Archives: August 2006

Chefs prepare for annual giant jellyfish invasion

31 Aug 2006

Each year, in an annual rite of autumn, giant jellyfish (echizen kurage) invade the seas around Japan, damaging nets, interrupting fishing operations and reducing the overall quality and quantity of catches. This year the residents of Fukui prefecture have a new strategy to combat the giant jellyfish -- they plan to eat them.

Giant jellyfish and makeshift menu
(On the menu: jellyfish soup, jellyfish yogurt and jellyfish sashimi)

As part of this new strategy, jellyfish cooking classes were held at the Culinary Culture Center in the city of Obama on August 28. The classes attracted about 20 interested people from the local fishing cooperatives and hotel owners association.

Toshiko Komatsu (58), a member of the Oshima fishing cooperative women's group, presented recipes that call for raw jellyfish. "Jellyfish consist mostly of water," she says, "so they are not fit to be steamed or grilled." Her dishes feature bits of last year's giant jellyfish catch that have been preserved in salt, served Chinese-style with cucumber and vinegar soy sauce or served with plum sauce.

Michiko Kamisako (67), who fishes for a living in Oshima, provided some basic advice on jellyfish preparation. "Big jellyfish can be eaten if you slice them into tiny pieces," she explains while squeezing strips of finely sliced jellyfish.

Beginning August 19, reports of giant jellyfish trapped in fixed nets began coming in to the Takasu Fishery Harbor in Fukui city. On busy days, up to 100 jellyfish can become trapped in each net. Most encounters with jellyfish ranging from 50 to 100 cm in diameter are occurring along the northern Fukui coast.

Echizen kurage, also known as Nomura's jellyfish, can grow up to 2 meters wide and weigh up to 200 kilograms (450 lbs) each. That's a lot of sushi.

[Source: Chunichi Shimbun]

Micromotor harnesses the power of bacteria

30 Aug 2006

Bacteria-powered motorResearchers from Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) have developed a micromotor powered by the movement of bacteria.

The 20-micron (1 micron = 1 millionth of a meter) diameter revolving motor has 6 blades, each with a foot that sits in a 0.5-micron deep, 13-micron diameter groove etched into a silicon substrate. The surfaces of the feet and the groove are treated with proteins that cause the bacteria (introduced via a connecting groove) to move in one direction, pushing the feet (and spinning the motor) as they pass through the groove.

The researchers believe microbial motion can be harnessed as a power source for microdevices in the future, with potential applications that include motors for micromachines and miniature pumps for tiny medical devices.

The research results were published in the August 28 edition of PNAS (online edition).

[Source: Sanyo Shimbun, Jiji]

Found artifact resembles kappa head?

29 Aug 2006

Excavated artifact resembles kappa head?Archaeologists in the town of Umi in Fukuoka prefecture have excavated a piece of earthenware shaped as the head of a creature with googly eyes and a big grin. Opinions are divided about whether this artifact, which was unearthed from a site dating back to the Muromachi period (1336 to 1573 AD), is supposed to represent the head of a demon, dragon, snake or kappa.

Kappa are mythical (or real, according to some) creatures that live in Japanese rivers and ponds. Known as pranksters, kappa are notorious for luring people (particularly small children) into water and drowning them. They also like to eat cucumbers. Some theories suggest that the word kappa comes from the Portuguese capa, which refers to the "robe" worn by Portuguese monks who came to Japan in the 16th century. The kappa's hairstyle also resembles the tonsured hair of the monks. (Further reading: Wikipedia entry for kappa.)

The artifact, which is now on display at Umi Museum, measures 5.4 cm (2 in.) tall and is believed to be one of the feet of a larger earthenware vessel. It appears that a sharp bamboo implement was used to shape the eyes and mouth.

"If this is a kappa," says museum director Koji Hiranouchi, "it is a very old representation. The craftsman was probably playing around when he made it."

Others believe the artifact is supposed to represent some sort of reptile or amphibian.

[Source: Iza!]


If you ever decide to keep a kappa as a pet, check out the indispensable Kappa no Kaikata (How to Raise a Kappa), a 26-part series of animated shorts on Animax, with English subtitles (viewable on YouTube). These videos will help you avoid some of the pitfalls of raising a kappa. For example, the first episode shows the disastrous effects of what happens when you feed kappa-maki (cucumber sushi rolls) to your kappa. Evidently, wasabi disagrees with its digestive system.

“I” robot: train station employee of the future

28 Aug 2006

JR's I robotEast Japan Railway Company (JR East) has become the world's first railway company to develop a humanoid robot guide. JR East spent two years working with a Japanese robot manufacturer to develop the droid, nicknamed "I" (which stands for "information"), who the company is now grooming for employment at train stations.

I stands 120 centimeters (4 ft) tall, weighs 50 kilograms (110 lbs) and is equipped with a Suica card (JR's rechargeable contactless train pass) reader on its shoulder and a touch screen on its chest that can display a variety of data. The robot moves around on wheels and is nimble enough to spin around in place.

I's future duties include providing assistance at customer service windows, performing security patrols around stations at night, and assisting station workers with other duties as needed.

As of now, the robot's reception skills include the ability to read Suica cards held near its shoulder and ring telephones to notify representatives of customers in need. The robot can also show customers to reception areas and it can point the direction to the restrooms if asked. Face and voice recognition skills allow it to carry on simple conversations with the people it encounters.

The robot was subjected to about 10 days of testing at JR's research facility in Saitama City at the end of July. However, the droid did not perform very well in the tests, receiving poor marks for awkward and slow movements.

Being awkward and slow does not appear to be a major obstacle to I's employment prospects, though. For the time being, it seems that the robot will get by on charm. "Customers find the robot entertaining," says JR East research director Takashi Endo. "There are still a number of issues that we need to address, but it can be used to create some amusement in the stations."

[Source: Asahi Shimbun]

Rooftop lawn-planting made simple

25 Aug 2006

TM9 turf mat

On August 25, Toyota Roof Garden (a subsidiary of the Toyota Motor Corporation) began taking orders for its TM9 turf mats, modular grass tiles developed specifically for converting rooftops into fields of green. In addition to providing an extra layer of thermal insulation to a building, a grassy rooftop can also be used as a putting green, says the company.

The mats act as a foundation upon which to grow Toyota's TM9 brand of Korean velvet grass (korai shiba), which only needs to be cut once a year (as opposed to 3 to 4 times for other varieties) due to its slow growth. Each 50 x 50 cm (20 x 20 in.) mat is 6 cm (2 in.) thick. Setting up a field is fast and easy -- just arrange the mats where you want them and voila, your grass is ready to be enjoyed.

The mats also include space for water tubes that can be used as an automated irrigation system. Water flows through the tubes into a series of channels beneath the grass, providing an even supply of moisture to the roots. Each square meter (10 sq.ft.) needs 17 liters (4.5 gallons) of water every 3 days.

For the time being, TM9 turf mats are made to order. At 5,000 yen (US$43) per square meter (10 sq.ft.), the company aims to sell 3,000 square meters (30,000 sq.ft.) in 2006.

Green rooftops provide thermal insulation for buildings and can help combat the urban heat island effect. The annual Japanese market for rooftop and wall gardening products is expected to grow to between 10 and 15 billion yen (US$90 to 130 million) in the near future.

[Source: Fuji Sankei]

Intelligent robots by 2015, says METI

23 Aug 2006

AsimoJapan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has set aside over 2 billion yen (US$17.4 million) in its 2007 budget to support the development of intelligent robots that rely on their own decision-making skills in the workplace. The objective of METI's robot budget is to support the development of key artificial intelligence technology for robots over the next 5 years, with the goal of introducing intelligent robots to the market by 2015.

Robots typically need to be pre-programmed with their operation patterns before they can function properly, so their applications tend to be limited and they tend not to adapt well to changes in their surroundings. Intelligent robots capable of working in tandem with humans, on the other hand, will analyze their environments based on voice and image data obtained through their sensors and adapt their behavior accordingly.

METI plans to use the 2 billion yen budget to commission universities and manufacturers to research and develop artificial intelligence and voice/image recognition technology, which would be combined into commercially available robots by 2015.

Examples of next-generation intelligent robots envisioned by METI include cleaning robots and security robots that only need to be shown a facility's blueprints before they get to work. Based on this information, these robots would make their own decisions about what routes to take as they make their rounds. The cleaning robot would seek out areas that are particularly dirty and focus on cleaning those areas, while the security robot would decide for itself whether or not to report suspicious individuals it encounters during its patrol.

METI also envisions a guide robot with highly advanced voice and image processing technology that can interact smoothly with humans. Such robots would be able to speak and interact with customers in busy supermarkets, providing customers with verbal and non-verbal (pointing) instructions on how to find particular items in the store.

The past 10 years has seen a rapid increase in the number of industrial robots, with an estimated 840,000 robots in operation worldwide. And with Japan's annual robot market expected to swell to about 3 trillion yen (US$26 billion) over the next 10 years, the Japanese government sees the development of next-generation intelligent robots as a key component in its economic growth strategy.

Sayonara, dumb robots.

[Source: Fuji Sankei]

Pyramid-shaped watermelons

17 Aug 2006

Pyramid-shaped watermelon

Toshimichi Boui (55), a Nara prefecture resident in the furniture business, is making a name for himself by successfully growing pyramid-shaped watermelons.

Each melon is cultivated inside a hand-made acrylic box from a very young age. The vines grow on a wooden trellis so that the melons can be exposed to full sunlight. This allows them to develop nice, evenly colored rinds.

"Next year I hope to grow melons shaped like gourds and bottles," says Boui.

The melons are lacking in flavor because they are unable to fully mature, so Boui has put them on display at the neighborhood hair salon, among other places. "You taste them with your eyes," he says.

[Source: Asahi Shimbun]

Intelligent road system to boost traffic safety

17 Aug 2006

Driving Safety Support System

Japan's National Police Agency is moving forward with plans to introduce a road safety system that alerts drivers to potential hazards through audio and visual notifications on in-vehicle navigation systems. With testing scheduled to begin in Tokyo this year, the system is expected to be rolled out in 2008 after the test results are verified.

The system, developed by the Universal Traffic Management Society of Japan (UTMS), is known as the Driving Safety Support System (DSSS). The system relies on networks of two-way communication devices called infrared beacons installed at a height of 5.5 meters above roadways, particularly in accident-prone areas. These infrared beacons detect the presence of vehicles and pedestrians in hard-to-see locations and communicate this information to drivers through their in-vehicle navigation systems.

As many as 20 different subsystems, each designed to prevent a specific type of accident (rear-end collisions, head-on collisions, right-turn collisions, etc.), are being studied. Of these subsystems, 5 are expected to be rolled out in 2008 and are being tested in Tokyo -- including one that alerts drivers to the presence of pedestrians when turning left through intersections, one for highways that provides information about merging traffic, and one that provides information about traffic snarl-ups to prevent rear-end collisions.

DSSS is similar to the Vehicle Information and Communication System (VICS), an existing system that also relies on infrared beacons to communicate traffic information to in-vehicle navigation systems, but only about 10% of all vehicles in Tokyo make use of this system. Future studies will focus on developing ways to popularize this type of system.

The tests in Tokyo are designed to provide a detailed investigation of the effectiveness and impact on the safety of ordinary drivers. When experimental testing of the 5 systems was carried out in Toyota City in Aichi prefecture from 2002 to 2004, more than 80% of users thought they were effective.

[Source: Corism]

Tiny dice

16 Aug 2006

World's smallest dice?

God does not play dice with the universe. Or maybe he does. Maybe he uses really small dice that we have difficulty noticing. If so, they might look something like these tiny dice manufactured by Iriso Seimetsu Co., Ltd.

Billed as the smallest dice in the world, each one measures 0.3 x 0.3 x 0.3 mm (for perspective, see the photo above showing one of the die next to a 0.5-mm diameter mechanical pencil lead). The tiny dice are painstakingly crafted one by one from BsBm (brass) in a 9 hour long fabrication process that relies on the latest in micromachining technology. Each one weighs 0.00016 grams and the pips measure 0.05 mm in diameter.

While the 100,275 yen (US$870) price tag includes a special case and the cost of shipping, it does not include the price of the microscope you will need to make sure nobody cheats at the craps table in your flea circus casino.

[Link: World's smallest dice]