Archive for the ‘Science and technology’ Category

End of the line for Narita’s hovershuttle

September 18, 2013

AAAAA hovershuttle

If ever you’ve flown to or from Japan via Narita Airport’s Terminal 2, you may have had the chance to ride on the shuttle seen in this photo. But you probably won’t get that chance again. The Yomiuri Shimbun reports via The Japan News that this connection between the main and satellite buildings will be shut down this month, after 20 years of operation. (Read the story here.)

I always enjoyed riding it. It operates something like a funicular railway in that its two separate cars are attached to a loop of cable that shuffles them back and forth between the endpoints of its very short route. But I was amazed to learn from the article that the cars have no wheels. They hover on a cushion of air!

Moreover, according to Wikipedia, “The system is made by Nippon Otis Elevator…It is technically (and legally) not a railway, but a horizontal elevator.”

I’ve gone from thinking of the shuttle as cute to thinking of it as totally awesome. But I have no business at the airport this month, so I’ll never see it again.

Birth of a Japanese tornado?

September 4, 2013

Storm wide

“Tornado” in Japanese is 竜巻 tatsumaki, written with a pair of characters that can be read to mean “spinning dragon.”

The other day, I may have photographed a dragon’s egg.

At 1:14 on Monday, September 3, I stepped out the front door of my apartment in Kawaguchi, a northern suburb of Tokyo, and saw an unusual cloud formation on the eastern horizon.

My friend Bill Hark is a veteran storm chaser in the United States. (You can visit his website here and see a short documentary in which he appears here.) This looked like the sort of cloud that might interest him. So, I took two quick photos to send him and then went about my day, running several errands in an area to the west of where I live.

Storm close

Late that evening, I learned that a tornado had hit the town of Koshigaya about 45 minutes after I took the photos. Here’s one view of what the tornado looked like:

You can see more dramatic footage here and some of the damage it did here. You can read about it here. More than 60 people were injured, but fortunately no one was killed.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until a day later that it occurred to me that since Koshigaya is northeast of Kawaguchi, the cloud formation I had photographed might be related to the tornado. It was just south of Koshigaya when I took the pictures, but the storm’s path moved to the northeast.

When I consulted Bill by e-mail, he said, “The formation is a towering cumulus that appears to be on its way to becoming a storm. I don’t know if it became ‘the storm,’ but I think there is a strong possibility.”

He also suggested that I send the photos to the Japan Meteorological Agency. I have done so. Whether the photos show “the storm” or not, I hope their researchers find them to be of some use.

Hybrid technology applied to ice cream

October 25, 2012

Toyota’s Prius automobile is world-famous for its efficient combination of a gasoline engine and an electric motor.

I recently learned that the efficiency of an ice cream bar can be improved through a similar hybrid technique.

A major advantage of an ice cream bar is that it can be coated in sweet substances such as chocolate. But you can’t pick up a chocolate-coated ice cream bar with your fingers. Up until now, the state-of-the art solution to this problem was to use a wooden stick as a handle.

However, ice cream bars have to be individually wrapped for shipment and sale. Approximately one-third of the space inside the wrapper goes to waste. It contains nothing but stick and air.

A product from Japan’s Lotte confectionery company solves this problem by combining an ice cream bar with a treat that you can handle with your fingers – namely, an ice cream sandwich.

Some readers commenting on this post have alerted me to the fact that this isn’t necessarily a Japanese invention. Scroll down to read what they have to say about products already using the same concept elsewhere in the world.

Anyway, the construction of  this frozen treat allows you to nibble your way down a vanilla ice cream bar coated in bitter chocolate that is studded with crunchy cookie crumbs – and when you get to the end, you’re left holding not a stick, but a petite ice cream sandwich between two little chocolate cookies.


Lotte sells this under its Ghana brand, using the slogan “ikko de nido oishii” (delicious two ways in one piece). I recently purchased a box of four for 298 yen at a grocery store. They are sold individually at convenience stores for a somewhat higher price.

As ice cream novelties go, this is probably a fairly green one. No trees are killed to make sticks, there’s less post-consumer waste, and their carbon footprint is likely reduced by the fact that they pack (and therefore ship) more efficiently.

But here’s a note of caution to greedy ice-cream lovers: This treat is narrower than a conventional ice cream bar, which means that you aren’t getting more ice cream. Instead, you’re getting the same amount of ice cream delivered in a technologically sleek way.

In other words, ice cream engineers were not the only ones involved in developing this product. A supporting role was played by ice cream accountants.

Volkswagen’s unbelievable Laputamobile

June 16, 2012

Volkswagen’s latest concept car is a Star Wars style landspeeder. Or is it?

I was reading James Fallows’ Atlantic magazine blog recently when I saw a startling photo of a hovering car in a post he wrote about promising new developments in personal avaiation. A flying car! How cool!

I clicked on the link, which led to an article titled “Chengdu designer creates hovering vehicle for Volkswagen” at a site called Go Chengdu. As I read the article and watched the embedded video, I began to smell something fishy.

The car was supposedly built in Chengdu, China, based on an entry in a “People’s Car Project” that solicited ideas from the public. The wheel-less vehicle flies just above the surface of the road with no visible means of support or propulsion. One of the first and biggest questions to come to my mind was, “How does it work?”

Fortunately, the video’s narrator answered that. His explanation, according to the English subtitles in the video, is that “Chengdu is geographically unique. Chengdu has a lot of unique minerals underground. The Maglev Car or the Hover Car uses cutting-edge technology. It reacts with the minerals underground to float.”

This made perfect sense. I’ve heard of this technology before. It was described in great detail by Jonathan Swift in his novel “Gulliver’s Travels.” At one point in that book, Gulliver visits Laputa, a flying island in the sky. How can an island fly? Like this:

“But the greatest Curiosity, upon which the Fate of the Island depends, is a Loadstone [magnet] of a prodigious Size … sustained by a very strong Axle of Adamant passing through its Middle, upon which it plays, and is poized so exactly that the weakest Hand can turn it…

“By means of this Loadstone, the Island is made to rise and fall, and move from one Place to another. For, with respect to that Part of the Earth over which the Monarch [of Laputa] presides, the Stone is endued at one of its Sides with an attractive Power, and at the other with a repulsive. Upon placing the Magnet erect with its attracting End towards the Earth, the Island descends; but when the repelling Extremity points downwards, the Island mounts directly upwards. When the Position of the Stone is oblique, the Motion of the Island is so too. For in this Magnet the Forces always act in Lines parallel to its Direction….

“By this oblique Motion the Island is conveyed to different Parts of the Monarch’s Dominions…

“But it must be observed, that this Island cannot move beyond the Extent of the Dominions below … [because] the Mineral which acts upon the Stone in the Bowels of the Earth, and in the Sea about six Leagues distant from the Shoar, is not diffused through the whole Globe, but terminated with the Limits of the King’s Dominions.”

In other words, Swift’s readers would be unable to duplicate Laputa’s technology at home in England, just as watchers of the hovercar video would be unable to operate a similar vehicle outside of Chengdu. You need those “unique” minerals underground. (Too bad those minerals go unnamed.)

Further arousing my suspicions, the woman who supposedly created this wondrous vehicle is identified in the Go Chengdu article not as an engineer (a background that might enable a person to build a flying car) but as a local student of animation design (a background that might enable a person to make a flying car video).

My disbelief was further strengthened by the fact that a cursory Internet search turned up no photos of the car that were not stills from the video. Surely Volkswagen would have taken lots of pictures, and surely the amazed bystanders we see in the video would have snapped it on their cell phones. Where are those images? The car was supposedly displayed at the Beijing Auto Show, but I found no photos to back that up.

Moreover, I found no reference to this car on Volkswagen’s main international website – not even on the pages dedicated to bragging about its technological innovations or “show cars.” Nor was I able to spot a photo of it at the People’s Car Project website. I admit that I did not do exhaustive searches of these sites, looking at every single page, but you’d expect such an amazing innovation to have a high profile if it were real.

I wouldn’t have spent so much time looking into this if not for the fact that James Fallows, whom I usually consider reliable, presented it with a seemingly straight face on a date other than April 1.  A bit of Googling revealed that the Huffington Post also picked up this hoaxy video and appeared to take it seriously, as did a number of blogs. To be fair, HuffPo presented it as a “concept video,” but they still wrote as if it were a realistic concept.

It’s a gag.

UPDATE (June 19, 2012): Snopes is on the case. Details here.

Watch the skies (especially over Japan)

May 18, 2012

A few minutes ago, I went outside and tested my fancy new eclipse-viewing glasses. Forty-eight hours from now, on the morning of May 21, I’ll be among millions of people in Japan and the western United States taking the rare opportunity to view a “kinkan nisshoku,” or “annular eclipse.”

An annular eclipse is one that occurs when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun at a point in the moon’s orbit when it is far from the Earth and thus appears relatively small – the exact opposite of the effect seen in the recent “supermoon.” In an annular eclipse, this small moon appears superimposed in front of the sun rather than completely blocking it out. The visible portions of the sun form a fiery ring around the moon’s black silhouette.

One positive effect of this event is that it has expanded my vocabulary in two languages. The English word “annular,” which comes from Latin via French, means “ring-shaped.” The Japanese term is even more straightforward and easy to remember, as it is written with a string of kanji characters that literally mean “gold-ring sun-eating.”

The moon’s shadow will fall across a large swath of the Earth, but the full annular effect will be visible only in a narrow band that goes through nearly all of Japan’s major cities (what luck!) on Monday morning before moving out to sea in a long arc across the northern Pacific Ocean, during which it will cross the International Date Line to jump back to late Sunday before coming ashore in northern California, passing over Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, and finally fading out around New Mexico’s border with Texas.

The National Astronomical Observatory of Japan has an excellent English-language map you can use to plan your eclipse-viewing HERE, with peak times for nine Japanese cities listed. And you can find a map from NASA, showing a worldwide view of the eclipse area, HERE.

A warning that bears repeating is that if you look directly at the sun, even during an eclipse, you can seriously injure your eyes. And that is why eclipse-viewing glasses like the ones I bought at Bic Camera in Yurakucho, Tokyo, are now on sale all over Japan. These are no ordinary sunglasses. They are so dark that if you put them on and look anywhere BUT directly at the sun, you won’t be able to see a thing. But you can see a clearer and more detailed image of the sun than you would ever be able to get with your naked eye. This morning, looking at a normal sun, I found that the eclipse glasses work best in combination with the ordinary eyeglasses I usually wear to look at distant objects.

There are a couple of different brands available. I picked Vixen because it was the most expensive (1,480 yen, or about 19 dollars) and I had few other data on which to base my choice. Therefore, I was a little annoyed to open the package and find that the glasses have holes on either side for a piece of string to keep them on your head – but no string was included. You’d think that customers who pay the highest price could at least get a piece of string thrown in.

On the bright side, I’ll get to use these glasses more than once. Early next month, Japan will also be in the optimal viewing area for the transit of Venus, an event in which the planet Venus passes between us and the sun.

Image credit: NASA

Even if you don’t live in Japan, the transit of Venus will be fully or partially visible across most of the world, including parts of Africa, parts of South America, all of Australia and nearly all of the northern hemisphere.

Watch carefully, and enjoy the show.

Image credit: NASA

Japanese curry: Asteroid memorial

April 5, 2012

What was the first country to land a spacecraft on an asteroid? What was the first country to bring asteroid samples back to Earth? What was the first country to celebrate these achievements with at least four different movies … and a commemorative curry?

The answers are Japan, Japan and of course Japan.

The Japanese space probe Hayabusa was launched in 2003. Its destination, which it reached using cutting-edge ion engines, was the asteroid Itokawa. The asteroid is a peanut-shaped mass of rock and dust about 500 meters long, usually described as being 300 million kilometers from Earth. Just reaching a target of that size at that distance is an amazing feat.

Unfortunately, a lot of things went wrong on the mission. But in most cases, engineers at JAXA (Japan’s space agency) were able to improvise solutions.

The worst problem was that a device meant to collect material from the asteroid malfunctioned. When Hayabusa returned to Earth in 2010, making a fiery landing in Australia, its sample canister appeared to be empty. Microscopic inspection, however, revealed tiny particles of asteroid dust that scientists are continuing to study. Although not the hoped-for treasure trove, it was a historic achievement nonetheless. Itokawa and the moon are the only celestial bodies from which humans have ever managed to bring back any material to Earth.

I recently learned, though a Yomiuri Shimbun article, that the Sunkus convience store chain was selling “Itokawa Curry” for a limited time. A block of rice in the shape of the asteroid was positioned on a plate of curry sauce that represented the darkness of space. Floating in the background were a meatball standing in for Earth and a sliced egg playing the sun. Crowning it all was a bite-sized piece of fried chicken perched on the rice to represent Hayabusa landing on the asteroid. (This is appropriate, given that Hayabusa is named after a bird – albeit a peregrine falcon, not a chicken.)

I was desperate to try this historic dish for myself, and over the past week and a half I have made a total of six visits to four different Sunkus locations, but it wasn’t until yesterday – the very last day of the promotion – that I finally found the coveted curry in stock.

Asteroid sampling tool

In case you’re disappointed at not being able to try it yourself, I can assure you that the flavors were well within the gray middle zone of convenience-store standards and thus totally forgettable. But the symbolism was delicious.

It turns out that this product was meant as a promotion for the Shochiku film company’s new 3-D movie about the Hayabusa mission. It’s called “Okaeri, Hayabusa,” which means “Welcome home, Hayabusa.” Here’s a trailer:

That movie is just the latest of several on the topic. Twentieth Century Fox also came out with a film simply called “Hayabusa,” starring Toshiyuki Nishida, an actor best known for his lead role in the movie series “Tsuri Baka Nisshi” (Diary of a fishing fool). Here’s the trailer:

The Kadokawa film company made a computer-graphic retelling of Hayabusa’s journey called “Hayabusa: Back to the Earth.” The final line of this trailer, “Saa … kairou … natsukashii chikyu ni” (Well … let’s go home … to our fondly remembered Earth) actually chokes me up for some reason. Maybe it’s the accompanying music. Maybe it’s the fact that I actually understood it. Or maybe there was a mood-altering ingredient in that curry. Watch:

The Hayabusa film with the most star power (pun unavoidable) is Toei’s “Hayabusa Harukanaru Kikan” (a title I would roughly translate as “Hayabusa’s homecoming from afar”), with Ken Watanabe as an awkwardly coiffed engineer:

I don’t think any of these movies could be described as massive hits. Does this reflect on their cinematic quality, or were there just too many of them for the market to absorb? Not having actually watched the films, I’ll leave that for others to judge.

2011 Tokyo Truck Show

October 27, 2011

Today was the opening day of the 2011 Tokyo Truck Show, so I dropped by the Tokyo Big Sight convention center to have a look. At the time of this post, the show has two days left.

There were dozens of trucks on display, many inside the exhibition halls and even more parked in a large fenced area outside. In addition to the standard cab-in-front-of-a-box arrangement, there were a great many specialized trucks to examine, including tanker trucks, dump trucks, garbage trucks, tow trucks, the car carrier in the photo above (which looks even cooler to my eye than the snazzy sports cars it has aboard) and the giant vacuum-cleaner truck in the photo below.

Most of the trucks just sat there, gleaming, but a few put on demonstrations, such as the logging trucks equipped with robot arms in this video:

Perhaps because this is a trade show aimed at representatives of companies (even though it is open to the public), there was no trace of Japan’s fantastically individualistic deco-tora decorated truck subculture. However, I did see one truck that had some artwork on its side:

Walking around to the other side of the truck, I discovered the amazing machine that had been used in creating this artwork. It took me a moment to realize what I was looking at. It was the biggest ink-jet printer I have ever seen in my life:

The drive-in printer, made by the Tokyo-based LAC Corporation, is called an Auto Body Printer in Japanese, and Vehicle Art Robo in English. According to the company’s website, the same technology is also used to print designs on refrigerators, surfboards, suitcases and cell phones – basically anything with a hard surface. It takes just under two and a half hours to complete a 10 meter by two meter image.

The printer was just one piece of truck-related merchandise on display. Other exhibitors were promoting everything from leaf springs to drivers’ uniforms. The Tokai Denshi company, based in Fuji, Shizuoka Prefecture, was demonstrating its ALC-Lock device (photo below) that will prevent a driver from starting a truck while drunk.

Two other devices impressed me with the idea that there is always room for innovation, even regarding the most everyday objects or situations.

For drivers who have to spend the night sleeping in the back of their cabs, the Tokyo-based firm Taiyo Kogyo, aka Mak Max, will introduce next year an inflatable sleeping bag attached to a personal air conditioner. According to the company’s website, their other inflatable products include Tokyo Dome. (No, that’s not a typo. Taiyo Kogyo specializes in membranes as a building material.)

And the Moriyama Tekkou company has taken a device so simple it would seem impervious to further design – the wheeled dolly – and redesigned it. Their new, lightweight dolly folds up into a compact package resembling a trumpet case. A member of the staff at their booth was kind enough to let me make a video of her demonstrating it:

I was especially taken with item this because I used to use dollies and hand trucks long ago in my 1980s summer job as a mover. Not surprisingly, a lot of things at the truck show brought back memories of my moving days. When we movers were not actually out on the trucks, we would be put to work in the warehouse, where a van would stop by each day selling sandwiches, drinks and snacks that we’d buy for lunch. We called it “the roach coach” (which must have been an ancient joke even then), and it looked something like this:

The truck in this photo was displayed at the show by Ohpado, a Yokohama-based company whose website shows them to specialize in baked goods rather than trucks per se. In fact, I have once or twice glimpsed such a truck selling baked goods to office workers in Ginza. Perhaps it was an Ohpado truck. In any case, despite the nickname we gave the van, my fellow movers and I eagerly ate many of its sandwiches back in the day, and the pastries shown at Ohpado’s website look like they’d be quite nice.

Want to go?

The 2011 Tokyo Truck Show runs through Saturday, Oct. 29, at the Tokyo Big Sight convention center. The hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and admission is 1,000 yen. It is not aimed at children, but I did notice one man there with his very small son, and I think a kid who likes trucks would get a kick out of seeing so many in one place. The show is entirely in Japanese.

Prof teaches robot twin to smoke

March 9, 2010

In the movie “Surrogates,” which opened in the U.S. last fall and came to Japan in January, humanoid robots have become so advanced, and so cheap, that most people stay home all day and send remote-controlled doppelgangers out to take care of their jobs, run their errands and even do their leisure activities. It may sound far-fetched, but Osaka University Prof. Hiroshi Ishiguro has already sampled that lifestyle for real.

He calls his robot twin a “geminoid” (the movie calls them “surrogates”), and he has even taught it how to smoke by rigging an air compressor, which usually drives its pneumatic actuator muscles, to make the robot inhale. Prof. Ishiguro himself smokes, and when I interviewed him about his research earlier this year, he told me that since he works in a nonsmoking building, engineering his robot to smoke was a good excuse to get around the rules.

Science-fiction author David Brin has complained that the movie shows people using robot surrogates for very limited purposes, when in reality such a radical technology would be likely to have applications as varied as vicarious space travel and “Hyper-X-sports in which no one comes back ‘alive’!” Logically, he is correct, but I think the movie’s creators made a defensible artistic choice in focusing on a limited number of aspects of what a brave new robotic world might look like. (And in the film we do get a glimpse of an ad for a pro football game in which one surrogate player has just ripped off another one’s head.)

When I asked Ishiguro about this, he said that robot geminoids in a future society would be like cars in Japan today. Not everyone in Japan owns a car, and those who do own cars use them for many different purposes.

Find out what else Ishiguro had to say about his work on geminoid technology — and see a photo of him arm in arm with his robot twin –by reading my article here.

Euglena cookies: A billion bugs in every box

March 4, 2010

On a tabletop at the food science show running through March 22 at Tokyo’s Miraikan museum, there is a shallow aquarium filled with glowing green water. The glow comes from a submerged light, and the green comes from the billions of euglena that swarm around it.

Euglena are one-celled microbes that create energy through photosynthesis. This makes them sound like plants. But each euglena also has a whip-like tail called a flagellum that it uses to swim toward a light source. This makes them sound like animals. According to the dictionary, they are “often classified as algae.”

The Miraikan classifies them as food.

“Theoretically, 190,000 people per day could be fed from a euglena pool measuring 800 meters by 800 meters by one meter,” says a sign near the museum’s much smaller tank, which might provide an appetizer for one person.

According to the museum, euglena are 17 times more efficient at photosynthesis than corn is. This, plus their consumption of carbon dioxide and production of oxygen, has attracted the interest of scientists looking for viable food sources for future space colonization, as well as those looking for solutions to hunger and global warming here on Earth.

In Japanese, euglena are called “midori mushi” (literally “green bug”), and the museum is selling Midori Mushi Cookies in petite boxes of five. Each cookie contains about 200 million euglena, for a total of one billion green bugs in each box. Naturally, I had to try them. They tasted like sesame shortbread cookies. I found them disappointingly non-weird, but maybe that’s a good thing for humanity’s future.

Read about the rest of what I learned at the museum in my Daily Yomiuri article, as picked up by Singapore’s Soshiok foodie site.