25.05.2015 21:53

Japan has a history of making unconventional fiscal decisions. Among them was a decision in the 90s to try to spur economic growth by increasing spending on infrastructure - from below 32% of GDP in 1991 up to around 38% nowadays. The timing, of course, coincided with the burst of the Japanese economic bubble, and was the Japanese way of avoiding the big slump - instead of cutting back government spending, it was intended spur artificial demand and productivity in the country.

The results are two-fold. Foreigners coming to Japan easily notice the well-maintained infrastructure - streets have no pot-holes, highways are smooth, trains are passing through ridiculously expensive tunnels. The program, along with other domestic labor creation schemes, also helped in keeping unemployment low, leaving the image of the goverment protecting its people intact.

On the other hand, most of the coastline is now covered in concrete instead of sandy beaches, creating some incredible eyesores. Oh, and there's also the "minor" problem that the whole thing is so expensive that Japan ended up with the biggest debt of all industrialized countries, by a fairly huge margin.

I was very surprised, then, to find out that even Japan's seemingly unbounded spending spree on concrete has a limit. While heading to another mountain pass in the vincinity of 奥多摩, I was hoping I could avoid some sprawl by following a small path on the north side of 相模湖, which was classified as "path, paved" in OpenStreetMap. Surprisingly though, the entrance was shut off with a meticulously constructed obstacle:

It is not unusual for streets to be shut off, usually that means there is some minor construction work, and they are perfectly fine. However, the gate at the entrance was more serious than usual, and it became quite obvious why - the street had experienced some serious landslides a couple of years ago, and the surface was covered with rocks that had come down from the surrounding mountains:

The only reason why they hadn't fallen down further was because they were stopped by the guard rail, barely visible on the left. Now, while it's a bit reassuring that a guard rail can indeed stop a couple of tons of stones, it's not obvious how long it can resist the pressure, and surely at some point, it will just break.

Even more interesting, though, is that the street was completely abandoned. This hadn't happened a couple of weeks before, the landslide must have occurred a couple of years back, at least, as evident in the vegetation that reclaimed the area a couple of meters further down:

Clearly, this place was deemed to expensive to repair, and with two major roads flanking the area, it would have been used by locals and cyclists only anyway.

At the point where the road turned into a jungle, I figured that's a bit too wild for me, made a note to correct the labeling in OSM later, and defaulted to a safer route down to ヤビツ峠.

ヤビツ峠 is a pass between 宮ヶ瀬湖 and 秦野, not too... WAIT A SECOND, DID YOU SEE THAT? THERE'S FREAKIN' MONKEYS AT THE SIDE OF THE ROAD!

(Yes, it's very unusual to see wild animals so close to the populated areas, and I wasn't even aware that there's monkeys around here.)

Anyway, heading out from 宮ヶ瀬湖, the pass climbs up very gradually, with very few and rather short steep sections. It's one of the easier climbs around, but certainly one of the most scenic, with a nice open riverbed next to it, and plenty of small waterfalls:

From the top, there are at least 3 different hiking routes to various peaks in the area, and while all of them are a little bit far for a casual walk, they offer plenty of opportunities to hang up the hammock and take in the scenery:

Speaking of scenery, the real highlight of the climb is the descent on the other side. It's one of the fastest descents in the area, with plenty of segments that have good visibility ahead, and strategically positioned mirrors for the sharper curves. It's advisable though to not forget to take a look around, when the tree lines open up, the views can be quite spectacular:

Around halfway through, there is a parking area with an observation tower, which is also (barely) visible in the picture above. Stopping there at least on the first visit is definitely worth it, giving a slightly better view on everybody's favorite Japanese mountain, plus a nice glimpse of the urban sprawl below:

Even though I didn't really plan on going there that day, ヤビツ峠 never fails to disappoint. Let's just hope Japan's most recent push to plaster the rest of Asia with even more concrete doesn't mean places like this fall into disrepair, too.

20.05.2015 23:03

I love charts, especially when they give me a quick view on the interesting bits of a data set.

I don't like charts that try to paint a picture of something that isn't there, though. Here's a chart that describes how the IMF thinks the world economy is going to grow over the next couple of years:

Judging from the 25 years on the left of the chart - does the IMF really believe that we are entering an age of prosperity, stable growth and no market turbulences? How, looking at the fluctuations on the left side, could anyone come up with the straight line on the right?

The answer of course is no, the IMF doesn't believe in stable growth, in fact, they believe there are substantial risks, as lined out in the text of the article. It's completely beyond me though how the chart is supposed to illustrate that.

20.05.2015 21:52

During the first week of May or so, there is a clustering of national holidays known as the "Golden Week". It starts with 昭和の日 (Showa Day) on April 29th, and usually ends with こどもの日 (Children's Day) on May 5th. This year, due to an overlap with a weekend, it ended up looking like this, where red are the days off:

Japanese workers are notoriously short on vacation, with something like 12 working days per year being about average. Even then, in a Japanese company, it is being frowned upon to actually use the full yearly vacation budget, so in reality, people take maybe half of those 12 days.

Unsurprisingly, a cluster of national holidays like during Golden Week makes the Japanese workers rejoice, since by taking just 2 days off, they can get 9 days off in a row. They will then happily rush to Thailand, Hawaii, or maybe some more exotic destination, do as much travel as they can during that short time, and then show off where they have been by bringing お土産 (Omiyage) to the office, little sweet snacks for the co-workers bought overseas.

For some reason, I didn't manage to properly plan a full-scale vacation for this year's Golden Week, so we just stayed in Tokyo, enjoying the relative peacefulness of a slightly-less-than-usually packed city.

On Tuesday then, I seized upon the chance to head out, and climb a mountain road that the local cycling people use to casually show off just how hard their trip was. I was warned that it would be a difficult climb, and headed out along 浅川 (Asakawa) towards 高尾 (Takao), the shortest possible approach.

It happened to be May 5th, which is called "Children's Day", but in reality, it's "Boy's Day". There is a "Girl's Day" 2 days earlier, where the girls get to see some creepy dolls they are not allowed to touch, or so I heard. On May 5th, though, parents proudly show off their sons in public, by putting up colorful fish made of paper, suspending them from poles or ropes, where the wind is supposed to make them look as if they swam in the (hopefully) blue sky:

But I had a goal, so I kept going past 高尾, heading to 和田. I took the forest road approach, which can be used by just going straight instead of turning left. There are 2 chains to keep off motored vehicles, making it completely quiet, but slightly dirty. That's fine for climbing, but a little dangerous on a fast descent:

For the first kilometers, I was not sure why this road was even worth mentioning to so many people, it was surely nice and quiet, but not particularly steep. About halfway through though, the real climb begins, and from there, it's all 10%+:

(The plot starts in front of 高尾駅, goes up the forest approach, down the regular road, and back to the station. The little bump on the left is some artifact in the GPS data, and not a 200% climb.)

It doesn't flatten out at all, if anything, it's getting steeper at some points. It's really tough and really nasty, but on the bright side, since it's so steep, it's relatively quick. Once upon the top though, it's a bit disappointing, since there's really not much to see, except for more trees, and an idea of a view in the distance:

The trick here is to not rush down again right away, but lock the bike near the cafe at the top, and keep walking on foot up the stairs on the left:

They lead to a path that is only 750m long, and climbs another 50m or so, eventually leading to the summit of 陣馬山 (Mount Jimba). On the top, there is an open field with a couple of cafes, and some really great views, including 富士山 on a clear day:

The detour is less than 10 minutes in each direction, and after having it made so far, there's really no reason to not go up there and take in the scenery.

06.05.2015 15:17

I've been in Japan for three years now. During my first visit, I did most of the touristy stuff - going to temples in Kyoto, eating all the weird food, even going to Kamakura. But ever since actually moving here, I kind of stopped and forgot to visit the rest of the country, which is partially due to sheer laziness on my side, and partially due to Tokyo making it a bit complicated to get out given its enormous size.

So even though I can see Fuji-san, one of Japan's most iconic landmarks, from our apartment's window on a clear day, I never actually went there. This year, for the weekend following my birthday, I decided to change that, and go take a closer look. Hopping on a car or train to get there would have been too easy, though, so I got on my bicycle, and scheduled 2 days, one to get to the area known as Fuji Five Lakes, and another one to encircle the mountain.

I followed the advice found on the English-speaking sites regarding getting there, and headed out to 道志道 (Doushi-michi) from 相模原市 (Sagamihara-shi) on Saturday morning, which leads all the way to 山中湖 (Yamanaka-ko). On paper, it's a relatively small street, following a river bed as so many other mountain roads in Japan, since the river would already have carved a valley with more or less appropriate grades into the mountains:

There was two unexpected things though. Firstly, this road is rather well-known, and in particular among motorcyclists. As it turns out, they gather in groups of around 15-20 people, and interestingly, within those groups, the types of motorcycles are pretty homogenous. There's the classic gang of people riding their overspec'd super sports machines, but there's also groups of young people on pimped up 50cc machines, groups on classic bikes of all the same kind, and so on. The end result is that every couple of minutes, there is the blaring sound of engines whizzing by, which is not quite the soundtrack I was hoping for. And while they are relatively cautious when overtaking, given the sheer number of riders, some of them will have accidents. On that day, I saw one young woman mourning at a road side mark where her friend died shortly before, plus two more wrecks that had crashed on that very day.

The other problem: it's all uphill. Here's the full height profile, starting from our apartment, and ending at 富士河口湖:

The average climb is only 3% or so, but it is really uphill all the way, except for the short dip around 75km, and it gets steeper and steeper the further the road progresses. There was also a very persistent head wind blowing on that day, making the whole climb even more exhausting. The grade is mostly managable at the beginning, but about 3 or 4km before the peak, it gradually steepens, to 6%, 8%, and then the last 1km or so feels more like 10%, although I didn't really measure. Suffice to say, I was more than happy to see this tunnel, after passing it, there is no more climbing to be done:

I had booked a stay at at small Japanese style hotel (旅館) at 富士河口湖 (Fujikawaguchi-ko) called 丸弥荘 (Maruyaso), so I took the north route around 山中湖, which turned out to be a very good choice. There is a cycling road winding right along the shore of the lake, and while going there, I was treated with great views on Mt. Fuji in the sunset, which pretty much made up for all the efforts getting there. The pictures don't really do justice to its actual size, it surely looks a lot more majestic in reality:

The clouds just opened up for a couple of minutes, and it would be the only time to get an unobstructed view of the top of the mountain. After letting gravity propel me to the hotel, I spent the rest of the evening going back between relaxing in the 温泉 (Onsen) which is available to guests at any time, and stocking up on calories again.

The quirky elderly owner of the place had treated my to a room with a mountain view, so here's what I woke up to the next morning:

Quick breakfast, and off I went, to encircle the mountain counter-clockwise, until eventually reaching Hakone, where I would meet up with my fiancée, who had booked a lovely room with a private hot bath there. For going around the mountain, there is pretty much only one road, which inevitably includes some more climbing, but at a much easier grade than the day before:

The first 30km or so where mostly lined with trees on the side, which kind of defied the point of going around Mt. Fuji, but at least they would open up to the other side, with some nice vistas across 富士河口湖:

Around the time of the first descent, though, the forests gave way to rather open farm lands, and from that point, I had Mt. Fuji on my left side pretty much all the time. The top was covered in clouds all day, but at least the rain was only intermittent:

The only really tough part of this ride was the mountain range in front of Hakone, which are something around an 8% grade, but felt more like 10% with 2 days of riding in the legs. There is a tunnel on top, after that, the descent is pretty steep, making for a very quick dash into Hakone, and maybe catching a quick glimpse of the lush greens and the waterfalls along the way:

We met up at Yaeikan, which is a gorgeous Japanese style hotel, and offers rooms with in-room hot spring bathes. While not exactly a bargain, it's a truly great experience to soak in the water from the hot springs, without any interruptions, and not having to care about other people using the bath, all while overlooking the surrounding scenery:

All in all, it was a fantastic birthday weekend. If I did the trip again, I would likely pick a different route to 山中湖, or possibly leave on a Friday morning to avoid the weekend motorcycle crowd. It may also make sense to do this at the end of May / early June instead of my mid-April weekend, when it's a bit warmer in the high lands around Mt. Fuji, but before rain season hits and the rain becomes unpredictable.

05.05.2015 23:24

Recently, DARPA released a video that shows bullets which are capable of changing their course in-flight, depending on the movement of their target:

The technology is honestly pretty amazing. A quick Google search gives me a rough lower limit of 800m/s for a .50 caliber bullet, and something like 180.000rpm rotational speed for gyroscopic stability. Now, it is of course possible that some kind of fins are included in the bullet, which could possibly eliminate most of the rotational velocity, leaving only the actual travel speed to deal with.

Even then, things have to happen pretty darn fast. It's not clear how far away the target is, so I'm making a rough guess at 1.000m, which would put the flight time at 1.25s. In the videos, there are around 7-8 thruster firings for the course corrections, so one course correction every 150ms. In those 150ms, the controlling computer has to:

  • Expose a series of images
  • Track and extrapolate the path of the target
  • Track and extrapolate the flight path of the bullet
  • Compute a new trajectory for the bullet based on those two pathes
  • Estimate a thruster configuration to put it on the new flight path
  • Transmit the data from the control computer to the bullet
  • Fire the thrusters
  • Wait for the thrusters to burn, and for the bullet to overcome its inertia and take on the new path

Rinse and repeat. 150ms is a pretty darn tight time budget for all of those operations, especially since most of it would be taken by the sampling intervals for the captured images, so it's not a trivial achievement, and can probably only be done with a tightly integrated custom hardware/software stack.

The question then is - how does DARPA attract the technical talent to pull this off? The world's richest companies are fighting over the best hardware and software engineers, paying ridiculous salaries and stock bonuses, and trying really hard to fulfill their wishes. So it's not exactly like there is a surplus of engineers, and they don't have much career paths other than joining the military. People with the matching skill set have a choice, and even if they can't make it to the top-tier companies, there is a real demand for people with real-time computer vision skills pretty much anywhere.

What, then, is it that makes people forego some of the most desirable jobs in the world, and design killing machines instead? There is no dual use for homing bullets, they are better at killing people, and that's it. Are people really capable of convincing themselves that this will make the world a better, safer, happier place?