Thursday, April 26, 2007

Clockwork Boy Meets Electronic City

Clockwork Boy Meets Electronic City

When I was a child, one of the fascinating pleasures of childhood was the business of deconstructing expired clocks. They would break down into an intriguing array of cogs, springs, screws and other mechanical detritus.

All gone now, I'm afraid. Clockwork still exists, and I know this as a fact because three-year-old daughter Cornucopia has a couple of clockwork toys, including a little clockwork dinosaur. But the age of the mechanical clock is pretty much over.

We are now living in the electronic age, and the latest and greatest product in Tokyo, the electronic city, is the Pasmo integrated circuit travel card.

The following snippet from Google gives you the gist, sourced from a Wikipedia entry:

"PASMO - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
PASMO (???, Pasumo?) is a rechargeable contactless smart card ticketing system for public transport introduced in Tokyo, Japan from March 18, 2007. ...
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PASMO - 50k -"

In the Wikipedia entry above, you see question marks that some writer has added. I had question marks in my own mind. The Japanese alphabet is a syllabic alphabet, and it is not possible to write P-A-S-M-O using the Japanese alphabet. There is no stand-alone Japanese glyph designating "s." Rather, you have a choice of SA, SHI, SU, SE and SO, ie the consonant "s" in conjunction with one of the five vowels that Japanese uses.

The Wikipedia writer's apparent confusion, then, is my own, but I guess this is a case where Japan has opted to use straight out English script. This is not without precedent, though I think some eyebrows were raised some years back when Japan Rail decided it would label itself "JR."

When Pasmo came out on the market, my wife thought it was a great idea. Instead of buying one travel card for the JR rail system and one for the subway system, you now buy a single card which works pretty much everywhere metro rails go.

The card is rechargeable. That is, once you've bought it, you can feed money into a slot and add value to the card.

Back in the days when I was teaching corporate English and was always going to different client locations, I could have done with a Pasmo. But these days I usually just commute to and from Waniguchi Gakko, using a monthly travel pass which the company pays for. (Not because they're generous, but because they have a legal requirement to do so.)

So I saw no need to rush out and buy my own Pasmo, and pretty soon it was too late, because you now can't buy one until August, unless you buy one which not only combines both the standard pay-per-trip function but which also functions as a commuter pass between two stations.

The Pasmo has proved so popular that any number of people thought like my wife and jumped at the chance to own one. As I would have, back in my days of eternal commuting.

It's a really high-tech gadget so can't be mass manufactured in a hurry. Presumably manufacturers have contracted to deliver a set number in a set time, and can't tool up on the spur of the moment to increase supplies.

I saw a TV show about the product which was designed for kids, and so was in my Japanese-speaking range, more or less.

The Pasmo requires electricity to work, but contains no battery. Instead, it functions as a little electric generator in its own right.

The show explained to the kids that you can make electricity simply by moving a magnet through a coil of wire. Or a coil of wire around a magnet.

I didn't quite follow the technical details (okay, I got baffled, and ended up pretty lost) but the guts of it seems to be that a coil runs round the perimeter of the Pasmo card, and that there is some kind of mechanism sitting in the heart of the card.

My concept (which may be wrong) is that the gadget consists of something in the middle which contains a magnet plus what is, in effect, a coil of wire running round the perimeter.

The program explained that when you're sitting on the train there's no electricity being generated. However, as you wave the Pasmo at the glaring electronic eye of the ticket wicket, and eye marked "IC" (for Integrated Circuit), you generate electricity and the Pasmo uses this to send the necessary signal.

Because the Pasmo stores value and deducts it as needed, you can now use the Pasmo in a number of convenience stores.

From the program, I gathered that the JR Suica card, which I have, does exactly the same job as the Pasmo. However, while that was what I thought I heard, I wasn't sure that I had the details correct. Sometimes I misconstrue things said in Japanese. (Okay, to be honest, I misconstrue things all the time.)

Wednesday April 25th a bit of a crisis arose in the kitchen. I finished the last of the muesli in the packet of Alara Deluxe Muesli and asked my wife if she could bring out another one, and her response was that she couldn't because we'd now gone and eaten our way through the lot, all of the six one-kilogram packets that I'd bought on my last muesli shopping trip.

Alara's Deluxe Muesli is a great product, containing oat flakes, sultanas, malted wheat, wheat flakes, barley flakes, Thomson raisins, chopped dates, currants, toasted coconut, sunflower seeds, chopped banana, nibbed almonds, roasted hazels and cardamom.

I always eat quite a bit of this for breakfast, adding pasteurised milk, filling my stomach so I won't get too hungry before my next meal break, which is usually after two in the afternoon, once I've commuted home after knocking off at Waniguchi Gakko at 1310. So I told my wife I would go get some.

That meant making a journey, after work, from Waniguchi Station to Shibuya. Shibuya is where the nearest branch of Seijo Ishii is located, and the Seijo Ishii chain is, I believe, the only outfit in Japan which sells Alara muesli, which comes from England.

I have a Passnet card, this being a card which holds value and is deducted trip by trip when you use the subway, which is what our local railway line technically is, even though it runs above ground. So I could have simply used the Passnet card for the Waniguchi-Shibuya segment which was not covered by my commuter pass. But I opted to try out the Suica card instead.

Had I heard rightly when I thought I understood the TV to be saying that the Suica card could do everything that the Pasmo could? I wasn't sure.

As I approached the ticket wicket with the glaring electronic eyes that have only recently been added to the setup, I felt the oddest sense of apprehension, a fear that the technology wouldn't work for me. The ever-accelerating electronic city had, for the moment, exceeded the ability of my clockwork brain to keep up.

My Suica card, I'm glad to say, worked perfectly. It is, like the Pasmo, "contactless," to use Wikipedia word. You don't have to do anything as gross as physically touching something with it. Wave your card at the glaring eye and the ticket wicket will let you hurtle by.

And hurtle is exactly what people do when they're IC-moded. The cards that you feed into a slot so they can be mechanically processed - commuter cards, Passnet cards and old-fashioned cardboard tickets from the station's vending machines - force you to at least slow your pace. You can't go faster than the ticket-processing machinery. But once you're in the IC world, the only limitation on your transit velocity is the speed of light.

The effect of the IC cards, the Pasmo and the Suica, is to increase the already hectic pace of life in the Tokyo-Yokohama area. When I'm heading to work in the morning I'm not infrequently buffeted by someone who walks straight into me as they cut across my path, too busy to worry about where other people might be heading.

At Seijo Ishii I bought only two packets of muesli, because I had more shopping to do before I got home. Every Wednesday, the cheaper of the two supermarkets in our neighborhood offers a staggering Wednesdays-only 40% discount on frozen goods, so I'd been tasked by my wife to buy three packets of frozen peas and three packets of frozen corn. Also bananas, another vital must-have, something we can't live without.

When I got to the supermarket, the first thing that confronted my eye was an impressive display of bananas, so I thought maybe they were on sale. But, no. These were, according to the sign, bananas from Taiwan, and they were significantly more expensive than the usual bananas that we buy, which are usually from the Philippines.

I don't understand why, in Japan, you can charge a premium price for a vanilla product like a banana simply because it comes from Taiwan. But for some reason you can, because this more-expensive-if-from-Taiwan business has been going on for years, much to my bafflement.

Because I commuted longer than usual on Wednesday, I read more of the newspaper, and got as far as the English-language Asahi Shimbun which, here in Japan, is bundled with the International Herald Tribune. There I saw an article about the fact that there have been two gun incidents in Japan in the last week, both involving professional criminals. One was the assassination of the mayor of Nagasaki, and the other was a shootout that some gang banger had with the police. He was holed up in his apartment with at least one weapon, and finally the police stormed his apartment. On arrival, they found that he had shot himself in the head, fatally.

The headline for the article was this:

IS JAPAN BECOMING THE LAND OF THE RISING GUN?

Two killings in a single week! How can an ordered civilization survive the shock?

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