Archives: March 2006

Panasonic develops bamboo speakers

30 Mar 2006

Bamboo speakerPanasonic Electronic Devices (subsidary of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd.) announced on March 29 that it has teamed up with Doshisha University to develop speaker diaphragms using paper made from bamboo. Compared to speakers with conventional diaphragms that use paper made from softwood, bamboo speakers have a wider sound range and crisper treble.

Bamboo is lighter and harder than softwood, making it a suitable material for speaker diaphragms. To maintain the ideal properties of bamboo, high-speed grindstones are used instead of chemicals (which can cause some properties to be lost) to break the bamboo down into fiber.

Panasonic hopes to put the speakers on the market at the end of 2007. The speakers are expected to cost double that of conventional speakers, but the company claims that using bamboo can play a role in resource conservation because it grows faster than softwood. The company hopes to establish bamboo as a mainstream material for speakers.

[Source: Asahi Shimbun]

Countdown begins for space yogurt project

29 Mar 2006

Space yogurtFinal preparations are being made for the launch of a project to develop space yogurt. The plan is a follow-up to the Tosa Space Sake (Tosa Uchu-shu) project, in which a number of Kochi prefecture sake brewers organized a 10-day space journey for a batch of yeast that was later used to produce sake (due to go on sale in Japan on April 1). Himawari Dairy, a Kochi-area dairy manufacturer, has reserved a seat aboard a Soyuz rocket for a payload of lactic acid bacteria that they hope to use to produce the world's first space yogurt after it returns to Earth. "We are deeply interested in seeing how the bacteria will change in space," says Himawari Dairy President Bunjiro Yoshizawa. "We hope it will undergo some interesting changes."

The space yogurt project is the result of cooperation between the key players in the space sake project -- a group of Kochi prefecture business leaders promoting the use of space travel to stimulate the local industry, along with the Japan Manned Space Systems Corporation (JAMSS), which handles the logistical affairs. After tasting some success with the promotion of the space sake project, the groups decided to turn their attention to developing space yogurt.

The ingredients to hitch a ride on the Soyuz include Himawari Dairy's unique lactic acid bacteria cultured from pickles preserved in sake lees (sediment that occurs during sake brewing) and lactic acid bacteria used in commercially available yogurt. Live bacteria cultures and dormant freeze-dried bacteria will be on board. The payload also includes a sample of chlorella (green algae) for research purposes, which was provided by the Kochi University School of Agriculture.

On March 22, the ingredients were loaded into special containers in Kochi City and shipped to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. After spending about 10 days aboard the Soyuz, which is scheduled to launch March 31, the bacteria will be returned to Himawari Dairy, who will study the mutations and safety of the bacteria before beginning work on yogurt production. They hope to have the world’s first space yogurt on shelves sometime this autumn.

Cosmic radiation is expected to have an effect on the bacteria. "Lactic acid bacteria is delicate, so we are looking forward to seeing what happens," says Yoshizawa. "It will be nice if space travel improves the yogurt's flavor and boosts its immunity-enhancing properties."

[Sources: Kochi News, Mainichi Shimbun]

3D image of Milky Way shows deformed galaxy

28 Mar 2006

Researchers from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) and Tokyo University have created a three-dimensional image of the Milky Way -- reportedly the first of its kind. The image depicts a disk-shaped galaxy with a large deformity in one area, and it indicates the presence of five spiral arms as opposed to the six commonly believed to exist. The results of the research were presented at a meeting of the Astronomical Society of Japan in Wakayama City on March 28.

3D image of Milky Way

(The area on the bottom-left is deformed. The red area represents neutral hydrogen gas, the green represents hydrogen molecular gas, and the area at bottom is blank due to a lack of data.)

Because interstellar dust interferes with attempts to observe the galaxy’s visible light, the researchers focused on studying radio waves emitted by hydrogen, which is abundant in our galaxy. A variety of existing observation data from radio telescopes in Europe, the Americas, and Australia was collected, and after 6 years of analyzing the quantities and movement of hydrogen gas, an image of the three-dimensional structure of the galaxy emerged.

Gas quantities were calculated from the strength of radio waves emitted by hydrogen gas, and gas locations were obtained from calculations based on the galaxy’s rotational speed. Using the resulting distribution map of gas density, a computer was able to recreate the shape of the galaxy.

"The image can help provide a visual understanding of the cosmos that we live in," says NAOJ Nobeyama Radio Observatory researcher Hiroyuki Nakanishi. "I hope it can play a role in education."

The Milky Way is estimated to be roughly 65,000 light years in radius and 10,000 light years thick.

[Sources: Mainichi Shimbun, Asahi Shimbun, NRO press release (with high-resolution images)]

Chatty shows face at local anime fair

25 Mar 2006

ChattyChatty, a talking mannequin with a human face, is on display at the Tokyo International Anime Fair 2006 (at Tokyo Big Sight through March 26).

Developed by Ishikawa Optics & Art Corporation, Chatty has a face that is brought to life by means of a video projector inside its head. A video image of an actual human face (or the face of a computer-generated character, if you prefer) is projected onto the inner surface of the mannequin's face, which serves as a three-dimensional video screen. Audio synced with Chatty's video lip movements gives the face an astonishingly realistic look.

Chatty's presence at the anime fair brings Ishikawa one step closer toward realizing its dream, which is to see the technology behind Chatty's face be put to use in speech-capable historical figures for museum exhibits, theme park guides, or human-faced androids.

[Sources: IT Media, Chatty homepage (check out the video of Chatty reciting Humpty Dumpty in Japanese!)]

UPDATE: Video of Chatty emerges. The Humpty Dumpty mantra continues.

Akihabara maids want your blood

24 Mar 2006

Akiba maid gives hand massage to blood donorAs the number of willing blood donors in Japan continues to decline, the Japanese Red Cross is stepping up efforts to reverse the trend by offering a unique range of services at blood donation sites.

These services include hand massages by Akihabara "maids," hair/scalp health checks, and palm readings. The Japanese Red Cross has organized the services in part to increase the number of repeat donors, considered critical in combating the declining number of blood donors resulting from the aging of the population.

At the Akiba Blood Donation Room near JR Akihabara station, a young woman wearing a white apron over a dark green one-piece dress greets a donor as he enters. "Welcome back, my lord," she says. After the man is finished with his blood draw, she gives him a 10-minute hand massage. The maid, who is an employee at a local foot care salon, was enlisted by the Red Cross in its attempt to capitalize on the local "maid cafe" boom. The Akiba Blood Donation Room is offering this service until the end of March.

A spokesman for the Akiba Blood Donation Room says there were initial concerns about whether the service went too far. But in an attempt to boost the number of weekday donors -- whose numbers are less than half those of their weekend counterparts -- they decided to go ahead and offer the special service to the first 10 people on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Some donors are surprised to encounter a young woman dressed as a maid. But one donor, after giving blood, remarked, "It’s very 'Akiba.' It's fun.”

Several years ago, the Shinjuku station (east exit) blood donation site began offering manicures and hair care advice provided by specialists from the Japan Hair Science Association. Now, those services are firmly established. After the Yurakucho blood donation site began offering tarot card and palm readings last year, many repeat donors began scheduling their visits to coincide with days that fortune-telling services were offered.

Fun aside, the Japanese Red Cross sees the declining number of blood donors as a serious problem. In 1993, 7.2 million people gave blood in Japan, compared to 5.6 million in 2003. Donors under 30 years of age, who made up 47% of the total in 1993, fell to 35% of the total in 2003.

Over the next five years, the Red Cross hopes to increase the number of repeat donors (who give more than once a year) from the current number of 930,000 to 1.2 million. They will begin offering other services to people who register for membership on the "repeater" homepage, such as free health consultations from doctors and health counselors at each blood center.

The demand for blood fluctuates with the occurrence of major disasters and accidents. By boosting the number of weekday donors and repeaters, the Red Cross hopes to secure a stable supply of safe blood.

[Source: Yomiuri Shimbun]

Ryuichi Sakamoto expands attack on controversial law

23 Mar 2006

Ryuichi SakamotoAt a press conference held in Tokyo on March 23, composer Ryuichi Sakamoto made a public appeal to the government to exempt all secondhand electrical goods from the Electrical Appliance and Material Safety Law (a.k.a. PSE Law, or DENAN). The law, which is set to take effect April 1, will prohibit businesses from selling electrical goods that do not bear the PSE mark (that signifies compliance with the law’s safety standards). In other words, before putting products up for sale, dealers will be forced to file paperwork and perform tests (such as 1,000 volts for one minute) on each and every pre-2002 electrical product in order to obtain a PSE mark. Though the government recently revised the law so that it does not apply to certain "vintage" electric instruments with high scarcity value, Sakamoto called upon the government to expand the exemption to all secondhand electrical goods.

“It is not up to the bureaucrats to determine what is ‘vintage’ and what is not," said Sakamoto, who was joined at the press conference by several other musicians, including composer/performer Hideki Togi and producer Kenzo Saeki. "The things we use should not be a matter for the government bureaucracy to decide. They think that we musicians will shut up because vintage instruments are no longer subject to the law, but I’d like to see everyone get behind those who make a living in the recycled goods business.”

Sakamoto was scheduled to deliver a formal written demand, in the form of a petition, to the Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry after the press conference. The petition includes the signatures of about 50 musicians, including Tetsuya Komuro and Misayoshi Yamazaki, as well as 8 music organizations.

[Sources: Mainichi Shimbun, Kyodo]

Rare goblin shark caught at mouth of Tokyo Bay

23 Mar 2006

A goblin shark (Mitsukurina owstoni), considered a living fossil by scientists, was caught by a trawler off the coast of Miura, Japan. The 1.3-meter, 4-kg fish is a rare bottom-dwelling species of shark. Catching the shark in the relatively shallow waters around the mouth of Tokyo Bay is considered highly unusual.

Goblin shark

One defining characteristic of the goblin shark is its elongated snout. The goblin shark's teeth closely resemble those of a known fossil species of shark, earning it the nickname of "living fossil."

Katsumi Suzuki, 42, a fisherman working at Kami-Miyata Port in Miura City, says he caught the shark while net-fishing for monkfish in 350-meter deep water. Yokohama City Aquarium and Yokohama Hakkeijima Sea Paradise Aqua Museum official Takayuki Shishikura, 42, says, "This shark demonstrates the abundance of sea life in the waters around Tokyo Bay."

[Source: Yomiuri Shimbun]

Things in danger of vanishing…

22 Mar 2006

Things in danger of vanishing because of the Electric Appliance and Materials Law

Nanzuka Underground (Shibuya, Tokyo) has put together an exhibit entitled "Things That Are In Danger Of Vanishing Because Of [the] Electric Appliance And Materials Law." The law, which is set to take effect on April 1, has been widely criticized for its expected impact on the secondhand electronics industry, particularly with respect to musical equipment. Though METI appears to have done some backpedaling to ease the restrictions on certain "vintage" electronics, the concerns remain.

Organized to raise consumer awareness about "the crisis we are facing now," the exhibit features a display of products provided by TURBO SONIC (a secondhand electronics store specializing in products from the 70s and 80s), as well as art work made from numerous parts that belong to the store.

From the press release: "If there is anyone who feels even slightly uncomfortable about the law, we want you to visit the exhibition and hear your voice."

The exhibit runs from March 24 to April 9. Admission is free.

Read the in-depth Nanzuka Underground press release (English/Japanese) for more information.

China’s body odor databank sniffs out crime

22 Mar 2006

Smell databaseForget about fingerprints and DNA -- the way you smell has been added to the list of biometric data that can be used as personal identification. Police in China are now using body odor data to identify suspects in criminal cases.

A laboratory official at the Nanjing Police Canine Research Center has created a "body odor databank" designed to assist in criminal investigations by matching crime scene odors with the smells of individual criminals. With the cooperation of police, the laboratory is now collecting the odors of people with criminal records. So far, 500 different samples have been collected and registered in the database.

According to the official, clues obtained from smells have played a key role in solving a number of cases. This is because even the craftiest criminals are unable to remove all traces of their odor from a crime scene.

[Source: Nikkei BP]