Friday, August 17, 2018

Japanese homestay 2018

Two more years have passed since we last hosted a Japanese exchange student as part of Alex's primary school connection with ELS21 in Sakai, Japan. This time we welcomed an 18 year girl, Satoe, into our home.

This was Satoe's third and last time in Australia as part of the program and she was eager to improve her already good English.

During the first week we also looked after Hiromu and his host student Ollie, one of Alex's best friends, in the mornings and afternoons as the usual before and after school care wasn't available to the Japanese students.

Satoe was a fantastic big sister to Alex and a wonderful guest. On the second weekend we drove her to eat meat pies and bush walk at the recently discovered (for us) scenic Fitzroy Falls near Kangaroo Valley, the Famous Doughnut Van at Berry and the Blowhole at Kiama. Being a teenager we suspected she might prefer shopping so the next day crossed the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the train to Chatswood, where she tried Malaysian cuisine (the laksa was too spicy for her). On the way back we stopped by Luna Park where she and Alex rode the rollercoaster and dodgem cars.

Okay it's not as impressive as Osaka's Universal Studios, but a retro amusement park was a bit of a novelty and makes for great photos for the Japanese Instagrammer. The young ones would have stayed longer but it was getting late so we caught the ferry one stop back to Circular Quay, this time heading under the bridge.

Each of the students we've hosted described their mother's role as "house wife". That felt like my position as, unlike B, I have the option to work from home so took on the duties of taking the kids to school, making lunches, shopping, looking after many of the dinners when we didn't eat out. And doing my regular job as well. Quite exhausting really, especially when it was three extra kids, although Satoe was really very easy to look after.

Alex hopes to have one more student before he finishes primary school and so do we. Unfortunately the program is a bit up in the air right now. In the intervening period since the previous visit our school got a new principal and she, in her first role, wants to do everything by the book. That means no older kids. Hopefully something can be worked out, maybe with the nearby high school.

To be fair, if this trip was any guide, things do go wrong. One student was involved in a car accident and another witnessed someone jumping off a cliff. And yes, there is some disruption to the students' learning programs. But I really feel they all get a lot out of these visits. Anything to break down this horrible insularity and racism that has reared its head so viciously in the media right now. The only reason I didn't feel more embarrassed by the nightly news was that I know Japan has its own governing politicians who say the most awful things as well.

May our kids not grow up sharing the same views as many older people who should know better.

The farewell assembly at school was full of emotion, with both Satoe and the ELS21 principle reduced to tears. Fortunately for Alex and the rest of us the parting was not so sad as we look forward to catching up with Satoe, Mayumi and Machiko again in a few months time when we visit Osaka. Until then we have plenty of happy memories and gifts of Japanese treats to enjoy!

Saturday, July 28, 2018

The Empire Strikes Back in Concert

The latest in the film with live orchestra concerts series was Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. I have a story to tell about The Empire Strikes Back, but I think I shall keep it for next time. I have tickets for Melbourne, where the story resides. For now let me tell you about the Sydney concert.
Like Star Wars: A New Hope, tonight's concert was held at new Sydney's International  Conference and Convention Centre in Darling Harbour. The theatre is huge and I was seated quite far from the orchestra, though in the middle. The distance detracted from the excitement of watching the orchestra up close, their movement adding to experience. At least I could see the entire orchestra.
Nicholas Buc, who seems to be in Japan, was replaced in conducting duties by Hamish McKeich from New Zealand. Unlike Buc and some of the other previous conductors, McKeich gave no introduction to the audience, no encouragement to cheer at opportune moment. Indeed the audience was rather passive tonight, applause fairly scattered until the end.
I wasn't fussed by this as I was there for the music and indeed it was good to clearly hear the orchestra over the movie. I did wonder if the sound was rather enhanced by the speakers, at that distance it was a little difficult to tell.
The Empire Strikes Back is one of those soundtracks and movies I know back to front. Before the full score was available I used to listen to an audio recording of the movie, mentally filtering out the dialogue and effects. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performed to my satisfaction, the live experience allowing me to pick out sounds somewhat lost in the recordings. A few little niggles with the pacing of the opening and closing bars, but that was it for any criticism of the performance.
The movie was naturally the post-prequels special edition which meant that some parts of the score sat uncomfortably with the spliced in scenes. The addition of sequences of Darth Vader returning to his Star Destroyer from Cloud City were particularly unnecessary and only served to disrupt the thrilling score for Luke's rescue. But there is no point screaming "Nooooooo!" anymore.
I'm looking forward to seeing the concert again with the superb Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the end of the year. In great news you can also include these film music concerts as a package in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's 2019 season. I was apparently their very first online subscriber for 2019 so I have Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens to look forward to next year as well!
May the Force be with you.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Extracting strawberry DNA

Following the instructions in Double Helix Issue 24 2018 to extract DNA from strawberries using common kitchen items and chemicals, plus methylated spirits, while keeping an eye on their blog to ensure it doesn't crash under load!

Mixing salt, detergent and water
Mashing up the strawberry with the detergent mix
After adding the chilled meths the DNA separates at the top
Sticky DNA!

Monday, July 09, 2018

3 Days of Winter School Holidays

Just about finished the third day of the winter school holidays and already:

  • Made a heartbeat flashing birthday card using Chibi lights.
  • Did two hours of karate
  • Chilled out during medieval reenactments at Winterfest
  • Donuts and pies at Berry (plus a birthday party)
  • Finished the Multivariate Calculus in Machine Learning Course
  • Almost finished editing a technical document for B
  • Helped Alex program the MicroBit and built touch buttons as lift controls*
  • Took him for a hair cut
  • Made pesto
  • Did my work
  • Watched a little bit of Runaway on SBS and wondered if some people in the robotics group were like Gene Simmons character.

Not sure how to survive the whole holidays at this rate!

Over the same period last year I was with the family in Nagoya, Takayama and Unazuki Onsen in Japan after doing the Northernmost and Easternmost stations in Hokkaido. Poor Japan is suffering severe flooding again. Last year it was Kyushu, this time Southern Honshu and Shikoku. 

* More information later. 

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Mazda - Then and Now

Four years ago today we visited the Mazda Museum and factory in Hiroshima. Today, a new Mazda 6. A long way since the second hand Mazda 626 that did 275,000 kilometres.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in Concert

Of all the Harry Potter movies this was both my favourite to watch and to listen to. And tonight watching it performed live by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Opera House all I can say is "Wow!"

After a swathe of these concerts over the past few years, including the first two Harry Potters episodes last year, you know the drill. Tonight they got the balance just right and allowed John Williams' complex score shine through.

It had so many wonderful moments, from the cartoonish jazz of the Knight Bus to the drama of quidditch, the soaring Buckbeak's flight and choral mystique of the patronus charm. The most beautiful of the gentle Window to the Past as Harry remembers his parents.

If you've only ever heard the recorder played badly at primary school then you will be surprised just how lovely it sounds here.

Williams' orchestration is sophisticated and apart from the recorder many other instruments and sounds drew my attention away from the action on the screen. Subtitles meant that the dialogue didn't overshadow the score.

A fair amount of the score, including many beautiful fleeting themes, is lacking from the soundtrack release so there is much to listen for during the performance.

Unlike the previous Star Wars performance I couldn't fault the Sydney Symphony Orchestra or its conductor Nicholas Buckbeak's here. I simply enjoyed it all.

I had kind of hoped that they would stop at this point, when John Williams left the scoring duties, so I wouldn't be "forced" to pay for more performances (I've got the Empire Strikes Back later this year) but tickets to Patrick Doyle's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire go on sale Monday and the other scores are pretty good...

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Emergency broadcasts

The air is fragrant with smoke, the sky transected with grey. Since last night we have been told to stay at home and defend our house from ember attack.

Bush fires are a fact of life in this area. Back in 1994 my wife was living with her family in another part of this suburb and I was in Canberra, proving updates to the world over Internet Relay Chat based upon television reports.

Now as a resident of the affected area I have a personal interest in how information about the fire is communicated. The nature of media has changed since then and I've got some thoughts about the coverage of the bush fires from a local perspective.


We live in the Information Age and as such expect to have access to instantaneous and detailed information about events. The better the information you have, the better you can plan your actions. That is true both for those fighting the fire and those potentially affected by it.

I'm not certain how much information is gathered and available to the fire service from assets on the ground, in the air and in space. It would be interesting to find out. Potentially a lot, but combining that information into something useful for making decisions would be a challenging task.

I can imagine a mesh of sensors on firefighters, fire trucks, drones, aircraft and static assets all sending information back to base to be processed and combined by artificial intelligence. Challenging indeed.

And how to make that information available to the public?

Traditional media

During emergencies we are expected to turn to television, as I did in 1994, and radio for information. I did both but found the experience somewhat disappointing. Being a Saturday night the commercial television stations were more concerned with sports events and the sole free-to-air 24 hour news station, ABC News 24, was primarily filled with non-current news programming or reports on the airstrikes in Syria. This is the problem with being an underfunded national broadcaster, most of your audience are unaffected by regional fires.

Instead you are suggested to turn to ABC Local Radio, which suddenly presents an issue. Who has an AM radio outside of their car these days? I've got an old cassette player downstairs, but if the power went out I'd be in trouble finding any big batteries for it. Most devices run on something smaller.

I still have some FM radios in older mobile phones, though they too are being phased out by manufacturers. Still, it's a pity they don't have an FM broadcast instead. It does suggest I should buy a small AM capable radio, which would have the advantage of picking up the cricket as well!

Fortunately you can listen to ABC Local Radio streamed over the internet, but this takes up valuable bandwidth in emergencies and the infrastructure is more vulnerable to destruction than a distant radio transmitter.

Much as I like the ABC, the other downside of having to listen out for updates over the radio is putting up with their regular programming in between. I just have a different taste to music.

Social media and the Web

The other major source of information these days is social media. Everyone thinks it's something new, but as mentioned above, I was using it back in 1994!

There are useful websites such as the official Fires Near Me and Google's Crisis Map. The issue with the former is the very limited information it provides.

I followed updates from the NSW Rural Fire Service Twitter account, which shared interesting line scan maps of fire areas and videos, and local Facebook pages.

The problem with social media is information pollution. Official updates on Twitter get lost in streams of irrelevant updates from other accounts and on Facebook masses of non-time ordered questions and comments from ordinary (or worse, narcissistic) citizens. There is also the big issue of incorrect or malicious information (so called "fake news") can be inserted into these streams.

There should be an app for that

If one doesn't exist already I'm thinking it would be useful to have an official emergency warnings app for mobile phones. The app would have the following features:

  • An ability to detect the user's location or allow them to subscribe to other locations (useful when you are outside the area)
  • Emergency push broadcasts (eg imminent tsunami or new fire detected in your area)
  • On demand lookup as well as broadcast streaming of updates 
  • Interrupt media streams when updates are broadcast, allowing the user to listen to locally stored or streamed music or video without missing updates
  • Audio and video output as well as text (user selects).
  • Provide maps of affected areas and relevant transport updates.

Maybe there could be a forum or social media component to it focused only on that event, but not sure if that would be necessary or just too much trouble.

Might get chatting with some people at work to see what is already out there and what they think.

Right now the conditions have eased and it looks like we should be able to get a good night's sleep tonight. Even if we haven't as yet been directly affected it's certainly been a good opportunity to consider our disaster preparedness. And many, many thanks to all the emergency services for working so very hard to keep us safe. They are fantastic.

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