Thursday, July 31, 2014

Keep on (Baby) Rockin'

If you've been reading for a while, you'll know that I've been fascinated by the relatively new Japanese idol/metal fusion band BABYMETAL. At last update, they had released a schedule for their 2014 world tour.

RocketNews24 reports that they played in LA this weekend, and will be opening this week for Lady Gaga as she tours. Leave it to her to make such an odd choice. Pity they won't be anywhere near the East Coast. If you're interested, you can check out the RocketNews link for some videos of their most recent show.

Monday, July 28, 2014

TEPCO tries to summon walls of ice?

RocketNews24 reported that TEPCO is trying to create walls of ice (reinforced by soil and cement) around the Fukushima No. 1 reactors so as to keep in the contaminated water. Unfortunately the walls aren't shaping up as planned.

Only 3 mana? What's the problem?

You can read more about the story at RocketNews or the Asahi Shimbun. I haven't been following the reactor news super closely, as the situation always seems to be that basically "things are bad." However it's an important story to keep track of, both for Japan and other countries that use nuclear power. I'm neither gung-ho for or against nuclear energy, though I lean more towards it being a necessity until we can achieve more efficient sustainable energy (we're still far from cheap and abundant solar or wind power). Still, it quite evidently does have its risks, especially when power plants are not well-maintained.

Regardless, shall we take a look at Yahoo Japan!'s article for a quick J lesson?

If you've studied Japanese for a bit, you're probably familiar with the word for "refrigerator," even if you're not familiar with the kanji: 冷蔵庫 (れいぞこ). For the longest time, extending through my years in Japan, I could never remember the similar word for "freezer," which is 冷凍庫 (れいとうこ).

Here in this article, the kanji for "freeze" abounds! Let's look at a couple of excerpts from one sentence:


"Since the construction on the wall of ice began in April, and it has not frozen despite three months passing... "

凍る (こおる) = to freeze. 

I think the easiest way to remember this is to think of かき氷 (kakigori).

As it happens, こおり (氷) means "ice" and こおる (凍る) means "to freeze." I have a hunch that 氷る can also mean "to freeze," but I've never seen that kanji used that way.

2. ...来週にも1日10トンの氷を投入し凍結を促す対策を開始することを明らかにした。

"...a plan has been announced, starting next week, to begin dumping 10 tons of ice per day into the ice trenches in order to quicken the freezing process."

凍結 (とうけつ) = freeze (the act or process of freezing)

This other reading of 「凍」as 「とう」is the reason I always froze up and couldn't remember the word for "freezer." I'm not sure there is a great way to remember it (if you think of one, let me know). But if you can remember that, you can easily remember 「冷凍庫」 - just one character different from "refrigerator."

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Don't judge a book by its...blood type.

WSJ's Real Time Japan reports that a recent study conducted by a Kyoto University professor found that there is, indeed, no relationship between blood type and personality:

For his study, Kyoto Bunkyo University’s Kengo Nawata conducted a questionnaire of over 10,000 people in both Japan and the United States on a variety of subjects including personal preferences and thoughts on future plans, religion, gambling and relationships.

Of the 68 questions, 65 of them showed no specific pattern depending on the person’s blood type, Mr. Nawata wrote, pouring cold water on the idea of blood as a determinant of character. Even with these three questions the study showed that blood types “explained less than 0.3% of the total variance in personality.”

“There is no correlation between blood type and a person’s character,” Mr. Nawata wrote in the study.

And here I always thought the whole thing was like astrology - something that people read about for fun but few really believe to be accurate.

Nope. I only read O-Negative books.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Bean Knowledge

This week I'll be taking part in a jointly run JETAADC-JASWDC Izakaya Pub Quiz event. The way I put our team together, we're lacking in the J-person department (just 3 white guys and 1 half-J guy), so I think we'll be at a disadvantage there. Normally wouldn't be a problem, but the questions are being billed as half English and half Japanese, and I'm not sure we're up to snuff on our Japanese pop culture. Still, we do possess some kernels of knowledge. Or beans of knowledge.

Yes, that is the sorry lead-in to today's Japanese nubbin. The word is 豆知識 (まめちしき), which literally means "bean knowledge." ALC defines it as "bits of knowledge," so I imagine you're supposed to visualize little scattered knowledge beans. Rikai-kun also offers "trivia" as a possible definition.

I know there are other (perhaps more ubiquitous) terms for "trivia," so I just did a cursory couple of searches.

「トリビア」turns up almost 4 million results.

「豆知識」, meanwhile, comes up with 28 million. Judge for yourself.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Bring a phone or buy in Japan?

A soon to depart JET left a comment the other day asking my opinion on what to do about a phone in J-Land. Hereshigoes writes:

Hmm. Very interesting. 

Question for you though: with all this knowledge and your experience in Japan, do you recommend just getting a Japanese phone there when expecting to be there for a year OR [drumroll] unlocking your U.S. phone for like Docomo or something? 
I've heard SO many yes and no's but I am not sure who or what to believe so I don't know what to do. Its annoying. 


I replied to her comment, but for a more complete answer I've written up a guest post over at the JETAADC blog. Have a look if you're interested!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Reading English in Japanese, Apples and Sex

One Japanese news site I like to read on occasion, despite its reporting being suspect at times, is Netallica. Netallica is an offshoot site of Yahoo! Japan, that does blog-like reporting on off-beat or pop culture-related news. One nice thing about it is that it'll often cite studies or reports from other countries. In those cases, it becomes relatively easy to do a Google search afterwards to try and find the original article, or else an English website's report on the story, if you had some trouble understanding what the Japanese article was talking about.

That's one reason why I like browsing the Japanese version of Reuters or other English news sources - if you're already familiar with the story or topic, it becomes a lot easier to grasp the Japanese and pick up new words and terms.

I was just thinking about this after clicking on an interesting looking headline on Netallica: 毎日りんごを食べている女性はセックスでも感じやすい」との調査結果, which looked to be reporting on the results of a study showing that women who eat apples every day have more enjoyable sex (whaaa?).

Incidentally, it turns out the study was conducted in Italy (so I guess this probably would have originally been reported in Italian, not English), and found that apparently apples contain a flavonoid similar to a female sex hormone that...helps...things. Good to know. Oh look - an English article about it in the Daily Mail!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Economist on Machine Translation

There's a blog I follow called Hanzi Smatter, where readers send in pictures of tattoos in Japanese and Chinese, and the author explains their meanings. Spoiler: most of the time they are either gibberish or mean something other than what the inked subject originally thought they meant.

Anyway, the blog was mentioned last month in an Economist article about machine translation. Being that I do a bit of translation myself and am considering it as a possible career in the future, this is an area of great interest to me. Namely, with the rise of computer translation engines like Google Translate, will humans someday be crowded out of this job market by computers? The Economist promised a followup article on that topic, but I haven't found it if it's been published yet and here it is.

MT has come a long way, I'll grant. But Google Translate still churns out a lot of awkward and unnatural text, if it can even get to the base meaning of something. In translations where the source and target are similar, like English and Spanish or German, I imagine improvement may be quick and dramatic. I'm skeptical that leaps and bounds will be made for languages like Japanese, Thai, and Chinese or Korean paired with English. Here's a comment from the article that I think states well this belief (criticism of the publication itself aside):

Good to see MT discussed in the Economist.

Sad to see the same tropes get dragged out all over again. Bad sign translations? Really? Only seen that one in every single online article ever written on MT in the last decade.

One would hope the Economist (of all journals) would write something far more insightful than the 4,757th article full of gasping glee over "magic" technology or how much money Dell saved by using MT. (Ever wonder why Dell is the only TAUS company that keeps getting quoted over and over? Not that many "success stories," it turns out.)

OK, let's review a few dirty little secrets. They can be very revealing.

Dirty little secret #1. There is almost zero money in commercial-market MT. It's a barren desert of "consultants" and shockingly little cash flow. Every company that dips its toes into the water realizes that it cannot survive on hype and no cash. All the VC cash is pouring into platforms for human translation. There is a reason for this.

Dirty little secret #2. Human translation is a $34 billion global market with billion-dollar segments (law, finance, banking, marketing, media, government) where MT -- the perfect technology for fast, cheap and good enough -- will never work.

Dirty little secret #3. The engine driving MT is human translation. Google works by leveraging existing human translations in its databases and only when nothing is there does it lean on predictive algorithms. Hence, the massively uneven quality. If you subtracted all that human-translated content, Google would be a gibberish-producing laughingstock.

Oh, and Google itself does not use Google Translate for its own materials. Who would be silly enough to do that?

If this article were on Internet privacy, we would have just read the version the NSA wants us to read.

I would hope the Economist would get more serious as a journalistic enterprise in exploring the far more fascinating story (the real one) instead of the one just spoon-fed to it by organizations like TAUS, which have their own agenda.

My own brief followup anecdote:

At work, my colleagues and I find and clip articles from major US publications relating to developments in the telecom industry or telecom public policy. Each day we send the ones we choose to a translator, who sends them back in Japanese. Recently we were told by our Factiva (a publication aggregating service that we subscribe to) account representative that there is a tool within the interface that allows for some articles to be translated to Japanese. I expressed skepticism, but she told me she was confident that they would be of good quality and to check out the tool. I did so, and this is what I found -

Their fancy tool is actually just Google Translate. And thus I lost confidence that our account representative really knows what she is talking about.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Crying Hyogoite Politician

Rocket News 24 reports on a recent press conference of note:

"A Japanese politician who claimed over 3 million yen (around US$30,000) in travel expenses without providing any supporting evidence has defended his actions in a dramatic and emotional display. Speaking to reporters at the Hyogo Prefectural Assembly on Tuesday, Ryutaro Nonomura cried loudly as he insisted that he had genuinely made all the trips claimed for, and that the travel was for work purposes."

Read the whole story here.

It's usually nice to see my Japanese "hometown" in the news, but this guy isn't anything to be proud of. Corrupt and incompetent politicians spawn everywhere, like insects, but come least have a little dignity when you're caught in a scandal. Either lie like a pro or resign, or both; don't cry about it. I guess he's hoping that if he is appears remorseful enough, the voters will forget about this and keep him around. And you know, he might be right.

What a shameful display.