Nozomi Returns

Following what seems like several weeks away, Nozomi returned home after spending five days with Reiko's parents. We asked them to keep an eye on the puppy for a little while as very few hotels in Tokyo will accept non-human guests and most theme parks in the country have outright banned canine family members unless they're performing a vital function, such as providing vision assistance. This is the longest that Nozomi and I have been separated aside from my trip to New Jersey last year, and I sincerely hope it will be one of the last extended absences for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, the puppy was not at all upset to be back home. If anything, she was over the moon.

Nozomi in the Park

As silly as it sounds, Nozomi is more than just "the family dog" to me. She's a kindred spirit who is always willing to lend me her ear and be a non-judgemental sounding board for ideas. She can't really participate in any conversational way, but I find that verbalising ideas with her allows for a re-examination of ideas. Errors in judgement are easier to spot and can generally be corrected faster by airing them out in the open. Over the years, I've shared with Nozomi so many of my hopes, dreams, desires, and fears that I wonder what sort of things she'd say if she could talk. Would I be admonished for some of the things I've said? Would she forgive me for the times when I put my own trip to the bathroom ahead of hers? Would she express disappointment at many of the decisions I've made over the years?

Fortunately Nozomi cannot talk, so there is little chance of me ever hearing something negative from this positively gentle puppy.

Home Before the Rain

In a stroke of remarkably good timing, Typhoon 20 arrived half an hour after we returned home from our trip to Disney. This capped off an already enjoyable trip as a storm is generally more enjoyable when you do not need to traverse through it. Hopefully the country will not see any repeats of what happened last weekend when Typhoon 19 ravaged several dozen coastal cities and inundated rivers inland. As for the theme park … it was packed.

The Queue for Ticket Holders

There’s no denying that I’m not generally found at theme parks on my days off so may not experience various sorts of problems that such places might encounter, but the fact that the Disney theme parks had to stop ticket sales around noon on both days that we were there surprised me. There’s not one park in the country, but two. DisneyLand was the first one built and has a capacity rivalling a good-sized city, and DisneySea is the newer one with a similarly impressive limit of 60,000 people. That 120,000 people could get to the park in the first four hours of its operation on a regular working Monday is nothing short of astounding, but it can probably be explained by the national holiday tomorrow to mark the new emperor’s enthronement ceremony. Crowding is to be expected wherever you go in Japan, but this was really something else to contend with. Fortunately the boy was never out of sight for more than 5 seconds1, as he would be hard to spot it a sea of people.

At this point there are no plans for any other trips to faraway places this year, though Reiko is thinking about where to go next. With any luck, it’ll be somewhere that none of us have been to, as this would be an excellent opportunity to explore more of the country. Hopefully by the time we take our next trip, the boy will be a little better at travelling for a couple of hours at a time. He gets better with every outing, but there’s still a lot of room to grow.

  1. At one point he was in my blind spot, close to my left side and hidden under a trio of jackets I was carrying. That was not a fun 5 seconds.

Navigating Crowds

The family and I embarked on quite the journey today, travelling from the relative peace and quiet of the suburbs of Nagoya to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo DisneySea, which just happened to have a capacity crowd in attendance. Reiko and I lived just outside of Tokyo 9 years ago up until the 3/11 earthquake, but I clearly wasn’t in the nation’s capital long enough to get accustomed to rarely walking with a proper stride length. The pedestrian traffic in and around Tokyo very much reminds me of rush hour traffic in Toronto for all the stop-and-go, narrow collision misses, and oblivious passers by. I can do it so long as I have headphones on, no wheeled luggage, and am responsible only for myself, but it becomes a challenge when carrying a VW Beetle’s worth1 of luggage and supplies for a 36-hour trip. That said, weaving through a crowd of a thousand people while carrying a toddler on your shoulders, two backpacks on the torso, and a pulling a suitcase alongside is an excellent way to train for a sport that really should be at the Olympic level: the train transfer sprint.

Waiting For The Show

All in all, the day has actually been quite nice. The sun broke free of the clouds a few hours after our arrival, ushering in the occasional blue sky despite the oncoming typhoon2 and the temperature hovered around 25°C until just after sunset. Lunch consisted of okonomiyaki and yakisoba. The boy never lost his temper during the day. We managed to get a number of really nice family photos. Heck, we even got to watch the fireworks display from the comfort of our hotel room after leaving the park. One couldn’t really ask for more. Tomorrow we’ll spend the morning at the other park, Tokyo DisneyLand before leaving for the trains home just after lunch.

The last time Reiko and I were at DisneySea, we had so much fun that we picked up Nozomi from the pet shop the very next day. I wonder if we’ll do something just as life-changing tomorrow ….

  1. This is a slight exaggeration, of course. But only a slight one.

  2. This next typhoon is just a tiny one that should make landfall the day after we return home.


The boy and I spend every Wednesday and Friday morning together, as Reiko is off at work and I’m the sole entertainer available. With the autumn in full effect, temperatures generally sit between 20° and 28°C before noon, which is perfect for the boy and I to enjoy a little trek to a park or three. When we first started going on longer walks, I’d bring him to what I call the “Super Mario Park”, which is about 1.2km from our home. This park is generally empty in the morning and has a large castle-like play area. There are tunnels, stairs, slides, zip lines, sliding poles, and more to play with, making it an excellent place to wear out a toddler. Unfortunately, the park has become rather unkempt this year and there are a pair of cognitively unstable young men1 who seem to have taken up residency near the swing set, lying on the ground and giggling at their phones like a pair of 12 year olds discovering porn for the first time. So, because I’m admittedly a little over-cautious at times2, the boy and I now visit a different park twice a week. I take him to where I like to go when out on my own; at the nearby Central Park, on the hill, seated under an open pavilion.

This park has been my place of comfort for the better part of a year. When the stresses of work or home become too great, I try to head out for a walk to the hill where I can listen to podcasts, enjoy a vodka-based beverage, and just relax. Very few people climb the hill, choosing instead to enjoy the large expanse of grassy area near the playground. This makes the hill seem like an unlikely private space in a densely populated suburban area, and I like it.

However, now that I bring the boy here once or twice a week, it’s become less private. Instead I’m sharing the space with him — inviting him to see where it is that I like to think and learn and contemplate. Because he’s still so young, there’s no way for him to understand why I come here, but he seems to enjoy it nonetheless. We stop by the nearby convenience store for a juice box and a coffee, then head up the hill to sit and watch the world go by. We describe cars, watch ants, observe stray cats, and spot Pokémon Go players from our vantage point 45 metres above the nearest road.

This will likely come across wrong, but I’m actually starting to genuinely like the boy. Sure, as my son he’s in my heart and I’ll do anything to protect him. But as his personality continues to develop, I’m seeing in him someone that I want to be around not just out of paternal love, but for friendship. I’ll always be his father. Being a friend, even if it’s only for a short time, would be an added bonus. We share an interest in cars and trains. He can successfully identify the make of a Japanese car from 100 metres and is getting better with the European imports3. He’s fascinated by insects and is intent on working in the kitchen. There’s all sorts of activities for us to do that we both enjoy. It took two and a half years, but I feel that we’re actually starting to bond as two people with similar interests rather than as a simple parent-child relationship. I wonder what sort of things he’ll be interested in as he grows up.

The boy has been incredibly interesting to watch over the last couple of years as his personality evolves alongside his interests. It will be incredibly interesting to see what interests he chooses to follow going forward.

  1. I’d say these two guys are in their late 20s or early 30s. They’re clearly living within an alternate perspective of the world. One that I can neither perceive nor predict, which makes me uncomfortable when the boy is present.

  2. The boy will be exposed to a lot of things in his lifetime. I will not protect him from everything. That said, so long as he’s 2, I’ll protect him from the possibility of serious physical harm. If I can’t reasonably predict what another human will do, I will not risk the well-being of my only child.

  3. He still finds it hard to pronounce “Volkswagen”, but he’ll get it in time.

Disconnecting from Reality

This weekend the family and I will wake up before the crack of dawn on Sunday to embark upon a journey to the most expensive place on Earth: Tokyo Disneyland. Our original plans to visit the park were kiboshed when it was confirmed that Typhoon 19 would make landfall while we were still in Tokyo, but the forecast for Sunday and Monday is actually looking pretty decent.

Cinderella's Castle

This trip will be the third for Reiko and I. The boy, however, has never been more than 5km north of here1. This will be his first time to see Mount Fuji from the Shinkansen, his first time to Tokyo, his first time to Tokyo Station, his first time on a monorail and, of course, his first time to Disneyland. In order to get him ready for the two days of action-packed fun, Reiko and I have introduced him to some of the less tragic movies and picked up a number of books featuring the classic characters. If we're lucky, we'll have the opportunity to get some pictures of him with some of the costumed members of the Disney experience2.

Just as with the trip to Kyoto last weekend, I'll make sure the cameras and portable batteries are all set and ready to go. We will not be bringing any traditional computers with us, so any photos captured with the DSLR will have to stay on the SD card until we return … and I'm hoping we capture a thousand really good pictures of the boy having fun in a place that is designed to extract the maximum amount of money from our pockets in as short a time as possible.

Fortunately Reiko and I will also be sure to enjoy ourselves in the park. It's not every day that we get to (somewhat) act like a kid again.

  1. We've brought the boy to Mie, Gifu, Kyoto, and other places but, for some odd reason, north is the one direction he's yet to travel.

  2. I don't think they're called "employees". There's a special term used by the company to describe the people wearing the costumes, but I can't for the life of me recall what it is.

Table Rules

Parents spend an inordinate amount of time telling their children the same rules over and over in an effort to help them be better people in the long run. Just sitting at the dinner table for a meal involves a myriad of protocols that most of us rarely think about unless someone around us is breaking from convention in a social setting, be it formal or otherwise. With repetition and the occasional bit of discipline, children learn how to compose themselves when at a table with different groups of people. Everybody knows this is how we learn how to act in polite company, but what would these rules look like if they were written out for an android?

Robotics technology has seen a remarkable amount of progress over the last quarter century as we continue to build better motors, faster processors, and adaptable machines. Eventually we'll reach a point where it will become feasible to build an android that is the size and shape of "the ideal person"1, most likely with the bulk of its brainpower hosted by a giant organisation or — ideally — a local server buried in a closet with a great deal of processing power. When the time comes for people to invite these machinations into their home2, someone will need to sit down and write out all the rules that must be followed when sitting at the table and pretending to eat a meal.

  • wash your hands before sitting at the table
  • wear underwear, pants, and a shirt at the table
  • sit up straight
  • don't put your elbows on the table
  • eat pasta with a fork, not your fingers
  • eat pizza with your fingers, not a fork3
  • when you cough, take a sip of water or tea
  • do not raise your leg to have your knee above the table
  • eat with your mouth closed
  • ask for additional food or toppings with "please"
  • thank people for the meal
  • compliment the chef, offering specific praise for at least one dish
  • do not sing while eating
  • swallow the food before talking
  • do not stuff food into your mouth
  • don't slurp liquid
  • don't lick the plate
  • don't throw food
  • do not use a straw to drink your soup
  • french fries do not belong in your nostrils
  • if you must take food out of your mouth, gently spit it into a tissue, then wrap the tissue so nobody else sees the mess
  • if you must pass gas, excuse yourself and leave the table to go to an adjacent room, then return after waiting at least 30 seconds4

The list goes on and on and on. I've had to tell my son every one of these rules at least once this week, and many of them at least once per meal. A machine with some degree of autonomy, however, would only need to have the list written once and put into a weighted scale so that, when the situation requires it, the rule can be overridden5. When sitting at a table with young children, for example, maybe slurping soup or putting food up a nose would be a means of silly entertainment to keep the kids occupied while a table of adults try to have a meal in relative peace. When sitting at a table with senior family members, such as a grandmother and grandfather, then the rules can tighten up and be followed to the letter. These are all things we teach our children to do, and these are all things that we ourselves do when not eating in isolation, so it makes sense that an android with situational awareness will understand the environment it's in to determine how best to follow the protocols of the dinner table.

Mind you, this is just the dinner table. Rules would have to be added if an android finds itself at a five-star restaurant in Dubai or a dumpy fast-food joint next to a forgotten truck stop on an abandoned highway. Then there's the hassle of ensuring that so many of the other rules we unconsciously follow are programmed into the system.

When is it appropriate to speak at a normal volume? When should we whisper? Is it okay to talk during a movie? Can an android spontaneously break into song like a character in Glee?

What etiquette will be followed regarding clothing? Which rituals are observed at formal events such as weddings, funerals, or bar-mitzvah? It's okay to make sand castles at the beach and in a sandbox, but what about the vegetable garden?

When we really sit down and think about all the protocols we follow just to interact with other people, it's no wonder that children need darn near two decades of practice before we send them into the world on their own, often knowing that some of the rules will be intentionally ignored for a short period of time6. Putting these rules into a coherent fashion for a walking computer to follow while also appearing to be a cognitively present human being is going to be a remarkable feat of computational engineering.

We will do it, though. One day in our lifetime, we will all have the opportunity to have an android with us as an assistant, a servant, an outdoor labourer, or maybe even a companion7. Today's societal questions about rights, freedoms, and responsibilities will pale in comparison to the ones we'll ask when machines look, act, and appear to think like us.

Before we can embark on the journey to decide whether machines that look like people should have similar rights and freedoms as people, though, we'll need to give them rules. Tens of thousands … hundreds of thousands … perhaps millions of rules to follow in order to successfully navigate the social worlds our cultures have constructed over thousands of years.

  1. I've only ever seen one sci-fi show depict androids of different body sizes. While they may appear to be in various age groups, they are generally "perfect" with slim builds and amazing teeth.

  2. This future is a lot closer than people realise.

  3. Yes, people can use a fork and knife with pizza. I've seen this done and, on occasion, done so myself. Generally a fork and knife will reduce the chance of getting sauce on white clothes from spilled toppings.

  4. Okay, this is one that I haven't yet taught the boy. It's on the list, though.

  5. A machine with no autonomy would not have a list of "do nots", but instead a script of actions to be followed, possibly with some occasional randomness thrown in to provide the illusion of being human.

  6. When I lived at home, I would cook dinner for my many brothers, sisters, and parents, and later do the dishes five to six nights a week. Most meals resulted in anywhere from 25 to 60-odd items that needed washing. When I moved out into my first basement apartment, "cooking" involved making a simple tuna risotto in a single glassware bowl that was also the dish I ate from. Every meal had exactly 3 dishes: the bowl, a fork, and a glass for my soda. I drank Pepsi from a glass because I wasn't a complete animal at 17 ….

  7. Looking at how we've treated ourselves over the last few thousand years, some of these machines will be subject to some pretty lousy conditions. Things that no human should ever be condemned to. Depending on how much liberty and cognitive capacity the androids have, it may be necessary to grant them rights or, at the very least, limit what humans can order them to do.

The 10-Hour Workday

Today marks the second day where I must put the day job away as best as possible after just ten hours of on-the-clock effort in a bid to get some better sleep every night, as per doctor's orders. There are a number of benefits to working no more than 600 minutes a day, such as keeping overtime hours down1 and spending a little more time with Reiko after the boy has gone to bed. However, I will need to contend with the nagging feeling that I should be doing something more productive than sitting on the sofa and having a conversation about upcoming trips, our landscaping plans for the coming spring, or — heaven forbid — getting back into studying Japanese so that I can communicate with people a little more intelligently2. There's no denying that the forced change will take some time to become the new normal and I'm looking forward to using some of the freed up time to read, write, and think.

In the reading queue is Teaching in a Digital Age (2nd Edition) by A.W. Bates and The Rational Bible: Exodus by Dennis Prager. I've also considered reading The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, which I understand would be an incredibly depressing, though enlightening, study of recent history.

Writing will not be anything nearly as coherent or structured as the books mentioned above, however, I have been working on a potential "open specification" for a digital textbook that would offer a good deal of flexibility for teachers as well as students. The preliminary work is certainly interesting, though there are a couple of areas that will need further consideration, such as the most logical way to keep file sizes down while also maintaining portability over decades.

As for thinking, there's just so much to consider all the time. One topic that I'd like to invest more time in is with my future, both near and distant, as it's hard to know what to aim for when the target is fuzzy or non-existent. When I try to think about where I'll be in three, five, and ten years, the mind comes up mostly blank. Sure, I have a couple of goals and have made some decent progress on being gainfully self-employed in the next few years, but is this the best way to accomplish the longest term goal of dying debt free with enough in the bank for the family to not worry about money for at least a decade? I have no idea, which is why setting aside adequate time for thinking, which usually involves pens and paper to physically map the thought process, is so important.

Limiting the day job to just ten hours feels like I'm working just a half day. Hopefully I'll make effective use of the additional time every day.

  1. Keeping the OT numbers down is good for my managers.

  2. I want my words to have more nuance when I speak with people here. As it stands, most of what I say can be perfectly understood by a 10 year old, which is nowhere near the level of sophistication an adult needs to be taken seriously.


This morning Reiko and I made the short trip to the nearby municipal hospital where I was scheduled to undergo an ultrasound on my liver and kidneys to search for a possible cause for the occasional bit of blood in my urine. This was identified as a possible issue two years ago after an annual physical and it was brought up again this year, albeit with additional asterisks next to the result and a more tersely worded recommendation from the physician. I was to see my family doctor about the blood. Period. Two weeks ago I had the first set of follow-up tests and today's was the more thorough exploration to check for internal issues, such as kidney stones.

Long story short, my kidneys are in perfect health. My liver, while surrounded by perhaps a bit too much fat, is also in perfect health. The final diagnosis put my organs at "better than average" for the time being. The cause of any internal bleeding was likely the result of my horrible sleeping patterns over the last four years. Dr. Yamada, using verbal asterisks of his own, told me that I should get a lot more sleep than is currently afforded.

My first thought was "This will seriously impact the amount of work I can accomplish in a given day."

This is a preposterous notion given what I witnessed at the hospital while waiting to be seen, then again while waiting to pay the bill1. Nested in with all the healthy, able-bodied people at the hospital were others missing limbs, or confined to a wheelchair, or carrying their own oxygen, or in so much pain all they could do was weep silently while waiting their turn. Hundreds of people, each with their own distinct set of strengths and limitations. Each with their own unique, day-to-day challenges that make the asterisks on my most recent physical diagnoses seem moot by comparison.

Fortune favours the foolish, and few are more senseless than I. While a large number of people of all ages and backgrounds invest hours, days, weeks, or months of their lives in search of health, I balk at seeing a doctor and instead busy myself with asinine deadlines for the sake of a fairly good income. "I'm fine," I tell myself, which is true for the most part. I am fine. My physical health today is superior to what it was 15 years ago. But it is not an endowment to be taken lightly. A combination of chance and dumb luck has resulted in a clean bill of health despite all the stupid things I've done over the last four decades. A simple twist of fate could have resulted in signs of impending kidney failure, or a hardening layer of fat surrounding the liver, which can prove fatal. High blood pressure can result in heart attacks, strokes, and other life-altering conditions in the blink of an eye. The near daily headaches — a result of not moving enough — can be precursors to other problems as well.

We all have challenges in life. Some far more than others. While the frustrations and inconveniences of the day sometimes seem beyond belief, there's no denying that there are always people who would trade anything to live as we do. With this perspective it's obvious that we should set aside half a day to see a doctor when early warning signs appear. It's also incontrovertible that whatever minor nuisances we must contend with need to be viewed in a greater context. Yes, the problems of the day are nothing to ignore, but they could be worse. They could always be worse.

  1. Japan's health care system is not 100% funded by the government. Depending on what is checked and what category the conditions are in, we will pay more. Today's total bill for three doctors visits, a urine test, a blood test, an X-Ray, and an ultrasound worked out to less than $50, which I can claim back through the day job's health insurance system.

Out of Time

Bouts of anxiety are nothing new, nor is the sense that I'm perpetually behind schedule on a number of projects. This generally gets worse during weeks when I try to take time off work for holiday or health-related reasons. In the back of my head there's a voice saying "I could be working on X, Y, or Z right now. Why am I using time here?" For a long time this was explained away as workaholism, but the description is incomplete. My anxiety does not stem from workaholism, but something that is buried even deeper than that; the feeling that I'm running on — and nearing the end of — borrowed time.

The question I've yet to answer, though, is what it is I've borrowed time to accomplish. A little more specificity would go a long way to helping me understand the root causes of my anxiety and how to better control it.

A Day Trip to Kyoto

Last week the family an I were expecting to spend a couple of days at Tokyo Disney, enjoying all of the high-priced sights and sounds of the theme park. This was going to be our first trip to "a faraway place" as a family and a great opportunity to relax and unwind after a year of go-go-go. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other plans and decided to send a rather devastating typhoon. We cancelled our trip last week and spent the planned time off no different than we would have if I were working1. The typhoon hit us yesterday, but just hard enough to keep us home2, which was quite rough on the boy who wanted to go outside and play despite the 30 hours of non-stop precipitation.

Blue Skies and Green Grass

Generally the day after a typhoon hits, we can expect clear skies and cool temperatures. Today was no exception. While Nozomi and I were out walking this morning, I thought it would be a nice idea to head south to Kyoto and enjoy the sights and sounds of a different place. The boy had yet to ride the Shinkansen, so a little bit of exposure to the train might help him relax a bit when we're en route to Tokyo at some point later this year.

Reiko asked me to plan a couple of things to do in Kyoto and that's just what I did. The loose itinerary was simple:

  • take the Shinkansen to Kyoto station
  • walk to Umekoji Park (about 750m from Kyoto Station)
  • have lunch at a restaurant or cafe
  • visit the Kyoto Train Museum
  • if everyone's energetic enough, take the train to Arashiyama; a popular tourist destination

Unlike most trips, there were no rigid times associated with any of these items. We'd get to Kyoto when we got there. We'd get to the park when we got there. We'd aim to have lunch around 12:30 so that the boy didn't get too cranky. Then we'd do the rest at a leisurely pace.

Oddly enough, this worked out perfectly.

A Day in Kyoto

There were a couple of things that we couldn't do simply because there wasn't enough time or because some of the more touristy activities were priced beyond reason3, but the trip was very much the relaxing getaway that we were all looking forward to having last week. Hopefully our next trip as a family will be just as enjoyable.

  1. As it happens, I did work every day that I was supposed to be off. There were server problems at the day job, and I pitched in to get things back to normal as quickly as possible.

  2. The wind and rain were quite destructive just north of here. Lots of flooding. A couple of tornadoes. Two dozen people are still missing, too.

  3. 4,000 Yen ($37USD) for a 12-minute ride on a rickshaw? Get out of here!