From Healing Kisses To Idiot Speak Machine – Ten Years Of Improbable Japanese Research Ranked

Japan reached an improbably milestone at the recent 26th First Annual Ig Nobel Awards, which were handed out by the Improbable Research magazine.

It was the tenth year in a row that Japanese scientists could claim a first place prize in what has been dubbed the spoof Nobel Prizes.

The Ig Nobel prizes aims at awarding science ‘that first makes you laugh and then makes you think.’

This year’s Japanese winner certainly does that. It involves studying if objects look different if you put your head between your legs and look at them upside down.

It is undoubtedly an improbable research project – just try to imagine the scientists behind it, standing in front of the university chairs (pun intended), trying to explain what they wanted to study and how much money they would need.

But how does it stack up against the best Japanese improbably research projects of the last ten years?

Here is my – very unofficial – reverse ranking from 10 to 1 of the best Japanese Ig Nobel winners from 2007 to 2016.

#10: What are you sayyying?? (2012)

Kazutaka Kurihara and Koji Tsukada must have been having a bad day when they decided that they needed to create ‘The SpeechJammer’. It is a machine that disrupts your ability to speak coherently by making you listen to what you are saying while you are saying it – with a very slight delay. Like the worst Skype call of your life – continuously. Try it out here.

#9: Slime on the tracks (2010)

On the ninth spot we find Toshiyuki Nakagaki, Atsushi Tero, Seiji Takagi, Tetsu Saigusa, Kentaro Ito, Kenji Yumiki and Ryo Kobayashi. Alongside the UK’s Dan Bebber, Mark Fricker, they found a way of using slime mold to establish what would be the optimal routes for railroad tracks.

#8: The smart mold (2008)

Staying with the theme, 2008’s winners of the ‘Cognitive Science’ prize had also been studying mold.

Before the name dropping gets completely out of hand, let me simply say that this group of Japanese researchers, alongside Hungarian Ágotá Tóth, discovered that slime molds are actually capable of solving puzzles – probably very slowly.

I imagine that it was kind of like watching a video of a sloth trying to solve a rubrics cube. In slow motion.

#7: Pandas are the s¤%t (2009)

Another theme that seems to have intrigued Japanese scientists is dung. For example a group from the Kitasato University Graduate School of Medical Sciences in Sagamihara, Japan. They found out that kitchen refuse can be reduced by a whopping 90% in mass thanks to certain bacteria that can be extracted from giant pandas’ faecal matter.

Here’s hoping that it wasn’t a trial and error research project that started with dung from more common animals.

#6: It sure doesn’t smell like s¤%t (2007)

Two years before panda dung became a big hit, Mayu Yamamoto from the International Medical Center of Japan won a Ig Nobel prize for dinging at way to extract vanillin, which is used as vanilla fragrance and flavouring, from cow dung.

#5: Bending over to change (2016)

This year’s entry was Atsuki Higashiyama and Kohei Adachi. The pair won the Perception category with their study of whether or not things look different when you bend over and view them upside down with your head between your legs.

The short answer is yes. The slightly longer answer is that they found a correlation between perception and body position. The really long answer can be read here.

#4: Sliding – and cats (2014)

Two years ago, Japanese scientists were on a roll. Or a skid, to be precise.

The skid in question involved measuring how much friction there is between the sole of a shoe and a banana peel, compared to how much friction there was between said banana peel and the floor.

In short, they did the math (and physics) of one of the world’s oldest slapstick comedy gags.

#3: Mice go to the hospital for opera (2013)

“Assessing the effect of listening to opera, on heart transplant patients who are mice.”

As short and succinct as I think you could describe the study that won 2013’s Medicine award. Turns out that it’s really good for the mice too.

#2: That itchy kiss (2015)

Last year, Hajime Kimata shared the medicine award with a Slovakian group of scientists. Both had been studying “the biomedical benefits or biomedical consequences of intense kissing (and other intimate, interpersonal activities).”

In other words, whether or not making out is good for your health.

Sounds great and like something you might want to take part in – until you read the title of one of Kimata’s papers about the study: “Kissing Reduces Allergic Skin Wheal Responses and Plasma Neurotrophin Levels.”

#1: Holy flying wasabi! (2011)

In what has been a tighly contested race, there was always only going to be one winner. That winner is the teak of Makoto Imai, Naoki Urushihata, Hideki Tanemura, Yukinobu Tajima, Hideaki Goto, Koichiro Mizoguchi and Junichi Murakami.

They not only found a way of determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi if you were to use if to wake people, say in case of an emergency.

No, this group was not satisfied with that. They went on to invent the alarm clock from hell, aka the wasabi alarm. If you have ever eaten wasabi, try imagining having it catapulted into your face to wake you up. Yeah. Alarm clock from hell.

Actually, it is not that bad. The feeling it produces is not a burn as such, but more a gentle prodding of your nostrils.

Plus, the wasabi alarm clock also works for dead and the hard of hearing.

This process of ‘what?’, ‘They did what?’, ‘hahaha, that’s insane’, ‘wait, it actually works?, ‘who would have thought so?’. Makes it the perfect example of improbable research in my book.

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A goodbye about my mother

Today, it’s four years to the day since I woke up early in the morning, sat down in front of the computer and simply had about 2500 words about my mother and her death tumble out through my fingers. It’s also a year to the day since she died, now seven years ago. Time. Time moves like a river.
So much has happened in those years. Both good and bad. Luckily, most good. In some ways, it feels like her death happened so much longer ago. Not that the memory of her has faded, but that much has happened. Since then, a lot of things have changed, and today I can truly say that, although some of the changes were not what I was hoping for at the time, I’ve finally arrived in the proper 2.0 (sort of) grown-up version. This is the closest I get to adulting, I think.
Like the previous releases, Marc 2.0 comes with a weird sense of humour, a lot of geekery and a confusingly wide range of features and options that not even I am certain how to use. It does, however, now stand on its own two feet, doesn’t care what you think of its geekiness, its need for nature and occasional solitude and claims responsibility for itself as an autonomous unit, knowing that happiness starts with yourself and doing what feels right for you – plus makes sense on a moral and ethical level. This might not sound like much of an accomplishment, but finding your path in life is something I think many people struggle with….mine seems to be leading me to explore the globe, currently from a base in Japan. It’s a choice that makes certain parts of adulting difficult, so I’ve outsourced those parts to my sister, at least for the time being. It does give me a lot of other, great opportunities. Many of which are either closed off or very rarely taken by other people my age. I guess the biggest 2.0 change is that I am much more focused on actually making choices and pursuing directions and spend less time just talking about what I want to do and more time actually doing it. I still talk a lot, though…like, a lot, a lot.
I know that if my mother saw me in the 2.0 version of today, she would be very proud, and she’d probably say something like:
“Der kan du bare se, Mickey Mouse, det var det, jeg hele tiden så i dig og som du alle dage er for dine forældre. Vi elsker dig lige meget, hvad end du kaster dig ud i, men det er fantastisk rart at se dig finde din vej. Du har altid været lidt sløv, når det gjadt om at finde vej…bare tænk på den gang du som 15-årig blev efterlyst af politiet i London, fordi du var vandret afsted på egen hånd…”
On my travels to live in other countries, I’ve brought a picture of her sitting on a tree in a kibbutz, laughing. She met my father in the kibbutz and had an incredible life with him. A life that included my upbringing – an upbringing I’ve only really understood the uniqueness and strength of since becoming an adult – especially in the 2.0 version.
I also travel with a picture of my granddad, who was gunner in the Second World War. His life was equally special. I guess a lot of my own seemingly meandering path through life has ended up with leading me to this point in time where I can honestly say two things – one full of the pathos that I’m very guilty of and one full of the geeknes I’m now pretty proud of:
Today, I feel like the next step in that story – as a unique tale of life that is at the same time part of a greater story, which through our rich tapestry of family and friends stretches around the world.
Secondly, I know this to be true: Not all those who wander are lost.
Today, my pride and happiness about these things – not to mention the fact that I’ve become an uncle! – are tinged with sadness. I miss my mother, and this story is one that she would have loved to be a part of. Not to mention how absolutely over the Moon she would be about her grandchild. Or how much time she would spend scolding me for suggesting that eight months is just about the right time to start football training with the nephew…
I’ve chosen to re-publish my goodbye each year on her birth- and death day as something dedicated to my mother, and as something that might, somehow have a positive impact on someone out there in cyberspace and mean something to them. My mother worked her entire life with helping others, and I know that if this story below helped someone, it would make her very proud.

I still recall that moment of her face lighting up. A smile that seemed to break through months and years of worry and pain, lifting her from the impenetrable darkness – real and imagined – that she was wandering through, not able to find a way out. A politician on the news had basically just solemnly declared that his party were ‘principally against animals eating small children’. We’d both laughed, but she’d laughed a split second before me.

Seeing it was like being bathed in the sun on a spring day, when it warms your tired, winter-chilled bones and whispers to you ‘summer’s coming’. A bit of light, promising more.

The next clear memory I have of my mother was a month later. She was lying in a hospital bed, a dried husk of a body with tubes going into her arm and her nose. A screen left of her was feeding us constant updates of heart rhythm and blood levels while a couple of nurses moved around her, adjusting bedding and monitoring the fluid levels with a quiet, crisp efficiency, always knowing when to speak to us and when to do their job in silence.

Four hours later, she was dead. And she never woke, so I never really got to say goodbye to her.

My mother decided to take her own life, and, like I think is the case for most people who have been in that situation, I instantly overestimated my importance and uniqueness.

Importance in regards to why she had killed herself by taking an overdose of painkillers, then being sick, bringing them all up again, before taking a second overdose. By the time she was found, the pills had wreaked so much havoc on her system that there was really nothing the doctors could do.

And long before that a botched operation of her stomach plus several unsuccessful operations of a bad knee and hips had meant that her life was a daily struggle with physical pain. A pain she always tried to hide from us, her children.

The days from her death till her funeral are a blur. But I can clearly remember the funeral and when we buried her.

I spoke for our family there and it was one of the best things I have ever done. It was a personal cleansing, and a chance to stand up and be strong for my father and sister.

I spoke of her life as a pedagogue. About how caring for children was such a big part of her life and how she loved the job that her sickness and physical state had meant she could no longer do.

About how we, her children, meant everything to her. How she was the one who made our family function. The silent one, the one in the background, but also the smiling one, the caring one, the warm one..

I spoke of many things, but the list of things I could have spoken of is endless.

I could have spoken about big things, like how her own terrible childhood had affected her choice of career. How that childhood and the memories from it came back to haunt her when her health deteriorated to a level where she was unable to work any more.

I could have told stories from the childhood of my sister and I, like how she handled my sister’s temper tantrums with door slamming by simply removing her door so she didn’t have anything to slam for a fortnight. Or how her caring for our family and making it work meant I had the best packed lunch in the entire school – every day…till I was 17 (yes, I’ve been spoilt). Or how she was the emotional confidant and ambassador for deeper feelings between myself and my father.

I could have talked about how I felt that I shared a unique bond with my mother, of how we were similarly shy in the company of strangers and not always great at saying how we really felt. How I still felt a bit unique, like I had some sort of insight into why she had chosen to end her life, because we were so similar in some ways.

And I could have said that I knew that she would have loved to see all the friends who had turned up at the funeral. Of how they and we – her family – had filled her life with smiles and laughter, like she had filled ours.

I can remember a million smiles, hot summers spent in the garden, family water fights, her laugh whenever my dad made a joke, dancing at parties, holding my hand on the way to the first day of school…the list never ends.

The burial itself was surreal. My mother was cremated and standing there with the urn holding her remains…It simply can’t be described.

In the days that followed, the jolting pain of her absence – a feeling like a paper cut that just goes on and on and on – was slowly replaced by a feeling of numbness. It was like life was something that happened to other people on the other side of a thick curtain. I was just going through the motions.

During that time, I started thinking about the days before that last smile. The days when there was no way of reaching her in the darkness, when nothing seemed to cheer her up. Days where I should have been more understanding, where I should have tried harder, where I should have realised just how bad a state she was in.

If I had been a better son, if I had been more successful and more someone to be proud of than worried about, she might not have done what she did. I was that important to her.

So goes the argument for most of us.

It’s not that we don’t know it isn’t really true. We know that we couldn’t have radically changed events, that we did the most we could and couldn’t have known. That we don’t know that it’s a futile train of thought, because you can’t change the past. And we know that that – not the dark blaming fingers we point at ourselves – is the truth. Well, almost.

Because, like the case is in most relationships in life, couldn’t we have been at least a little more attentive, a little more caring? And maybe that would have enough? If we had done that, been like that, the final straw wouldn’t have made it onto the camels back? Those we love would still be with us?

With time, most of us come to some sort of grips with those nagging thoughts and find a way through them. And we start living life again instead of just going through the motions. But we are all changed by our experiences and getting there is usually something that happens in stages.

My first argument was that my relationship with my mother was, for lack of a better word, marked by being flawed. We can ways do more, but that applies to all aspects in our lives and to do more in all aspects all the time…I’ve never met anyone who lived like that. So I had behaved like her son – I had loved her and tried to be there for her as much as I could. But that had not been enough.

At the same time, I started to revise the my importance in her life. I was her son, yes, but she had friends and other family. And none of them got to say goodbye either. They all loved her and felt the pain of her absence. And they could also have done more.

This is dangerous ground. This is where you can really start to harbour resentment towards some of them. For me that happened. I subconsciously blamed my father and I think that had a big effect on our relationship for a long time. I blamed him for not being more caring or attentive. For not finding her quicker on the night she took the painkillers. For not realising where she was headed. For the effect I thought he had on her. He’s a strong character with a pretty dominant personality and I though that he had somehow pushed her towards doing this instead of dragging her away from the edge.

I finally got it through my head that he had been living with a woman who had been deeply depressed for over two years, trying to brighten her moods and trying to lift her spirits every day, but almost always failing.

A woman he had met in Israel, fallen head over heels in love with, moved to a foreign country for, had two children with. It must have been a slow torture to see her turn from life partner to this saddened stranger, who wouldn’t and / or couldn’t be helped, no matter how hard he tried. To whom everything was a problem and a pain.

I had told myself that many times, but some things have to be realised, before they’re true. Just telling yourself they’re true isn’t enough.

I slowly realised that my pain and my feelings of guilt were in no way unique. That so many people had missed the opportunity to say goodbye to my mother, that they all felt some degree of shame or blamed themselves slightly for not having done more, not having seen what was about to happen. And we were all equally deluding ourselves in some ways.

Things change slowly for most of us in the wake of the suicide of a loved one.

And here, on the day she decided to end her life some years ago, the memories I usually think of start with the last smile, moving back through millions of happy times.

Sometimes, I close my eyes and see her in the hospital bed, and I feel an echo of the anguish and heartbreak I felt when she died. But most of the time, it’s the smile I see.

And the same goes for the emotions and thoughts I have about her death now.

I see depression as an invisible sickness. And so were my mother’s physical problems. In her last years, every step would be accompanied by pain from her hip and knee.

Basically, my mother might have taken her own life, but it was depression and ever-present physical pain that killed her.

As to my part in it – well, I’m sorry to say I could and couldn’t have done more.

Apart from my mothers job, we, her family, was her life. The sickness took the job from her and me and my sister both moved out. I moved the furthest and didn’t come home, except for the holidays. The changes she went through from one visit to the next were some times shocking, but she always tried to keep the worst of it from me.

So my visits should probably have alerted me to the fact that she was in a bad way. But we are all flawed like this. And it doesn’t really help them – or us – to think about it like this.

Life sometimes just happens to take these turns. Things take place that you couldn’t have predicted. Feelings change – both your own and other people’s in relation to you. You act upon the world – some times doing things that make you proud, some times not.

I guess that is where I am now. Knowing that things change, people change, life happens – and some times there is just no stopping it, no seeing in coming and no preparing for it. It is at the same time one of the scariest and most exhilarating things about life and the people around us.

So I choose to focus on that last smile and all the good times. And to live my life according to the values she and my father have helped shape.

Because, as I told them a year or two before she died:

“The more I see of this world, the prouder and more thankful I am to have you as my parents.”

If you’ve made it so far, you might rightfully be asking yourself why I’ve written this. What has made it necessary to make something this personal public after three years? And why using the Internet, meaning that people who I might not know well, if at all, end up reading this.

I must admit that I don’t rightfully know.

Perhaps the reason can be found in the different ways members of our family have handled the aftermath of my mother’s suicide. Maybe this is part of my coming to grips with it?

Perhaps it’s a question of timing. The fact that I have recently completed an education I started when my mother was alive – an education I know she was very proud and happy with me striving to get. Maybe it has something to do with other major changes in my life.

Most likely it’s all the above and more.

I do hope that by sharing something deep with friends, family and strangers alike, I can give them an insight into what it has meant to me to lose someone that close. Compared to other members of my family, I haven’t readily spoken of how I’ve really felt about certain aspects of my mother’s suicide till now. I simply don’t think I’ve been ready to – and partly haven’t been sure of what I was feeling. And writing is the way I seem to express myself a lot these days.

So maybe this is me standing up, as I did at my mother’s funeral. But this time all of what I say is for and about me. This is a personal goodbye about my mother – here, three years later, a second chance to cleanse my mind and soul by speaking for and about her.

The experience of losing someone is unique. It’s not something you can ever wholly explain to someone who hasn’t tried it. And they can’t ever truly understand, if they haven’t lived it, or are living it right now.

So perhaps part of the reason is to say ‘Here, I’ve been through something similar, and I can tell you that it gets better. Remember the good things about them. Remember the smiles.

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Photos of Japan: Hase-dera temple – smiling monks, bamboo and zen

This gallery contains 18 photos.

A few pictures from the Hase-dera temple complex in Kamakura.

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Photos of Japan: Tokyo from above – Tokyo Skytree

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A few pictures from the God knows which floor of the Tokyo Skytree – all I know is that I was around 450 metres above the city and had a great view 🙂

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Photos of Japan – Return to the Kamakura Daibutsu

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A few pictures from a recent trip to visit an old friend – the Daibutsu near Kamakura.

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Photos of Japan: Daikoku Futo

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Daikoku. Even for a guy who’s not that into cars, the place is incredible. What is it? Well, Daikoku Futo PA, to give it its full name, is basically a parking lot on a tiny island just off of Yokohama. … Continue reading

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Photos of Japan: Nikko – Eerie, headless Buddhas and the rest

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Walking around the outskirts of the main temple complex at Nikko took me on a nice path up through a bit of forest, to a tiny temple. Strangely enough, their heads had been removed or dropped off. Instead, stones balanced … Continue reading

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Photos of Japan: Nikko – Kegon Waterfall

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Another round of photos from a recent trip to Nikko. This time of the almost 100 meter tall Kegon Waterfall.

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Photos of Japan: Nikko – Temple details

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A few more pictures from my recent trip to Nikko. The temples are known for their elaborate, colourful carvings, including the very famous three monkeys. Here are a few of them.

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Photos of Japan: Nikko – Temples and Nature

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One of the things that has often struck me about Japanese temples and shrines is how they seem to interact with the nature around them in a way that the churches I know from Europe do not. This is something … Continue reading

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