix it up with a lot of busloads of tourists as it's one of Adelaide's more popular attractions. And at the end of the day, L-kun's reaction says a lot.... "Daddy, can we come back here again!"

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Story of the Australian Sun Part 2

Protection From the Sun
The reality of summer in Australia is that if you go outside, then you really should be putting on a hat, sunglasses, a reasonable shirt and sunscreen (SPF 30+). Even though we do this, L-kun's hat (above) is not really kosher, as it should be a wide brimmed hat rather than the baseball cap style. Every time we go out for any time there's a family ritual of slopping on the sunscreen... 

Yet when I was L-kun's age (and a lot older) it was pretty well expected that you'd end up looking like a lobster (i.e. RED) from sunburn a few times over a summer. The whole skin peeling off your body was just a normal way of life. How the times have changed... and perhaps it's because the message has been drummed into us from a very long time ago thanks to years of anti skin-cancer advertising.

Skin Cancer... The Message and the Dark Side of Advertising Industry
The dominant message however that has occurred over the last 20-30 years is that the sun is bad, and we should get out of it at all costs (regardless of where you are). Indeed over that period of time, there has been a growing number of ad campaigns in Australia that started with the Slip Slop Slap ads in the 80s (slip on a shirt, slop on some sun-screen and slap on a hat). From those almost embarrassing early years, the advertising industry has become increasingly sophisticated, or at least aggressive in pursuing the skin cancer warning message.

I've just thrown together some of the classic television ad campaigns from Australia over this period...

WARNING - some of these adds contain graphic visuals, and might be disturbing to some people. It should be remembered however that all of these ads are/have been played on prime-time Australian television and including childrens hours.

The 1980's... The Beginning
This was the period where public health messages meant budget, and it also was the time when adds were aimed more squarely at families. This is reminiscent of the Life Be In It adds of the 70's. The message was simple - if you're spending much time out in the sun, cover up.

The 1990's... Sexy is Back
The advertising industry had finally come on board, and they knew that if you wanted to sell the message of skin cancer prevention, you couldn't go past the old classic. Sex sells. Who would have thought that skin care could be so hip. I guess they figured that the people they wanted to concentrate on were the 20-40's who were out having lots of fun in the sun, but who didn't want to be lectured (or sung) to.

The Late 90's... Shock is Good
By the late 90's the audience was becoming more sophisticated... and the medium of television was learning the power of the visual. And the power of shock. As with the anti-smoking ads of the same era, advertisers knew that things needed to be stepped up to grab our now ambivalent television viewer habits. The quick grab of something quite graphic was becoming the new in thing.

2004... There's Nothing Sexy About Scars - Or Is There?
We now have a different turn of events - the inclusion of computer graphics/animation to spice up things. There was a hint of the shock advertising, but for the most part it played on the smart "killer body art" line. Perhaps at the end of the day however, it seemed to detract from the seriousness of the disease and consequences... just a little scarring on what was otherwise a very healthy looking body.

2007 - If a Little Shock is Good, Then...
This advert featured a real story about Tanya, a 22 year old who was having a melanoma (aggressive form of skin cancer) surgically removed. The ad actually showed the surgery - and unlike the previous ad campaign there was an all too unattractive side of this ad. The message was this - this isn't about fashion and minor scars, it's about hospitals, surgery and ultimately life and death. Warning - this IS very graphic, but once again, shown during family viewing times. It's a powerful message, but I always wondered if these ads are counter-productive... making people retreat from the issue in fear and disgust.

2008... The Youthful Face of Death
Following on from the use of real people to bring home the reality of skin cancer, there were few campaigns that had the immediate chilling effect of the one that featured the young, beautiful Claire Oliver. This was now an all out assault on the fashion of being tanned (and especially solariums)... and it was no longer in terms of hospitals and surgery. It was about showing that youth was not only vulnerable, but that youth culture (and the cult of the beautiful) was fundamentally the greatest risk to getting skin cancer. It was an incredibly sad story... and one that reminded me of the old Yul Brynner ads of the 80's. Advertising has a few key strategies - but the memorial is one that can only be taken out of the cupboard every so often.

Current - The Threat Within
The current ad - actually this is the one that made me write this post - has now reached new depths in the use of fear. Now, no longer is the message about spending too long out in the sun, but rather spending any time out in the sun. The message, intentional or not, is that the cancer could be in you now... spreading... eating yourself from within. All because you took your shirt off for a moment. The dark side of tanning is as much a message on the dark side of advertising. Where the message of caring for your skin has now become one of fearing your skin (and your body). Or worse, fearing that it is already too late. Today's advertising moguls seem to have decided that when you cut through the sex, the sophistication, the shock and the sympathy - all you have to sell a message is fear itself.

The Reality... Is It Worth It?
Now in writing this, I don't want to currently about 2,000 people die in Australia every year from skin cancer related disease (or about 1.24% of all deaths per year, which is about 153,000). So it's not an insignificant cause of death (and for each death, there are many more people that have been seriously affected by skin cancer). And as I've written before, it's common for people to have skin cancers removed nowadays. My father has had many sun-spots removed... and he's pretty typical of people of his age that spent a long time working outside. The removal is normally done by a family doctor with a liquid nitrogen spray to effectively cold-burn your skin around the suspicious spot ...and no, it's not overly pleasant, but it's a helluva lot better than having large bits cut out.

So I acknowledge that whilst the advertising might be over-the-top, the risks are real, and so perhaps it needs to be done. And after all, the rates of death might be much higher. Yet - do we really know how effective these ad campaigns are, and what are the other costs to our lives?

My Own Experience
Last year, I had a scare where I'd gone to my doctor as I was worried about a mark on my face... which had been slowly growing over about 6-7 years. When I finally made a point of asking her to check it out she was worried enough to send me to the dermatologist that specialised in skin cancers. My advice - don't wait to see a doctor when you think something's wrong. Just do it. Anyhow - the specialists initial reaction was not good (in fact he indicated that he had initially been very worried about it). However, it had turned out to be nothing to worry about (yet he still froze it off - which kind of relieved me anyhow). He did however find another spot that I didn't even know about that definitely had to be frozen off because it could potentially turn very nasty. Sometimes it's not the things that are most obvious that are the most dangerous. So... skin cancer is something I do worry about, and it's something I don't take lightly.

Still, I wonder if we have not in our rush to get people to protect themselves, have we become so concerned at the advertising campaign and increasing the already massive budgets of our anti-skin cancer organisations? The message should not be one of fear, but of watchfulness and common-sense. Not to be afraid of the sun at all costs, but to respect it.

The story of the Australian Sun is, much like the sun itself, a harsh one. Yet it can't be separated from the other story of Australia. The joy of getting out and living with the world. Whilst we take care to look after our son, I definitely don't want him to grow up always being afraid to go outside - or too scared to play in the sun with his friends. Life needs still to be enjoyed.

The Story of the Australian Sun Part 1

The Story of Australia is also a story about our sunshine... especially in summer when we can suffer under days of scorching hot glare from our nearest star. Yet, without the sun, life on Earth (at least as we know it) would not be possible. However, the story of sunshine is almost told with the fear of one who names the demons in our dreams. Sunshine is the killer within... or at least that's how we see it through the lens of our society.

And even now that there's a cold change sweeping through South Australia (as in much of Australia in this very strange summer season this year), it's perhaps a good time to revisit the story of the Australian Sun.

The Sun
The Sun is a star...a pretty ordinary star as far as they go... it's name comes from Old English - but has connections to the Goddess Sunna (Germanic) and Sól (Norse)... and more distantly to the Sanskrit Surya. The light from the Sun is generated via a process of nuclear fusion where hydrogen atoms are fused to form Helium, which also releases a huge amount of energy as electromagnetic radiation (i.e. sunlight). This sunlight takes only about 8 minutes and 19 seconds to reach Earth. Once it gets here, it has the equivalent energy of about 1,368 Watts per square metre... although by the time it gets through the atmosphere it's closer to 1,000 Watts. Still, that's a good reason to get solar panels, even if they have at best only a 20% energy conversion efficiency.

Ultraviolet Light
Ultraviolet Light is just normal light that has a very low wavelength (which means it's beyond the violet end of the rainbow, in the part you cannot see with your eyes). This light has more energy than normal light, but less than X-rays. It is the UV rays (especially the UVB part) that are responsible for sunburns - not the visible part of the spectrum. It causes skin damage by breaking down collagen (which gives skin elasticity) and Vitamin A. It also generates nasty chemicals known "free radicals" which cause damage to your skin cells DNA.
Care of Wikipedia.

Most UV light from the sun never reaches the Earth's surface, as it gets adsorbed in the Ozone Layer...

The Ozone Layer
In fact, ever since the discovery of the Ozone Hole above the Antarctica in 1985, there has been a growing concern about the impact of ultraviolet (UV) radiation on Australia... and we often cited the ozone hole has being the cause of apparent increases in skin cancer and the almost universal opinion that the sun is hotter now than it used to be.

Now ozone is a form of oxygen (normally oxygen forms as O2, i.e. two oxygen atoms combined, whereas ozone is a form that combines three oxygen atoms, i.e. O3). Ozone is actually poisonous to people at ground level, but in the stratosphere around 15-40 km above us, it forms an important component in a chemical cycle that results in the absorption of harmful UV rays. This cycle sees normal O2 oxygen adsorbing light and splitting then recombining to form O3, which then adsorbs more UV light to break back into single Oxygen atoms before reforming with O2 to more O3. That seems pretty complicated... but what does all this mean?Well it means that the presence of ozone is important in the adsorption of UV light... and if that O3 is broken before it adsorbs UV then less UV is adsorbed... and the more that hits the Earth (that's you and me).

The global push to ban CFC (chlorofluorocarbons, a particular type of chemical structure that was often used in propellants and refrigerants, and which is one of those chemical types that breaks the ozone up) seems to have lead to a recovery in the ozone layer. However, the reality is that your latitude is the most important aspect of your UV exposure. The closer to the equator, the more you'll generally get, as shown below.
Care of The UN Environemtal Program and GRID-Arendal

UV Index
The current picture over Australia looks like the map where the numbers represent the UV index (Extreme  >11+ and you should avoid going out in the midday sun, Very High = 8 -10, High and you should wear protection and avoid any extended period in the sun, High = 6 -7 you should still wear protection and reduce time in the midday sun, Moderate 3-5 means you have a low risk but should still wear sunscreen if out in the sun for any length of time, whilst <3 represents no real danger to most people). Despite what a commonly held belief here in South Australia, it's generally much worse in the north for UV than down here in Adelaide. Yet, even here we'll start to develop a sun-tan after even 15mins in the sun during summer. Note - last year I spent a long time walking around in the sun in Japan, and hardly got tanned at all... and I have to admit that I loved it.... but the reality was that I was most probably still getting reasonable doses of UV.

The latest UV rating across Australia (care of BOM).

UV - The Untold Health Story
Something that is often overlooked with UV however is that it is critical in the production of Vitamin D (or D3 to be more precise) in people which is important in a range of biological factors. Vitamin D is important in the prevention of rickets which leads to the deformities of bones in young bodies. The related Vitamin D2 can however be obtained through food, although there is still no definitive determination whether these have the same physiological effects. In recent years there has been a push to increase people's awareness of the positive aspects of UV radiation, and it's recommended that people get at least 5-8 minutes (in Australia at least) exposure to the sun every day in summer, and up to 40 minutes per day in winter (obtained from a helpful articles here and here). The bottom line is that some sunlight is actually healthy - and therefore you shouldn't avoid it completely.

Care of the SunSmart organisation

Still - the message about UV has not been a happy one over recent times... and in today's world it begins and ends with skin cancer.... and that's a different story that's coming up next.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

My Darling is a Foreigner - A Review

ダーリンは外国人  = daarin wa gaikokujin = My Darling is a Foreigner. A book and movie review.

Well, this is a very short post that most probably doesn't do any justice to the manga or the movie (though more so the manga).  Note: the English version was renamed Is He Turning Japanese? The manga is the product of Oguri Saori and the first volume dates from around 2002. It is an autobiographical and humourous account of Saori's (the manga artist) life with Tony László (the foreigner). It was originally marketed at a purely Japanese market however became very popular amongst ordinary Japanese.

The good thing is that the manga doesn't take itself all that seriously, and it has a quiet charm that for me attracted me by the fact that it wasn't trying too hard. T-chan absolutely adored the first manga book (though less so the later volumes) and thinks it sugoi omoshiroii (really interesting/funny). I had to wait till the bilingual version came out (last year) to really enjoy the book... but for me it was amusing, but not quite SUGOI! Oguri definitely has a nice simple narrative and charming way of describing her sometimes stretched relationship with Tony. Whilst the framing is always "relationship with a foreigner", the books also cover interesting insights into the Japanese language and psyche as well.

My thoughts on the movie are less generous however. The movie was also released last year - and whilst it is broadly based on the manga series, there have been some significant changes. The most important thing however is that the ever-present aspect of Tony's gainjiness (gaijin is the colloquial form of gaigokujin = foreigner) becomes a footnote to what is otherwise a fairly "normal" relationship. The movie perhaps tries too hard to be a romantic drama - which is quite different from the manga. And it doesn't really succeed... Now I have to admit however that I'm not the demographic the movie is after... even though we have a mixed marriage, we live outside Japan and therefore have quite different experiences. It also turns towards the absurd when Oguri's character (played by Mao Inoue) chases after Tony to the USA - but you'll have to make your own mind up about that.

Overall, the movie however seems to me to gloss over many of the episodes that made the manga interesting...  and paints a very strange image of Tony (played by relative unknown, and wooden, Jonathan Sherr). We see someone who is comfortably living and communicating in Japan, yet is simultaneously reduced to near stupidity, lacking common-sense of anyone who has had any involvement in Japan. I can only assume this is for artistic purposes only...

T-chan also thought the movie was no where near as interesting as the manga. Zannen. I wonder how successful this was in Japan? IMDB gave it 6.6/10... but I think i'd give it 2.5 out of 5 stars. T-chan gave it 2 out of 5 stars (because she had such high expectations). My suggestion - read the manga and give the movie a miss unless you can pick it up cheap at the rental store (or online).

For a very interesting discussion on the manga and the very tense relationship between Tony László and another infamous foreigner in Japan, David Aldwinkle (who has been naturalised to Debito Arudou ) read this article. The story between these two men seems much more interesting, and yet features no where in the movie... I think this other story says a lot more about foreigners and Japan. By the way, Arudou is based out of Sapporo... T-chan's home.

By the way - watch out for a cameo from the real Tony in wedding scene.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Setsebun.... Nut Protection Required

Well - this is a little late due to my recent travels... by the way, if you haven't been to Darwin before, it's worth considering, but don't expect a cheap place despite it's huge number of backpackers. Anyway - now back to the purpose of this post... the 3rd of February (the day before Spring officially begins) is known as Setsubun in Japan. This day associated with the cleansing of evil spirits from houses, to welcome the onset of spring without any lingering bad-vibes. The festival is most famously known for it's bean throwing... or mamemaki.

I'd first came across setsubun on my first trip to Japan in 2003 when we visited the temple in Asakusa, known as Senso-ji. The gist of the festival is that the oldest male, or the male born in that zodiacal year (this year is the year of the rabbit which repeats every 12 years) takes on the role of the bean thrower. Within the home, this is done by a very generous volunteer adorning a mask (I don't think I will win any oni awards with my effort above) after which they are chased around the house whilst being pelted by soy beans before retreating to the safety of outside. The soy beans purify the house... clearly demons aren't partial to soy beans. The attack of soy beans is usually accompanied by the saying "Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi" - Oni go outside, good luck come into our house...

Now the traditions have been changing slightly, and soy beans can now be replaced by peanuts (still in the shell that is). I'm not sure that's a great improvement as far as the oni is concerned.

It's funny, but L-kun's experienced one setsubun before, and yet he remembers it clearly (and was getting very excited to do it again). He kept asking yesterday for daddy to make the oni! Even though we were a little late due to me being away, how could I resist? Before you knew it, L-kun was being chased all over the house. It's Oni Time!

Daddy takes his oni duties VERY SERIOUSLY. T-chan thinks my oni's just a little too scary, but L-kun loves it. Gggggrrrrrroooooarrrr!

L-kun also takes his duties very seriously. This year, not only was he using multiple projectile techniques (being hit by 3 - 5 peanuts simultaneously adds combo bonuses), but started working in some power-moves like the fist-of-nuts-charge and the foot-of-mayhem-kick-to-the-beans technique. All of which left poor oni feeling a little sore. No wonder why setsubun is one of L-kun's favourite Japanese festivals.

Before long, oni had been forced to seek protection outside... the barrage of peanuts had been too much for him. Outside, he was last seen licking his wounds and wiping the tears from his battered head.... not to mentioned extricating peanuts from all sorts of places. When Daddy finally made a re-appearance (Daddy, where were you!), L-kun immediately wanted to have a Round 2. Oni's head and body was still smarting however from the assault before, so he was happy to concede defeat.

Besides, L-kun had to observe the other tradition of setsubun. You're supposed to eat the number of beans (ok peanuts here) equal to your age. L-kun was happy to oblige. 1. 2. 3... 4 (hold on something not right here), 5. 6.....21...just how old are you L-kun? It turns out he loves peanuts. It may not be entirely good luck, but tradition can go out the window if it comes between L-kun and his food. 

Daddy shouldn't try to eat the number for his age... he's trying to lose some weight before his next trip to Japan. It says 30-something in Daddy's profile... and it won't be long before he'll have to update that with a minor though significant modification....

Japanese Lessons:
Spring - haru (春)
Bean - mame (豆)
Demon - oni (鬼)
Setsubun (節分)