Five Things

After a frantic couple of days last week, I managed to carve out a two hour period this afternoon to just get out of the house, sit on a mountain, and listen to a podcast with my eyes closed. The forecasted rain was nowhere near as strong as predicted, making the isolation quite enjoyable1.

This next week is going to see me work on several important updates to four of my active projects, all of which are built on the same software powering this site. A little bit of me time was necessary, and it also gave me plenty to think about, including:

Planet Hoph

Planet Hopf

I just learned about this representation of the Hopf fibration today. I would have appreciated this 20 years ago when I studied differential topologies, as it would have saved a week or two of WTF? moments.

Thanatophobic?

Far too much of my time (on a human sale) is spent thinking about time on a grand scale and it’s implications. As of this moment, every living entity that we know of on the earth is equally mortal. Some may experience more seasons than others, but we will all return to the earth at some point. Earlier today when I was thinking about Nozomi’s eventual passing I was reminded that I’m not at all afraid of my eventual death, but that if others. When I die, that will be the end of me. I’ve done what I can to ensure family will be taken care of2. It might not be easy for some members of family, but there won’t be anything I can do about it. If others pass away before me, though, then they’re forever in my memory but forever gone. I’ve lived 40 years and only been to one funeral. Silly as it sounds, I am not at all sure how I will react when a close member of my family, be they human or otherwise, passes away. It really bothers me.

Not Appropriation

We can’t seem to go more than a dozen minutes without there being some group of people “voicing concerns” about cultural appropriation and how it’s detrimental to the uniqueness and vibrancy of cultures and civilizations. As an immigrant to Asia, I wonder how much of Japan’s culture I’ve appropriated and whether it’s a bad thing, given that I’m from Canada with dozens of generations of ancestry that hails from England, Ireland, and France.

I have a very Japanese work ethic, often resulting in warnings from family and colleagues about 過労死, which literally means “dying from overwork”. Is this cultural appropriation? Should I feel bad about myself?

I eat with chop sticks and generally stay away from silverware unless buttering toast or eating yogurt. Is this cultural appropriation? Should I feel bad about myself?

I speak, read, and write Japanese to a certain degree. Enough to buy a house and live day to day in the country, anyway. Language is very much a part of culture, so have I appropriated it from native-born Japanese people and sullied it for my own gains? Is this appropriation and should I feel bad about myself?

Or is the entire “cultural appropriation” argument just a straw man for something much deeper that people are unaware of or unable to adequately articulate?

I’ve lived a very Japanese life for much longer than I’ve lived in this country. Ever since I read about the country in the Collier’s Encyclopedia set my father bought when I was young the nation, it’s people, it’s history, and it’s culture have been absolutely fascinating to me. So much so that I boldly said to my parents at the age of 14 that I would live in Japan one day. And here I am. Have I appropriated the culture? No. I have assimilated it and, by doing so, have an appreciation for a lot of what’s been learned. I emulate the parts of the culture that align with my existing beliefs, and I avoid the things I have no interest in.

People have been doing this since before we left the trees. Cultures evolve and borrow from one another. Most of the appropriation arguments that I’ve read, admittedly on left-leaning websites, seem to believe that cultures should operate in complete isolation and be practised only by those with a genetic link to its history, which is pretty much impossible and a recipe for disaster3.

Rain on the Window

Last Friday marked one year since the family moved into our new house, and it’s been quite a step up from our previous living arrangements. One of the more interesting things that I’ve enjoyed about living in this house is the sound of the weather as it hits the exterior walls and windows. Regardless of how windy the day is, it sounds as though a gentle breeze is caressing the siding. Heavy rains sound like the gentle refilling of a modern toilet: water that’s running, but in no hurry.

It’s lovely to just sit back and listen to the house … when the boy is sleeping and background noise is eliminated.

6:15am

This seems to be the new time for the boy to wake up and instantly start talking. If I wasn’t consistently working until 1-to-2 o’clock in the morning, then this wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately running on just four hours of sleep a day catches up to a person. How do parents of multiple children manage to work and sleep? Is it a myth that parents get any sleep at all?


  1. The mountain I enjoy sitting on is in the middle of a park. When it rains, the whole area is pretty much deserted aside from a few stragglers like me who just want to enjoy the quiet. There are covered gazebos at various points as well, which makes sitting in the rain possible, so long as it’s not a “Vancouver drizzle”, as the only protection from that is not going outside at all.

  2. In the event of a natural death the mortgage will be paid off, Reiko will receive $150K in cash plus the cost of any funeral, and the boy will get $75K. In the event of an accidental death, the insurance payouts are tripled.

  3. Cultures (and languages) that don’t evolve tend to disappear.

Bugs in the Wetware

The average student or working person in Japan uses a train and navigates a station five hundred times a year. Many people, like myself, can do this a great deal more. One of the common misconceptions about trains and commuting in Japan is that the trains are always crowded (they're not) and the stations are designed to let people quickly get from one place to another (they're not). As I quickly approach my 15,000th1, I'm wondering just how complex it would be to write the software that would simulate how passengers actually move around a train station. This would allow me to, hopefully, design an optimal floor plan for various stations around the country that were — to be completely frank — designed by fools who clearly drive everywhere.

My disillusionment with the Japanese rail system started about a year after moving to the country. I noticed that people were often always in each other's way. This wasn't just the typical crowd-control problems like we see at popular festivals or New Year's Day shopping sales. No … this was far less logical. Festivals and shopping malls are typically designed to maximise the number of people who can attend an event and, as a result, often see pedestrian traffic problems during the few times per year when big gatherings are planned. This is to be expected. Train stations, however, are supposed to be designed to allow for passengers to quickly get on and off the train, and to make it to their destinations without wanting to start punching university students who think it's okay to walk at a glacial pace while playing some asinine card game on their cell phone.

Now, some of the train stations in Tokyo are designed pretty well to allow for a great amount of human traffic to come and go without the two streams seriously affecting one another. The train stations in Nagoya and Osaka, though, could stand some examination. Before doing this, though, I would need to come up with some sort of algorithm that would mimic a human walking from Point A to Point B with a great deal of accuracy. Well … not just a human … but thousands of them all at the same time.

So what would the algorithm need to take into account? Quite a bit. Let's see what sort of physical limitations a digital human would need to understand.

  • a human can be anywhere between 80cm and 230cm in height
  • a human can have a circumference of anywhere between 80cm and 400cm
  • a human walks at variable speeds, but never faster than a set number
  • a human can run in short bursts
  • a human has two legs that cannot neatly fit between any other human's legs (without causing problems)
  • a human has a minimum area of personal space that they will not allow unfamiliar humans to breach for more than a split second
  • a human can carry luggage of varying shapes and sizes
  • a human can suffer from some sort of mobility impediment
  • a human typically has a discernible age and gender

There are undoubtedly a few basic physical characteristics that I am missing, but these nine are a good place to start. Next come the harder-to-quantify bits; psychology.

  • humans typically make space for children, the elderly, and those with mobility impediments … but not always
  • humans in groups walk at the same speed as the slowest member … but not always
  • humans (like me) will look for gaps in the traffic and inject themselves into that space to get ahead of the crowd … but not always
  • humans typically travel in directions posted on signs … but not always
  • humans coming off the train have the right of way … but not always
  • humans beyond adolescence typically look in the direction they are travelling … but not always
  • humans are typically familiar with their surroundings and where they need to go … but not always
  • humans have time constraints and travel according to those limitations … but not always

I'm using the word "human" here rather than "Japanese people" because the train stations in Canada can suffer the same problems as those here in Japan. Anywhere a large number of people are forced to passively interact with each other can have its share of challenges. Ultimately, busy transportation centres are not just a design problem, they're a human interaction problem. I've never been to Europe, but I guarantee that — aside from the language — there is very little different between train stations here and in some industrious German city.

Now the fun part of the challenge. When it comes to the psychological considerations, a person can chose whether to observe all of these items all of the time, or occasionally ignore a social expectation in order to fulfil some need. Someone running across the station may slow down and look at their ringing phone. A young person may help an elderly person with the stairs. Somebody might collide with a child who is obstructing traffic in order to "teach them a lesson". There are so many variables at play just with the simple act of walking from the train to leave the station that it's nigh impossible to put them in a single podcast without a great deal more research.

This doesn't mean that such an algorithm couldn't be translated into code and a rough three-dimensional model of a human created, though. This doesn't mean that these models shouldn't be made and used to determine the efficiency of a building for human traffic before it's built and every few years afterwards. But would such a thing be useful to anybody?

Perhaps this is something I should model and put on GitHub for anyone to access and use. While I'm sure there are tools like this for designers to test their designs with, I'm willing to bet that none truly encapsulate all the different types of behaviours one might experience when trying to navigate a crowded space filled with thousands of opponents who really couldn't care whether we make it to our destinations on time or not …


  1. a number that I've estimated based on the number of times I take the train every week to get to work and to client offices. Transfers are counted as single trips, not multiples.