Saturday, May 22, 2010

The playfulness of google

There is something definitely breathtaking about the occasional playfulness of google.

This morning, many users of google would have waken up to find that the top page logo has been replaced by a Pac-Man stage. First you think it is simply another Easter egg in design, until you realize a few seconds later that it is actually playable.

The Pac-Man was first released in Japan on the 22nd May 1980. The Pac-Man playable logo on the google front page today is apparently given away in celebration of its thirtieth birthday.

As the computer age deepens and matures, it is increasingly becoming clear that the whole thing is about playfulness. When people talk about gaming, they often do not realize that searching for valuable information on the internet is gaming in a sense, mixing the expected and unexpected, serious and joyful, in an interesting balance of contingencies.

In today's world, and in the years to come, the most successful in society would be those who understand the Zeitgeist of playfulness. The whole idea of the internet, connecting people, making unexpected and intelligent links between the here and now and the distant, is about playfulness.

So here's to yet another manifestation of the inherent playfulness of google. We keep playing the great game of life, beyond horizons and boundaries, all the way.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Absent-mindedness is my long time friend.

I got on the train in the opposite direction. AGAIN.

I was reading Richard Dawkins on the Amazon Kindle, and got on the train that came to the platform.

Well, the Tokyo train network is so complex, you see.

It was not that I was not taking note of the destination displayed on the cars. I vaguely remember seeing it all, but my brain at that time was too busy thinking about "the origin of morality" that I did not take the small cognitive step necessary to realize that I was not supposed to get on that particular train.

It took two stations for me to realize that I was wrong. What a shame to get off the train and get on the train on the opposite side of the platform. I am sure people realized that I had made a mistake!

Well, absent-mindedness does sometimes visit my life. Absent-mindedness is my long time friend. Like an occasional black swan in my flow of consciousness, it enters my life, and takes me to terrains unknown.

With the sweetness of regret, every time it happens, I welcome yet another visit of absent-mindedness, because there is nothing else I can do about it. I cannot stop reading Richard Dawkins while waiting for the train.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Remembering Shusaku Arakawa.

It was with deep sadness to hear the news that Mr. Shusaku Arakawa passed away. Shusaku's great achievements and warm personality would remain in my memory vividly in many years to come.

I was fortunate to have had some opportunities to converse with the artist/architect. The entry of this journal on 30th December last year recalls vividly the impression left by the great creator.

In Mr. Arakawa we found a person who was brave to think out of the constraints of the norm, and challenge the assumptions which sometimes make our lives mundane. At the same time, he had a gentleness of heart which touched all these people who had the fortune to meet with him.

Within a few minutes of encounter, it was clear how Shusaku embraced all that was around him with love and care. Even if Shusaku defied the status quo, it was always with life-nurturing effects of sunshine that he did so, never in the manner of a cold northern wind.

The very existence of Shusaku was a great lesson for life. The manner in which Shusaku spoke, moved around in agitation, and looked around was a constant inspiration. How we are going to miss him.

Here I dedicate million imaginary roses to the soul of Shusaku. May Shusaku finally rest in peace where he finds all the freedom and beauty he deserves.

With Shusaku Arakawa, April 2006.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The story before Harry Potter.

Whenever I discover the hidden agendas and threads behind a famous person's life, I exclaim, and shudder at yet another manifestation of the depth of human creativity.

Sometimes, a commencement speech at a university reveals a person's depth, as the speaker is posed to do a bit of soul searching in front of the shining faces of the newly graduating, whose lives lie like great oceans to be explored.

Steve's Job's Stanford speech, in which he stressed the need to "stay hungry, stay foolish", was one memorable example. The speech delivered at the Harvard commencement ceremony in 2008 by J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, is another. She recounts the days when she worked as a researcher at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.

If you haven't seen it, now is the time to do so. You can find the video and transcript text below.

J. K. Rowling giving the commencement speech at Harvard.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The counter wood is the most important element of a sushi restaurant.

When I was in London two weeks ago, I saw a lot of "Yo! Sushi" adverts. One of them asked "are you a Sushi virgin?", featuring two smiling Japanese girls in a "kosupure" costume.

The culture of Sushi has spread to the world, and lots of mutations in the memes have taken place. Some of them go beyond your wildest expectations. When I was in a Sushi restaurant in Brasilia some 15 years ago, I was intrigued to find that the sushi was cut into half their usual sizes. Presumably the delicacies would look like canapes and easier to handle and eat then.

Diffusion is a good thing. New possibilities can only be found in variations and subsequent selection process. Having said that, I, as a proud Tokyo resident, can testify that the (in my view) genuine form of Sushi eating can only be found in Japan, or more specifically, in Tokyo.

London's "Yo! Sushi" type restaurants which serve sushi on moving conveyor belts are surely abundant in Tokyo. Families love them. However, a genuine Sushi restaurant can be distinguished by the makeup of the counter. It needs to be constructed with a single plain wood, with the annual ring traces aligned in parallel ("masame"). A piece of wood in such a condition, which is long enough to be made into the counter is rare and highly prized. If you have a chat with the Sushi chef over the counter, he will tell you how much it had cost him to have that particular wood.

You should know that the counter wood is the most important element of a sushi restaurant. Now you have climbed one step on the road of becoming a Sushi connoisseur.

Monday, May 17, 2010

How to behave in a soba restaurant.

In Tokyo, there are quite a few soba noodle restaurants. In particular, the Kanda Yabu and the Matsuya in Kanda district are my long time favorites.

These restaurants were conveniently close to my university. When I was a student, I would often walk from the University of Tokyo Hongo campus with "fat man" Ken Shiotani, my best friend who philosophizes.

Ideally, it is best to visit around 15:00 hours, when there are less customers. The posh thing to do is to start with a glass of beer, and then move on to sake. There are quite a few delicacies to accompany the beer and sake. Don't expect large portions. Traditionally, the delicacies in a soba restaurant is served in very small portions. Expect to feel like becoming Gulliver in the island of Lilliput.

The connoisseur never orders a soba dish straight away. The soba noodle, whether served cold or hot, is something that you finish your meal with. It is advisable to take some time to get pleasantly intoxicated, and let the time go by slowly and mellow.
Mind you the point is never to get really drunk. A soba restaurant, after all, is not a pub or a bar. When you feel you had enough share of golden time, you order your soba.

Surprisingly, soba noodle after intoxication is heavenly. The whole point is to land on the solid good taste of soba after feeling uplifted and a little bit carried away through the effect of alcohol.

The "relay" from sake to soba is one of the most exquisite form of eating known to the author.

Finally, it is fashionable to leave the restaurant before dinner time, to avoid the crowd. If you can manage that, I would call that your golden afternoon.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The blessings of science keep the curiosity in us alive.

I attended the TEDx Tokyo held in Miraikan. I gave a talk titled "The Blessings of Science". I hugely enjoyed the whole thing. The heat. The hype. The passion. My deep gratitude to all the volunteers who made this happen. Special thanks to Patrick Newell, who put much work into the realization of his vision, and for inviting me to participate.

In the talk, I started from my experience as a kid chasing butterflies in a rural town. There were exactly 52 butterflies where I lived. I chased every one of them.

In the forest, I had this sense of wonder. I was bewildered by the sheer abundance of life around me.

One question came up vividly in my mind. Why such an abundance and variety in the species? My childish curiosity was greatly stimulated. Then one day, at the age of 9, I bumped into a book in the school library. It was a book about the evolution of species. (It was written in my native tongue of Japanese. I started to learn English only at the age of 12.) In the book, the author said that once upon a time, there was this man Charles Darwin who became very curious why there were so many different species, on his voyage on the Beagle. Some years, later, after much work. he published a book titled "The Origin of Species".

It was on that afternoon that I came to know one blessing of science. Science can EXPLAIN. A curious child asks the adults all awkward questions. Why, How, What if. The adults sometimes get tired of being constantly demanded, as many of them have lost a precious gift of childhood. CURIOSITY.

Every one must remember the immense satisfaction that you got as a child when a clever explanation was given for a question you were craving to know the answer of. What do we need to keep our curiosity alive? We need the blessings of science.
On that fatal day, in the school library, I came to know that science had a great power to EXPLAIN.

Then I started to do my own exploration. I did some work, and presented my very first scientific research poster at the age of 11. It was a science fair for students. I reported my study into the diversity of habitats and life history of butterflies, making some measurements and observations. Seen from a professional's point of view, the poster was shabby, very rudimentary. I am, all the same, tremendously proud of my initial efforts to EXPLAIN the mysteries that I held as a child, chasing the butterflies in the fields, forgetting lunch, breathless in bliss.

Ken Mogi, age 10, chasing butterflies in Hokkaido, Japan

My first scientific presentation poster at the age of 11.

Around that time, I met my hero. Albert Einstein. Through Einstein I learned many things. Foremost, I learned the following truth about science: Science explains many things, but then uncovers yet more mysteries along the way.

In other words, science is an "OPEN-ENDED" endeavor. No matter how much you learn about the world, there would be yet more questions to be explored. Sometimes, getting to know a particular fact about the world makes us realize that we don't know this and that, questions that we did not know even existed before the enlightenment. Einstein never stopped his scientific exploration, precisely because he knew that science is an OPEN-ENDED behavior, although he did not (to the best of my knowledge) use this particular word.

There are several unsolved problems in the science today. For example. the time's arrow. How is the PAST different from the PRESENT, and the FUTURE? Another example is the wave function reduction in quantum mechanics.

Another mystery in science, and my own life work, is the relation between the mind and the brain. How do the activities of the billions of neurons in the brain give rise to conscious experience? Central to the mystery of the phenomenal dimension of our existence is the concept of qualia. The sensory qualities such as redness, transparency, glitter that constitute our conscious experience. How on earth do activities in the brain, which, although a very complex system, is after all an physical entity, give rise to our consciousness full of qualia? This is a genuinely intriguing mystery. Nobody has written a book of "The Origin of Qualia" yet, but you never know. Someday, someone will.

So for me, the blessings of science are two-fold. First, it can EXPLAIN. Secondly, it is OPEN-ENDED. The combination of the power to EXPLAIN and the liberating and uplifting effect on one's soul of being OPEN-ENDED keeps the curiosity in us alive.

Issac Newton left these famous words:

I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

It is fun to collect the pebbles and shells in the shape of theories, facts, which have the power to EXPLAIN. At the same time, it is so rewarding and ultimately satisfying to be aware of the great remaining mysteries of the universe, our own existence, life and consciousness, which lie before us unsolved.

So here's the blessings of science for you and me. Thank you very much.

This, in a nutshell, was my TEDx Tokyo speech.

Myself at TEDx Tokyo, 15th May 2010