White, black, white, black, white…

White, black, white, black, white…

The cursor of my text editor is blinking without interruption; the colours alternate with uncanny regularity. Ruled by the ruthless Manichaeism of binary, the central processing unit will repeat the same instructions tirelessly. Fatigue, exhaustion, boredom; these are inconveniences of organic lifeforms. Oblivious to fatigue, only a hardware failure would be capable of putting a stop to this inhuman diligence.

In contrast to this maze of efficient transistors, my feeble neurons are truly pitiful. Entrusted with the task of filling the file in front me, they refuse to execute their penance. They waste their creative powers by concocting the most incongruous justifications for their sloth. Pleading for mercy, they keep claiming that their chore is utterly pointless.

Despite my reluctance to admit it, I have a hard time denying the futility of this whole endeavour: I am writing the manuscript of my Master's thesis; a document whose reader count will not exceed a single digit and which once completed will lie forgotten in the archives of the university. The last formality before the liberation of graduating. The submission date might have been helpful in fighting my sluggishness, the deadline, however, is so far removed in time that it remains as threatening as a vaporous mirage looming in the horizon.

Unable to proceed, I turn myself to my surroundings and let my glance wander away. The room I find myself in is typical of those given as fodder to the proletariat of the academic world: graduate students and their slightly more bourgeois counterparts, the post-doc. Both have the ability to alter their environment into perfect reflections of their lifestyle. The room is thus practically empty of any presence despite it being almost noon. The state of the desks, however, suggests that the place is not devoid of activity. An eclectic pile of clutter lies on top of most tables; scientific papers share their space with half-eaten snacks and used tissues. The shelves above are filled to the brim with massive monographs and textbooks. Those are rarely consulted let alone studied, but their intimidating titles confer status to their owners; as a general rule, the more mathematically obscure the title, the higher the social boost. Empty cardboard boxes and antique computer peripherals are scattered in the few remaining crannies, practically fossilised, some of them have the merit of embodying the history of computer interfaces in a display that would be the envy of museums.

In the back of the room, the common kitchen keeps up with the overall theme; metastable stacks of dirty dishes cover the sink, arcane sauces oozing with sticky residues overflow the only cupboard available, and the remains of desiccated tea bags are strewn around every apparent surface. But the most spectacular sight is not immediately visible, it remains hidden in a particular location: the fridge. Inside it, a living lesson on decomposition unfolds before one's eyes.

Irony aside, regardless of the country, these rooms for grad students tend to resemble each other. Nonetheless, there are still many clues indicating that I am no longer in Switzerland. As I previously suggested coffee is not the caffeinated drink of choice, green tea is much more prevalent, and it is so in a variety of forms of that would be impossible to get in back in Europe. Rather than being restricted to drinking a bland and tasteless jasmine green tea served in lukewarm water, the selection is comparatively infinite. The mellow and gentle green colour of sencha, The deeply roasted and nutty aroma of houjicha, without overlooking the rich and enveloping flavour of matcha, all these contribute in transforming the act of tea drinking into a fully fledged sensory experience. As one would expect of a culture where tea ceremony originated, Japan treats tea-making with care. Comparing the electric boilers commonly present in office environments should yield enough evidence of this. In continental Europe a tea drinker might consider himself lucky to have a kettle at his disposal, here not only are they ubiquitous but they are also considerably more sophisticated: different temperatures can be chosen beyond the default boiling setting. More importantly, they maintain the water at the desired temperature so that the wish for another cup can immediately be granted.

Konbinis are a staple of Japanese culture. Describing them as mere convenience stores does not make them justice. The novel Convenience Store Woman does a good job of transmitting their peculiar atmosphere.

Far from being limited to tea, these kettles also play a role in an equally significant but perhaps less glamorous aspect of life in Tokyo: instant food. The typical konbini will have no less than a whole shelf dedicated to these modern delicacies. They come in all shapes and sizes and accommodate the smallest of budgets. Sapped by a day of unproductive research, they are the last effort a student is willing to make: fill a sodium-saturated cup with boiling water and…

“Jishin desu! Jishin desu!”. Some cries reverberate through the room. Startled by these shrieks, I try to determine their provenance, “Jishin desu! Jishin desu!”. The metallic tone of the voice suggests its origin is artificial. “Jishin desu! Jishin desu!” Every exclamation alternates with a siren reminiscent of the Cold War and the prevailing fear of nuclear Armageddon. Not surprisingly, these morbid evocations start to worry me, but the meaning of the messages remains unknown.

Jishin… this word seems familiar, I must have learnt it recently. I start burrowing into the depths of my memory with the hope of unearthing its meaning. Ji often means earth but what about shin? Divine? Vibration? Mmm…

“Right! I remember now, it means earthquake!”

“Crap…” the satisfaction of the Eureka is short-lived and is quickly replaced by the horror of facing neo-Fukushima. Gripped by panic, I grab my smartphone and notice that it was the source of the alert. A notification entirely written in moon runes lies in the top of the screen, lacking the time and knowledge to decipher it one character catches my attention:

strong, powerful

Strong? I swallow dryly.
My mind fills with images of impending calamity. Engulfing black smoke. Heart-wrenching screams. Sirens wailing. Entire buildings hurling themselves on the ground. Impenetrable piles of gravel. Buried alive.

I waste no time and desperately hide under my desk.

No sound. Nothing happens.

The Japanese meteorological agency issues these alerts. They are broadcast to phones, radios and TVs nationwide.

I glance again at my smartphone to make sure I was not mistaken. Despite being unable to understand the whole message, the words strong and earthquake are undeniably there. It's also unlikely that a message containing these words would be sent for other reasons than warning about imminent doom.

A few minutes go by, I don't hear anything unusual. I dare to venture my head out of my improvised shelter. The row of desks remains unchanged, with little to no activity to report. At the end of it, an apathetic student is dallying with his keyboard. His blank stare suggests the situation is causing him no concern.

Was it a mistake? With a tinge of anxiety still colouring my actions, I extract myself from my protection. I deliberately avoid any sudden movements—lest they trigger the catastrophe—and place my rear into my chair with surgical precision.

In front of my computer, I conclude that the alert was probably due to a malfunction of the system. My thesis has of course not progressed by an inch; its completion remains a seemingly utopic wish. The drama of a few moments ago has completely subsided. A banal ennui took its place. With a loud sigh, I get back to my sentence of forced labour. Trapped once again in the bog of lack of inspiration, I cannot repress the feeling that maybe—just maybe—an earthquake might have been a better alternative.

6 Jan 2018