A Goodbye to Tohoku

In three short months I shall be reversing my bearhunt and heading the 6000 miles back to the UK. If not for good, then certainly for the foreseeable future. Before leaving I wanted to visit Tohoku one last time, to get sweaty and dirty and to say my farewells. This time to Minamisanriku (南三陸) with OGA for Aid. OGA for Aid are a small non-profit organisation who are trying to set up a farm in order to provide employment opportunities for local people. In particular single Mums, who struggle to find work elsewhere because of their childcare commitments. Turning fallow and virgin plots donated by locals who can’t work them into productive farmland is an incredibly labour-intensive job, but until they are able to turn a profit, they can’t afford to employ any workers. A catch 22 that volunteers are helping to break.

Today, though, I didn’t work on the farm and instead I headed into Minamisanriku on foot to see the area close up. I have visited many towns and villages along the North East coast of Japan, both as a volunteer and as a tourist. Over the two years since the earthquake and tsunami I have seen rescue give way to clearing streets, give way to clearing and cleaning buildings, give way to demolishing unrepairable structures, give way to, finally, rebuilding. But always there are things that shock and two years since I first visited the region I still struggle to make sense of the power and the scale: this trip is no different.

I’m not sure, but I think this is what remains of the town’s tsunami defenses:


And this is what remains of the town:



The structure still standing is the town’s disaster-readiness center. It is famous for Jin Sato, the mayor of Minamisanriku, who survived by clinging to the mast as wave after wave overtopped it. 30 people were on the roof when the first wave came in, only 10 were left when the water subsided. The site is now a centre of pilgrimage, and I sat there for half an hour or so to collect my thoughts:


In front of the old entrance is a makeshift shrine. The piles of flowers next to it are fresh and there is a constant stream of cars and busses pulling into the car park to take pictures and pay respects. I sat amongst the clover that now carpets the entire town and thought about Miki Endo, who sat at her post in that building broadcasting evacuation warnings until the water cut her off. Her body wasn’t found until April 23rd.


I’ve never noticed that clover has a smell before, but sitting there surrounded by acres of the stuff, all in full bloom, the scent was intoxicating. I picked a flower and added it to the pile. The centre must once have had an attractive formal garden and it, together with the clover, throw the level of destruction here into particularly stark relief. There are only a handful of houses left of what was once a thriving fishing town:


On my way back, I stopped to take a closer look at some strange standing structures and mounds. I couldn’t for the life of me work out what there were, and then it clicked, this is what remains of the train line that ran through the town!


I climbed up onto the mound and looked along its length, gazing through half-closed eyes to try and see the tracks that were once there. It didn’t work. So little remains that I couldn’t imagine it in its former state:



Under what was once the railway bridge I saw some uncleared debris, now home to a thriving colony of mussels. It brought home to me the time that has passed since this happened. Minamisanriku exists now in name only; the main streets have been repaired, the traffic lights work, but the only visitors are people like me who have come, yet again, to try and understand what happened here. There is through-traffic, one petrol station, a single demountable convenience store and a constant stream of trucks carrying out reconstruction work. But they are passing through too, the demolition here was complete: there is nothing to reconstruct.


I turned for home and left the inundation zone. The walk back was lined with wisteria, azaleas and irises, all in full bloom.


I don’t know what will happen to Minamisanriku: it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to come back and live here. Unlike Ishinomaki, where I have volunteered before, rebuilding seems pointless. I wondered for a moment why I was here at all, rather than somewhere where I could do more good. Then I passed an automated rice-polishing machine. These crop up all over rural Japan and they are there for the families with enough land to grow their own rice to bring and polish it into the perfect grains Japan is so famous for. There are still plenty families in this region who are completely self-sufficient.


This is why I am here, helping to set up a farm to employ local people who have lost everything. Minamisanriku may never be rebuilt, but the way of life that existed here can be. Jobs can be created that allow the people who have lost everything to stay, so they are not forced to the cities in order to survive, and so that they can continue to grow and polish their own rice on their own land.

Goodbye Tohoku, I will miss you, and good luck.

Posted in Tohoku Earthquake | Leave a comment

#26 How to balance a spade on your nose

I’m sorry, the headline is a lie[1]. Really what I have learned today is how to write a good title that draws people in and gets them to read your post (thanks Copyblogger). Which begs a question: how disingenuous is it ok to be when you are writing a headline?

Headline writing is an aspect of blogging that is woefully under considered and I now realise I have definitely not been giving it the attention it deserves.  One of my aims with this blog is to improve my own writing and so from now on I will be giving my post titles much greater thought.

But, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me, and the last thing I want is for you to feel, once you get here, that the post was not worth the effort of following up an interesting sounding title. This is not a tabloid newspaper and integrity is more important to me than click throughs.

Good balance, it seems, is as important for generating attractive and honest post titles as it is for keeping large garden tools in precarious positions about your person[2].

1. I don’t need to say it, do I? You should know by now without my making it explicit.
2. If you really do want to learn to balance a spade on your nose, I recommend use of some sort of padding between blade and proboscis.
Posted in General Meanderings | 1 Comment

Why we shouldn’t be afraid of synthetic biology

No # today, because this is a science blogging post and not A Thing I Have Learned.

I just read a fantastically interesting New York Times article on Craig Venter and his attempt to create artificial life. It’s a great lay introduction to synthetic biology, how it works and the potential it has to (I am not kidding) save the world…


The NYT article mentions several times that synthetic biology is a field that people find scary and that a discussion of the ethics surrounding it “is a conversation we need to have”. I agree, but when I came to think about it, I realised I don’t know exactly what that means. Who should be having this conversation? I thought at first the answer was “them”, which is the same as “someone other than me” and also “no one”. But actually “they” have already talked about it. From the linked article:

In 2010, President Obama ordered his bioethics commission to examine the implications of Venter’s work, and the commission found “limited risks.” Still, a person can be forgiven for recalling the moment in “Jurassic Park” when Dr. Ian Malcolm smirks at a team of genetic engineers and warns them, “Life finds a way.”

Ahhh. So. A group of experts spoke to a group of policy makers and explained the risks and the policy makers were satisfied that there weren’t many, but “we” still need to converse about this because of a line in a film.

Scientists off independently creating artificial life does sound very frightening indeed and a recipe for disaster. It also sounds like an affront to whatever supernatural being you may credit with providing whatever spark you consider to be the difference between “life” and “not life”. It sounds like a gothic horror novel plot and I understand why any article discussing it is always followed by comments to the effect that “it’s just not natural”

When the people whose job it is to discuss these matters did so the results were not enough to set the minds of the wider population at rest. Obviously they are not the people who need to be having this conversation then, so who is?

Given the lack of trust and understanding, it seems pretty clear that any conversation about this needs to include the scientists on the coal face, someone to interpret from Scientist into Normal Person and, um, everyone else[2].

Right. *Rolls up sleeves* Let’s do this. LET’S CONVERSE!

The first knotty problem we have is something of a Gordian one, because before we can debate the ethics of creating life, we first have to define it[2]. This is something scientists and philosophers have struggled with for millennia and one of the reasons it’s so hard to figure out is because there is no clear dividing line between “life” and “not life”. Viruses, for example, are the best known things that exist somewhere between the two, and they are not the alone.

Let’s start by considering some things I think we can all agree on:

Humans = alive
Bicycle = not alive

Bacteria = alive
DNA = not alive

Minimal Venter cell[3] = alive
Protein[4] and fat[5] = not alive

The problem is, humans, bacteria and minimal venter cells are all made from just DNA, protein and fats (but not bicycles)[6].

There is something that happens when you mix all these non-alive components together that results in life. Until recently, we didn’t understand how that could happen, so we filled the gap with things like God. But that isn’t true anymore, and a lot of that is thanks to Craig Venter, which is why he (and the hundreds of researchers working for him) will be able to make their minimal cell very soon.

There is no magic spark, it’s just that when you have the right instructions (DNA), machines to do the work (proteins) and a container to put it all in (fats), it works. We know how to make the bits, we know how they interact and we know how to put them together. When we do, we get life.

But messy, non Venter-created,life is incredibly complex. Although we now know enough to build the smallest set of DNA instructions required to get something that can chug along in a vat, when it comes to even the tiniest of naturally occurring bacteria, there’s still a huge amount we don’t yet understand. When you scale that up to the complex interactions between cells in larger organisms and between organisms in populations, then we are only barely beginning to grasp even the scale of the difficulty.

And it’s what we don’t know that has historically been the problem with all our previous attempts to control life. When we introduced cane toads to Australia to control cane beetles we didn’t have the faintest idea of the complex interplay between the species already there and what introducing an aggressive newcomer might do, and so we inadvertently created a bigger issue that we still don’t know how to fix.

Human beings are like a group of monkeys pressing buttons at random on a computer. We don’t understand what’s going on inside the box, but we know that some buttons give us fruit and some give us horse apples. We desperately want more bananas and so we are compelled to try and figure out which is which. The entire scientific method is designed to get to the answers as efficiently and quickly as possible, but we still get it wrong sometimes at that leads to manure.

Monkey Craig Venter doesn’t understand the computer either, but he has figured out where the the power source is, and he’s found the plug for the hatch that hides the fruit bowl. Monkey Craig will never get poo because he bypassed the complicated black box he didn’t understand and plugged the cable for the hatch into the mains.

Craig Venter’s minimal cell contains only the bare essential DNA instructions, and the system it describes is simple enough that we understand everything about how it works. As he builds in the extra complexity required to turn pollution into biofuel, or whatever world changing application he tries first, it will be incremental and it will proceed at the same pace as our understanding.

“What I cannot create, I cannot understand” was left written on Richard Feynmen’s blackboard after he died. It may not hold true for everything, but it is certainly true that being able to build something signals a very high understanding.In Jurassic Park, the scientists didn’t understand the implications of what they were doing, because they were using incredibly complex naturally occurring organisms. Of course something went wrong! But Craig Venter isn’t doing that, he’s putting DNA, proteins and fats together and building something from the bottom up: he understands it because he made it.

I said above that we understand everything about how the DNA in Venter’s minimal cells works. That’s a slight exaggeration; we understand most of it and we understand enough to be pretty certain there aren’t any nasty surprises waiting for us in the rest. And this is where the caveats comes in. Until we really do know everything about the DNA instructions in these cells we must continue to proceed with extreme caution and to study them carefully, which Venter is.

Most scientists playing around with life are still pressing buttons at random on systems they don’t understand. This is all a normal part of progress. It’s well regulated and safe guards are in place to make it as safe as possible; we have decided, as a species, that the benefits outweigh the risks. Craig Venter’s research is not completely without danger, but no research is and it is considerably safer than what everyone else is doing.

It is important when we talk about creating life that we remember what that means in terms of molecules interacting inside soap bubbles, because if we panic and shut this down because of a line in Jurassic Park the opportunities we will lose are staggering.

1. You knew there was a “but” coming there didn’t you?
2. Oh bugger.
3. That’s a cell, like a bacterial cell, that contains only the bits required to survive and reproduce and none of the DNA which codes for extra things like “be a human”.
4. Proteins are the work horses of the cell. The DNA contains the instructions and the proteins do the work. The instructions the DNA contains are usually “build a protein that does A”. In a cow’s muscles, arrays of vast numbers of proteins do the mechanical work that moves a cow towards a tasty patch of grass, or a delicious looking duck. That’s why, when we talk about eating meat, we talk about eating “protein”. Meat is muscle, and muscle is mostly protein.
5. If you’ve ever watched Fight Club, you will know that it is possible to turn fat into soap. You should also know that soap forms bubbles when mixed with water (if you don’t know that, please stand far away from me). You can think of the envelope that forms the walls of a cell as a kind of soap bubble. Without the fatty soap-bubble container, there is no cell, which is why we talk about “omega 3″ and “omega 6″ and the importance of eating enough oily fish.
6. There are a few other essential vitamins and minerals as well that are also definitely not alive on their own. Most notably iron, which is sort of like saying “bicycles”.
Posted in Good Science/Research Blogging | Comments Off

#25 To be successful, first do the things you love.

I just watched this TED talk (at the bottom) and was almost moved to tears. If I had been in the audience, I too would have been on my feet at the end.

My bearhunt is moving on. The bit on the right of this blog about retraining as a designer is happening and I am moving back to London in 4 months to start a masters in Innovation Design Engineering[1]. To my surprise, my effort has captured the imagination of those around me and I have received enormous support from literally everyone.

Something has struck me though, and that is the pedestal people seem to want to put me on[2]. There is a strange all pervading idea that, as they cannot succeed by following their passions, I must be some sort of special person.

I’m not. I’m really REALLY not.

There are two things that I think mark my approach as different. My approach, mark you, not me as a person. I will cover the second in another post, but the first is just to always do the things you enjoy the most: at each potential career fork, I have chosen the option that sounds most fun with very little regard to the practicalities.

I hear so often from the people I talk to that they can’t do the thing they enjoy the most because it doesn’t provide a secure and stable future career. What nonsense! There are any number of secure and stable jobs out there in the field you are interested in, you just haven’t heard about them yet because you aren’t in your chosen field at the moment!

If you think the above applies to you watch this video. She had a plan A for a secure and stable future and it got hijacked by her passion, but she’s not starving because she followed where that path led, it turned out to be a far better way of fulfilling her plan A than her original idea.

You don’t know yet what you don’t know, and unless you take the leap you will never find out.

And if you take the leap and I’m wrong and your passion doesn’t lead to a stable and secure career, all the boring jobs will still be waiting for you at the end and at least you will have had fun trying!

1. I hope. I’ve been offered the place, but there are still a few issues that I can’t talk about here that mean it’s not quite settled yet.
2. Please stop hitting me with that pedestal! It REALLY hurts!
Posted in Design, Education, General Meanderings, Personal, Psychology | 2 Comments

#24 That’s trilling!

I am learning Spanish, which requires me to practice trilling (rolling my Rs). I started learning French when I was very young and, while I never progressed to any sort of useful level, it did teach me the French trill, which is the guttural back of the throat “rchhh” sound. The Spanish trill is rolled much further forward, at the alveolar ridge. I have been having some difficulty moving the trill forwards from the back of my throat to behind my teeth, with the result that my nacent Spanish is coming out with a slight French accent. To solve this problem I spent some time working through the various methods and drills in the Wikihow article ‘How to Roll Your “R”s‘. I found two pieces of advice most useful: one, that repeating the sounds “tee-dee-va” as rapidly as possible exercise the muscles of the tongue in the required manner; and, two, that trilling is easier if you make the sounds as loudly as possible. The net result? I am now wandering round my apartment repeatedly yelling what sounds like “titty bar” at the top of my lungs. No wonder the neighbours are staring…

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#23 safety nets are still nets

A few weeks ago I quit my job: I woke up one morning and realised I didn’t need it and it wasn’t making me happy.

It was a bit more complicated than that; I’ve got a place on my dream design course (more on that later), and I needed to resign in order to go back to London to take it up. But things are still a bit up in the air: I may yet not be able to do it, and I had been holding onto my secure, well paid, job as a safety net in case things didn’t work out.

And then it hit me that I didn’t know why.

I don’t need to keep this job, if things don’t work out and I find myself with a year to fill, I can take any old job, save up enough money for a flight to Peru and go learn Spanish for a few months. Sounds fun!

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the safety net of a good job had been stopping me taking a risk on something I have desperately wanted to do for a very long time. Far from being there to save me if things went wrong, the net had become the very thing stopping me trying. Nets, I realised, are meant for catching things, and not only when we fall.

Is your safety net keeping you in a place you don’t really want to be?


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#22 Store your carrots upright

Well, who knew! Leeks and carrots keep better out of the fridge and upright:

This project from Jihyun Ryou takes a fresh look* at how we store our food. I love the way this set up looks great in your kitchen but also serves a purpose: your food will keep better and you can get by with a smaller fridge.

Sometimes we forget past wisdom or assume that because it’s old it’s somehow worse: it’s great to look back at some of these things and combine them with modern understanding and technology to create new solutions better than both worlds.

If you’re interested in learning more, she has a whole blog dedicated to collecting and sharing such tips.

*Darn, that’s two cliche points on my writer’s licence right there :/
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#21 Don’t buy the cheap nattou

It smells like petrol and regret and made me pull this face:

Posted in General Meanderings | Comments Off

#20 How to independently raise my right eyebrow

When I was about 18 I expended a small amount of effort in learning to raise my left eyebrow so as to more precisely convey a quizzical mood. Over the years I have perfected this expression such that a friend recently described it as “a signature move”. It has been a minor source of irritation to me ever since that, although I had the left one down pat, the right was eluding me. Well, no more! As of this Saturday I can now independently also raise my right eyebrow. Not well, it has to be said, but so it was with the left one in the beginning, and once you get the knack of it the rest is just practice; I am confident that in time I will achieve full eyebrow expressivity on both sides. Which begs a question: what emotion shall I use this new found power to convey? Disapproval is the obvious one, but I try not to use that very often[1].

Anyway, there is a story behind my learning to raise my right eyebrow. So, without further ado, I shall progress this plot device to the purpose of this post:

This weekend I disappeared into the rural Japan on Tokyo’s doorstep that is the Boso peninsular, Chiba:

View Bōsō-hantō in a larger map

Over the last few months I have learned that I adore being outside doing hard physical labour (more on that later), so when a friend suggested I join her on an organic farm in Chiba helping to plant rice I jumped at the chance. On a bus I hopped[2], across the aqualine and down to the Southern tip of the Boso peninsular, somewhere in the hills near Tateyama I think.

The farmer met me off the bus and before I knew it, planting rice I was. The weather was glorious, the surroundings stunning and the atmosphere both calming and healing:

Planting rice is pretty simple. You start by walking backwards across the field rolling a metal cylinder behind you. The cylinder marks the surface of the mud with a grid and small bundles of three of four shoots get planted at each intersection. This being organic rice, the farmer needs more space between the rows than usual for weed control so we only planted every other row.


At the end you get to look back at your work and appreciate the lovely clean lines of rice you have planted:

And your far from clean feet (the mud is quite deep):

The cool mud feels delicious between your toes and every time you take a step the warm water flows around your feet. This being an organic farm, there is also an abundance of wildlife and, as I planted, tadpoles skipped across the mud and water boatmen skittered over the water in front of me. The frogs serenaded us in a chorus that rose and fell and then sometimes climbed to an almost deafening crescendo before dying away almost to nothing[3]:

As we finished up, the moon rose over the field and the sun went down and we sat and drank in the atomosphere while we waiting for the farmer to collect us:

We went back to the house where we were staying, sat round the irori and talked and cooked and drank[4] into the evening. Finally I crashed into bed for what may be the best night’s sleep of my life.

In the morning, communal breakfast, more planting, lunch and then back on the bus for the trip home.

Which leaves us with one important question: where in all this does my right eyebrow fit in? Well, it seems I’m not the only person who thinks that the Boso peninsular is a good place to get away to for Golden Week and it seems a large part of Tokyo’s 9 million population picked 3.30 pm on Saturday to try and get back home across the aqualine. The result? 6 hours on a bus staring at my own reflection in the widow as I neglected to pack anything to do for what was supposed to be a 70min bus journey. What else is a girl to do under such circumstances?

1. I said “try”: I don’t necessarily succeed.
2. Amazing how I will cheerfully get up at 6am to travel 2 hours to a field to plant rice, but find it almost impossible to get up before 10am on a work day… a clue, perhaps? More on that later.
3. Which is what this video shows because, of course, expecting them to crescendo on cue is too much to ask.
4. Gonin Musume (“Five Daughters”) organic sake from the local brewery, Terada Honke. If I never drink another sake I will die happy. That stuff was GOOD.
Posted in Travel | Comments Off

#19 Commit

My creative process has four distinct emotional stages:

1. Mind numbing dread and emptiness because I have no inspiration. None. None at all.

2. Excitement and glee as the germ of an idea appears and then sprouts.

3. Crushing dispair as I realise the idea I have invested so much time and energy in is actually impossible.

and 4. An ecstasy of relief when I realise I’m going to make it after all.

The most important step is from 2 to 3, because at 3 it always seems so easy to give up. The reason I very rarely do is because I have usually committed in some way that means I can’t. Most often, it’s that I have told people I will deliver an item on a certain date such that not giving it to them is unthinkable. So I power through the anguish in order to give them something, anything, even if it’s rubbish – which it occasionally is – but usually what happens is that I turn some crucial corner and realise it’s all going to be ok and all I have to do is keep going. And then it’s easy, the stress evaporates, the world around me recedes and I’m lost to the task until I can stand up, stiff-backed and desperate for a cuppa and a pee* and say “Yes. That’s it. It is done.”

So commit early, because if you don’t it’s too easy to give up when the going gets tough, and then you never make it to 4, and 4 is where the reward is.

*not in that order

Posted in Art, Design, Psychology | Comments Off