<< 02: Don Kihoote

Episode 03: Grunt! Grunt!

04: Kan you kan-kan? >>

"Japanese do not make a virtue of being direct. Indeed, directness is seen as vulgar. The Japanese prefer to feel their way through a situation when dealing with others." --Lonely Planet

Well, looks like I can only conclude that the teenage girl wearing that "Do You Want To Fuck Me?" T-shirt must've been a gaijin in disguise. (Either that,or "feel their way through a situation" is a somewhat euphemistic way of, err, putting things, into, um, wherever such things are put.)

I was sitting in the subway on my way back from work, busily tapping notes into my Palm Vx in my usual bizarre mixture of Japanese, English and Finnish, whichever one happens to provide the most compact representation for a particular concept. The Japanese are noted for their ability to sleep on subways while commuting and still wake up when they reach their station, but the note said "Escalatorに寝てる人!" -- I'd spotted a man with his head hanging way down, managing to catch a few Z's while standing on a moving walkway at Nagatacho station. So in the subway an older, somewhat less sleepy salaryman sat down next to me, and casually looked at what I was doing. I ignored him and kept tapping away, and then switched to KanjiTest, an excellent little Chinese character drill program that keeps me entertained while commuting. In front of us a young student was busily configuring his mobile phone. After feeling inadeqaute for a few minutes, the salaryman pulled out a portable AM/FM radio from the seventies and started equally busily studying the display and the buttons protruding from its Walkman-sized exterior...

When I arrived in Japan, I asked Nakagawa-san if he knew any places where I could get used appliances, but he -- a college student! -- confessed to not knowing any. Used (中古) records are popular, and I know of shops that sell used high-end audio gear and even a Risaikuringu Sentaa for restaurant equipment on Kappabashi-doori, but appliances don't get recycled here -- they get thrown out. Ever since I came here, quite possibly for some time before that given the layer of grime atop it, the carcass of a microwave oven had been rotting in the outside hallway that connects the apartments on the 5th floor of the Komaba Lodge, exposed to the elements. Since you have to pay to get rid of oversized waste (粗大ゴミ), stuff ranging from washing machines to windowpanes is often unceremoniously dumped outside, with the garbage collection point outside the Lodge being a veritable graveyard of broken TVs and stereo equipment.

A microwave was on my to-buy list, but they're a bit expensive and not really all that useful... but after looking at the one lying in the hallway every day for a few weeks I had a hunch. It was dirty, but there were no signs of physical damage, so I lugged it to my apartment, ensured that there were no colonies of angry mutant roaches inside, then placed a glass of water inside, set the timer for 30 seconds and stepped back. The light turned on, the magnetron activated, the plate turned, the timer moved and after 30 seconds it said "bing!". And, sure enough, the water was hot.

So now, after an intensive clean-up operation (the previous owner had evidently considered the oven disposable from the start and never bothered to clean it), I now have a microwave as well. The model is probably over 5 years old (gasp!) and consequently does not feature a single word of advertising English, but it does have a handy reference list of suggested cooking times inside. A bottle of sake takes one minute, miso soup 1:30, yakisoba (fried noodles) up to 2:00, but properly cooking raw squid takes a whopping 6:30 for 200 grams. Now I understand why the Japanese prefer to eat it raw.

I've finally started to actually get to work in the lab as well, now that my new computer -- a P3 Coppermine 800, promptly dubbed "iseebi" as predicted a few episodes back -- has arrived. Most of the lab's, or at least my professor Nigel Ward's, research is concentrated on what is in Japanese known poetically as あいずち (aizuchi), and somewhat less poetically in English as "grunts" -- all the little ums, uhs and yeahs that you say when listening to someone else speak. These grunts are a part of back-channel feedback, the signaling used to keep a speaker and his listener in sync.

Now, the layman (like me) might expect that the generation of these grunts is a pretty complex process, in that they indicate how much the listener has understood, whether he agrees with the speaker, etc. Not so: grunts are not really controlled by the listener -- they're requested by the speaker! To make a long story short, to request a grunt the speaker subconsciously lowers his pitch for 110 ms, after which the listener is expected to grunt. If he doesn't, or if he grunts at the wrong moments, the speaker will tend to get a bit worried -- why isn't his message getting through? Try it sometime: it's surprisingly difficult to resist the impulse to grunt, and it'll be difficult for the speaker as well.

Over the years, the lab has built up quite a collection of grunty software, including a nifty little program called AIZULA (I presume this is a combination of "aizuchi" and "godzilla") that listens to human input and grunts at the right moments. It's pretty uncanny. To get used to the programming environment, my first task was to plot distributions for the length of the pause following "uh" vs "um", the theory being that "um" means it's more likely for the listener to disagree and say something himself. (Result: inconclusive, more data needed.) And now, while my college student visa forbids working in Japan, an exception is made for work for the university -- so now I'll be supplementing my meager income by programming more grunty tools. Up next, a black box that takes a speech sample as input and guesses whether it's a grunt or not. Will it work? We shall see...

As for my own work, I've started to flesh out the specs of the wearable system. The display is in many ways the most crucial but unfortunately also the most difficult part: the one that I really want, MicroOptical's Integrated Eyeglass Display that projects the monitor's image straight into your pupil, costs a cool 586,000 yen (lop off two zeros for a dollar approximation). There are other options, like Sony's Glasstron series, but they're just not as unobtrusive... walking around with thick eyeglasses may make you look like a nerd, but walking around with goggles of reflective blue-tinted glass makes you look too much like a cyborg. Then again, being a Nordic gaijin, in Japan I wouldn't stand out much more if I dyed my hair pink and wore a tutu...

04: Kan you kan-kan? >>