C’mon, be a sport: 80,000 volunteers sought for 2020 Tokyo Olympics

August 10, 2016

The world may currently be caught up in the Rio Olympics, but with only 4 years until the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Japan is preparing for its turn as Olympic host. 

Among these preparations, the Tokyo Olympics Organising Committee has announced that an estimated 80,000 volunteers are required if this monumental international event is to go without a hitch.

In fact, just last month a draft of requirements was released for those hoping to become Olympic volunteers in 2020. According to the Japan Times, volunteers must be aged 18 or over by the 1st of April, 2020, and ought to be able to work 8-hour days for 10 days or more. 

Foreign language skills, knowledge of Olympic sports, and volunteering experience at sporting events were also identified as desirable attributes.

With the same objective in mind, next month, seven Japanese universities specialising in foreign languages will jointly hold a 4-day seminar in Chiba Prefecture. The programme, which was launched last year, is designed to help the expected 400 or so participants improve their translation skills, as well as gain greater knowledge of the Olympics, hospitality skills and foreign cultures.

Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Kobe City University of Foreign Studies, and Kansai Gaidar University are among the seven universities taking part, the Japan Times reports.

Even so, while some see the Tokyo Olympics Organising Committee’s call for volunteers and volunteer interpreters as a rare opportunity for those who participate, other voices have been more critical.

The key point of contention is that these volunteers will not be paid for their time, and nor will they be compensated for any money they spend on travel or accommodation while volunteering. 

Language Policy Professor, Noriyuki Nishiyama, for example is critical of what he sees as an apparent under-appreciation of the interpreting profession.

“It takes years of effort to gain the mastery of a foreign language to work as an interpreter. It’s not something people can learn in a short period of time,” the Japan Times reports Nishiyama as saying. 

Japan has been pushing English education, saying gaining language proficiency provides huge economic benefits,” Nishiyama continues. “But it doesn’t make sense if such people with foreign language skills are not paid.”

Even so, Tokyo 2020 will not be the first to rely so heavily on a voluntary workforce. 

For Rio 2016, there was a call out for 70,000 volunteers, of whom 8,000 linguistic specialists were needed to be the “voice of the Games.”

In fact an article published on the International Olympic Committee website states that, “volunteers have been integral to the success of the Olympic Games since they were first used during the 1948 Games in London.”

And regardless of ones view on whether the Olympic Games should depend so greatly on the unpaid labour of interpreters and others, going by previous years, the Tokyo Olympics Organising Committee’s goal of filling 70,000 volunteer placements may not be insurmountable.

For London 2012, the IOC article informs us, there were 240,000 applications to fill the 70,000 volunteer places.

Sources include: Japan Timeswww.olympic.orgwww.rio2016.com,

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Japanese snacks manufacturer to open factory in Wales

October 31, 2014

Japan’s largest manufacturer of savoury snacksCalbee Inc, will open a factory in North Wales, creating 100 jobs over 5 years.

Wales’ Economy Minister Edwina Hart and Chairman and CEO of Calbee, Akira Matsumoto, made the announcement in Japan today, following a meeting to finalise the deal.

The expansion into Wales marks the company’s first investment in Europe. Calbee (UK) Ltd is a wholly owned subsidiary of Calbee Inc., and was established in February this year. The new site, located on Deeside Industrial Park will produce savoury snacks  for the UK and European markets. 

Mr Matsumoto, CEO of Calbee commented: “We are very excited to establish our first European factory in Wales.

“We are making a long-term commitment to grow our business from this important base in Deeside.”

Ms Hart said: “I am delighted to announce this important new inward investment for Wales.”

“Calbee is the latest in a long line of highly prestigious Japanese companies that have invested in Wales and I welcome their decision to establish their first European plant in Wales.”

The Calbee UK factory will initially produce its well-known pea-based snacks (“Snapea Crisps”) in a range of flavours. In addition to the manufacturing of the snacks, distribution and some R&D activities will also take place on site.

Production is set to commence in the first half of 2015.

The UK savoury snack market estimated to be worth around £3bn, and is the largest in Europe.

Source: Wales OnlineBBC

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US engineers build self-folding origami robot

August 15, 2014

A group of engineers from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have succeeded in creating a self-assembling robot.

The robot’s assembly process relies upon origami, a traditional Japanese paper-folding craft.

Made from a composite sheet of paper, polystyrene and a circuit board, the machine can fold itself up from a flat sheet into a four-legged beetle-like form, and crawl away autonomously. The design also includes two motors, two batteries and a microcontroller. Hinges were programmed to fold at specific angles. Each hinge contained embedded circuits that produce heat on command from the microcontroller. The heat triggers the composite to self-fold in a series of steps.

When the hinges cool after about four minutes, the polystyrene hardens – making the robot stiff – and the microcontroller then signals the robot to crawl away at a speed of about one-tenth of a mile per hour.

“We were originally inspired by making robots as quickly and cheaply as possible,” says Sam Felton, doctoral student at Harvard and lead author of the paper described in Science. “The long-term plan is printable manufacturing; the short-term plan is building robots that can go into places where people can’t go.”

The robot is controlled by a timer which means that 10 seconds after the battery is inserted it will begin assembly.

Felton came upon the final design after testing around 40 prototypes. He fabricated the sheet using a solid ink printer, a laser machine, and his hands. Assembly took around 2 hours.

As the pre-stretched polystyrene hardens after assembly, the robot cannot yet unfold itself and return to a flat sheet form.

‘There is a great deal that we can improve based on this foundational step,’ said Felton. He plans to experiment with different kinds of shape memory polymers, including those that are stronger and require less heat to activate.

The potential applications of this type of machine are wide-ranging, stretching beyond the cheap manufacturing of robots.

‘Imagine a ream of dozens of robotic satellites sandwiched together so that they could be sent up to space and then assemble themselves remotely once they get there – they could take images, collect data, and more,’  said Felton.

Source: The Engineer; Bloomberg Businessweek 

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Scientists map wheat genome

July 17, 2014

Bread is a staple food for one third of the world’s population, and accounts for a huge 20 per cent of the world’s calorie intake.

In terms of science however, wheat has been rather overlooked. Until now that is.

Since 2011, scientists and members of the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium, have worked to find out what exactly the humble grain is made of. On Tuesday, they published the first draft genome sequence of “common” or “bread wheat”: an accomplishment which they believe could help farmers meet the ever-increasing demand for a high-quality crop – something which is particularly important in the context of climate change and an ever-growing population.

The research, published in the journal Science on Tuesday, reveals the result of what has been nearly 3 years work and around USD 68 million. The team of scientists, including researchers from Germany, the United States, the Czech Republic, and Canada has so far succeeded in deciphering the blueprint for nearly all the genes of bread wheat and roughly 60 percent of the whole genome.

The unusual size and form of the genome made the sequencing especially difficult for the team, the article said. Indeed, that of wheat contains a staggering 100,000 or so genes, 5 times more than the human genome, which contains roughly 20,000.

The largely repetitive nature of the wheat genome also made its untangling more difficult.

The advantages of the project are manifold. “Wheat improvement is crucial to ensure food security and the development of sustainable agriculture in a context of climate change and growing population,” said Frederic Choulet, plant genomicist at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), and one of the lead researchers on the project.

The new draft genome is also expected to significantly decrease the time it will take to identify and isolate genes of interest to plant breeders, such as those which express resistance to heat, stress, insects, or disease.

The consortium plans to finish the full genome within three years. “We have a clear path forward for completing high quality sequences of all bread wheat chromosomes,” said Kellye Eversole, the consortium’s executive director.

Source: The Japan Times; National Geographic

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Blooming bouquets! Japanese scientists discover flower aging cure

July 4, 2014

morning-glory-173440_640Japanese Scientists at the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, claim to have found a way to delay the aging process in flowers by up to half, keeping bouquets fresh for longer.

Discovery of the gene believed to be responsible for the short shelf-life of flowers in one Japanese variety of morning glory is responsible for the breakthrough. By suppressing this gene — named “EPHEMERAL1″ — scientists found the life span of each flower was almost doubled.

“Morning glory” is the name for a large group of flowering plants whose petals unfurl early in the day and begin to fade and curl by nightfall. So far, the scientists have managed to isolate the aging gene in just one variety of Japanese morning glory but believe these methods could be applied to other flower species.

“Unmodified flowers started withering 13 hours after they opened, but flowers that had been genetically modified stayed open for 24 hours,” said Kenichi Shibuya, one of the lead researchers in the study carried out jointly with Kagoshima University.

This means the plant has fresh purple flowers alongside the paler blooms from the previous day, he said.

This gene is linked to petal aging, the researchers discovered. Although the scientists have only modified the genes of living flowers in the study, their discovery could lead to  the development of methods to extend the life of cut flowers.

“It would be unrealistic to modify genes of all kinds of flowers, but we can look for other ways to suppress the (target) gene . . . such as making cut flowers absorb a solution that prevents the gene from becoming active,” said Shibuya.

Some florists currently use chemicals to inhibit ethylene, a plant hormone which sometimes causes blooms to ripen, in the preparation of some cut flowers. This does not always help as ethylene is not present in the aging process of some very popular flowers, such as lilies, tulips and irises.

A gene similar to EPHEMERAL1 could be responsible for petal aging in these plants, Shibuya said, meaning the ability to suppress it would extend their life.

Source: The Japan Times

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Fukushima Ice Wall Construction Taxes Workers

June 26, 2014

Construction on the underground ice wall around Fukushima is now underway.  its aim is to prevent water that’s been contaminated with radioactive materials from escaping and entering the broader water supply. The ambitious government funded project project intends to freeze the ground around four reactors, as well as other related buildings,  to a depth of 30 meters. In total, the frozen wall of earth will stretch for 1.5km and will reach temperatures of minus 40 degrees Celsius. A series of pipes carrying coolant will be used to freeze the land. Beyond preventing water from escaping the area, the AFP reports that the hope is that it will also prevent contamination of the huge volume of groundwater that flows into the plant from nearby hillsides daily. Construction is expected to finish in March of 2015 with an expected cost of about 32 billion yen ($314 million).

In Japan ground freezing projects have already been used in the construction of tunnels and subways for short periods of time. An underground ice wall has also been used to isolate radioactive waste at the U.S. Department of Energy’s former site of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee that produced plutonium, but only for six years, according to the MIT Technology Review magazine.

Some experts are still skeptical about the technology and say the running costs will be a huge burden. Atsunao Marui, an underground water expert at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, said a frozen wall could be water-tight but is normally intended for use for a few years and is not proven for long-term use as planned in the outline. The decommissioning process is expected to take about 40 years.

A group of reporters were permitted into the Fukushima plant last Friday to visit key working areas to tackle the radioactive water. They were accompanied by Masato Kino the Natural Resources and Energy Agency’s director for management of the contaminated water at the plant and Tokyo Electric Power Co. officials.

Kino emphasized the importance of improving working conditions for the roughly 6,000 workers at the crippled nuclear plant during the tour.

“I sincerely felt the hardships workers have experienced, as what’s going on here is different from ordinary construction work in terms of the severe heat due to protective suits and high radiation level,” he said.

The water buildup is a major headache for TEPCO  and the government as they work toward decommissioning all six reactors at the complex. The contaminated water is increasing at a rate of around 400 tons per day as groundwater flows into the damaged buildings for reactors 1 through 4.

Tepco began constructing the huge underground ice wall early this month. It will surround reactor buildings 1 through 4 in an attempt to prevent more groundwater from seeping into their basements and mixing with heavily contaminated water. Under the unprecedented government-funded project, 1,550 pipes will be inserted deep into the ground to circulate coolant and freeze the nearby soil. However, the work is taking place in conditions of high radiation. “A worker is permitted to continue to do his job for about three hours a day due to legal limits on radiation exposure,” said Kino.

The scale of the project is immense. “Look at that crane! Three out of only six or seven of that supergiant kind existing in Japan are operating here,” Kino said. “The current work is dominated by construction.” In addition to the huge cranes, various kinds of heavy machinery and trucks are operating in the area, which is now a large-scale construction site. Everyone on site has to wear white protective suits and full face masks. A signboard reads “Highly contaminated water here.”

Since May, Tepco has employed a “groundwater bypass system” in which it has dumped thousands of tons of groundwater into the Pacific Ocean collected from wells dug near the reactor buildings. The utility claims the water’s radiation level meets safety guidelines.The system is designed to pump out the groundwater before it reaches the heavily contaminated area near the reactors. “We will not be sure whether this measure is working effectively until one or two months have passed,” said Kino.

An Advanced Liquid Processing System, or ALPS, has been developed to reduce the radiation level of the highly contaminated water accumulating at the plant.ALPS is reportedly capable of removing 62 different types of radioactive substances from the contaminated water, but not tritium. The system has been plagued by glitches and is still in the trial stage, with all three of its lines resuming Sunday for the first time in about three months.

TEPCO is also constructing an offshore wall of steel panels to keep contaminants from spreading further into the sea. The utility says radioactive elements have mostly remained near the embankment inside the bay, but experts have reported offshore “hot spots” of sediments contaminated with high levels of cesium.

Sources:The Japan Times,The Huffington Post, The Verge.com

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A robot with a heart: Japanese company unveils newest creation

June 6, 2014

Japanese company Softbank has unveiled its newest design: a robot able to respond to human emotions. Using a cloud-based artificial intelligence system and an “emotional engine”, the robot, known as “Pepper”, is able to to interpret human voice tones, expressions and gestures, and perform various tasks.

In the past several different robotics companies have claimed to have created robots that read or mimic human emotions, but Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son told a press conference it is the first time in history a robot has been given a heart.

The firm said people can communicate with Pepper “just like they would with friends and family” and believes it could become a household aid to the elderly, especially in countries like Japan with rapidly ageing populations.

“Even if one can pre-programme such robots to carry out specific tasks based on certain commands or gestures, it could go long way in helping improve elderly care,” said Rhenu Bhuller, senior vice president healthcare at consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.

Softbank is a majority stakeholder in French company, Aldebaran Robotics. The two firms developed Pepper in collaboration. Bruno Maisonnier, founder and chief executive of Aldebaran said: “The emotional robot will create a new dimension in our lives and new ways of interacting with technology.”

Japan has one of the world’s largest robotics markets, which was estimated to be worth around 860 billion yen (approx £5 billion) in 2012.  The country employs more than 250,000 industrial robot workers. According to a trade ministry report last year, the Japanese robotics market is expected to have more than tripled in value to 2.85 trillion yen (£16.5 billion) by the year 2020.

Pepper will go on sale to the public next year for 198,000 yen ($1,930; £1,150). According to the company, it will be available at stores nationwide.

A prototype version of the robot will also serve customers in Softbank’s mobile phone stores.
Sources: BBC News; The Telegraph
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